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What Is And What Isn't Gifted Education?

Everyday Education


Last updated 9/30/2019 at 4:03pm

Gifted education: words that often trigger an intense reaction. Parents whose children have benefited from it or who benefited themselves as students laud it. Parents and students who have been excluded from it often harbor pain and deep, lasting resentment.

In an ideal education system, gifted education would not exist. Every teacher in every school would have total command of all the effective teaching techniques ever known to have been effective with any child of any age in every field of human endeavor. Also, every teacher would be both knowledgeable and bold enough to invent new techniques when the existing ones fell short.

In an ideal education system, without gifted education, all students would enter their adult lives fully aware of their potential and fully equipped to reach it.

Since 1993 the U.S. Department of Education and many states, including North Carolina, have acknowledged that schools fall short of that ideal. Yet the federal definition of gifted students, however, reminds school systems to strive for it: “Children and youth [who] exhibit high performance capacity in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, and unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields ... require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools.”

Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman, senior scientist emeritus at the University of Chapel Hill, has been influential in evaluating gifted education nationally since 1995 and in North Carolina specifically since about 2010. Seeing an intersection between gifted education and civil rights issues, she makes an analogy when training educators: “A student’s capacity for learning is like a bucket. This bucket is not made of wood or steel or even tin… it’s made of latex. As it becomes filled with experiences, it expands. Experiences expand capacity for future learning. We each have a bucket, but it is not our intelligence. Intelligence is dynamic relationship between capacity and what fills the bucket: Experiences!”

Gifted education in North Carolina — framed by Article 9B: Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) Students — is distinct from almost all other states for two reasons. First, state law and funding direct school systems to focus gifted programming on the academic and intellectual capacities of our children and youth. North Carolina serves artistic capacities through Governor’s School, not AIG. Nevertheless, Transylvania County Schools (TCS) develops and serves artistic capacities with music and arts programming in our elementary, middle and high schools. Similarly, TCS develops leadership capacities through our local commitment to student councils, clubs and sports, and the JROTC program. Our students are blessed to have these opportunities, funded largely by local dollars and supported by volunteers and community organizations who partner with teachers and schools.

The second distinctive characteristic of North Carolina gifted education is the amount of flexibility granted to individual school districts to set their own identification criteria and to align their services to those policies. In the past, TCS identification has more heavily weighed academic performance and national test scores than it does today, and TCS services have looked more like extra work instead of different avenues toward success. I hope the current practices and goals I’m about to describe help heal the hurts of the past.

Let’s return briefly to the ideal education system, where every teacher is in command of all known teaching techniques yet is still bold enough to invent new ones when necessary. Two components of the AIG program today can move our school system closer to that ideal: personnel and professional development for teachers and comprehensive programming for students.

As in any school district, TCS teachers participate in a variety of initiatives that overlap with AIG program goals. Teachers who undertake National Board certification, implement standards-based grading or convert to differentiation are equipping themselves with expertise to nourish students, including those who learn more rapidly or independently than their peers. Teachers who boldly develop new clubs, classes or credentialing avenues for students are strengthening our K-12 programming. As AIG coordinator, I strive to serve the first group of teachers as a mentor or co-teacher, and I strive to supply the second group with logistical and administrative support.

There are other AIG personnel throughout the district who similarly serve teachers as collaborative partners or advisors, in addition to working directly with students themselves. A statewide emphasis since 2016, professional consultation allows AIG personnel to introduce techniques and contribute perspectives that are not part of teacher licensure programs. In everyday language, consultation is the opposite of “pull out” gifted service. Although TCS continues to use AIG personnel to teach accelerated classes or enrichment curriculum, we also use “push in” service to expand the overall number of students who experience gifted programming.

Let’s now return to the outcome of ideal education, where all students enter adulthood fully aware of and fully equipped to reach their potential. Dr. Matthew Makel, a researcher with the Duke University Talent Identification Program, explains that some students “come to school with easily recognizable gifts and talents, but there are others whose strengths are not yet tapped or readily observable in typical classroom environments.”

By itself, “push in” collaboration between classroom teachers and AIG personnel will neither make students aware of their own potential nor enable them to harness it. Striving for that ideal takes comprehensive programming.

One way to think about comprehensive AIG programming is Makel’s idea of entwining talent development and talent identification. North Carolina directs school districts to develop talent in kindergarten, first, second and third grades so that more students’ gifts may be recognized in time for them to receive gifted instruction in their elementary schools, where push-in service and pull-out enrichment can coexist. Indeed, when our elementary teachers nourish children’s learning with regular and gifted techniques and when our schools provide opportunities for children to experience gifted enrichment, children’s buckets are filled and stretched. Indeed, their talents are developed, and some children are formally identified as gifted by fourth grade.

But talent development does not stop in early childhood, does it?

We don’t think so.

TCS doesn’t downplay gifted identification after elementary school any more. Because each school continues to provide more enrichment, seeks more ways to develop talent, offers above-grade level and rigorous classes, and allows students to accelerate through curriculum, our students have more environments where their existing strengths and potential can shine. We continue to identify students, catching many students as they transition from elementary to middle school and from ninth to 10th or 10th to 11th grade.

AIG personnel are increasingly asking, “How did students’ buckets stretch, and how much?” We look for answers all the way from aptitude testing to portfolios, from academic achievement to real-world observations made by family members. Our follow-up question is, “What can we do to help keep these buckets stretchy or make them even stretchier?” We put together the second answer from the slate of classroom differentiation, enrichment and/or acceleration TCS offers, plus any relevant pull-out services that exist school by school.

What kinds of conclusions do we draw from our answers? If a parent/guardian has consented in writing to allow AIG personnel to seek answers, and the school’s team for gifted education agrees with the analysis, a student may be categorized as “gifted in reading” or “gifted in math,” or “academically gifted” or “intellectually gifted,” or a combination. Whatever the designation, it directs classroom teachers to differentiate with above-level activities and assignments specific for that gift — which means different work, not more. This designation also signals the school and district gifted teams to use more sensitive methods than state testing to monitor student growth — and begin long range planning for projected student needs.

For example, observing that elementary students have been responding to teachers’ newer, more differentiated methods of teaching math, principals have granted elementary AIG specialists dedicated time to extend the students’ learning even further. Whether or not students have been designated “gifted in math,” or whether or not they are in the same grade, AIG teachers have pulled groups of students together for a few weeks to a year of advanced math study.

As these students have moved into middle school, some take grade-level math for only one more year before moving into high school math. Since the 1990s at least, classroom-sized groups of TCS eighth graders have taken high school Math 1 at their middle schools, but now we have seventh graders doing so, too. Consequently, for three years now TCS middle school students have taken Math 2 as 8th graders, and they have moved on to take Math 3 or Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics as freshmen.

Knowing that cohorts of students might “run out” of math options two or more years before graduation, TCS high schools have developed more advanced electives to sustain students’ math skills, such as Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles or STEM classes with the N.C. School of Science & Math.

Blue Ridge Community College also offers options for college level math, tuition free, but students who have completed the high school math requirements early may begin working on other college subjects instead. Just this fall, four juniors and seniors who have completed AP Calculus have used Brevard College’s new $25 dual enrollment option to move directly into Calculus II, and two of those students are considering Brevard College’s Calculus III for the spring. These students have interests and strengths in other fields like art and social studies, but they’re falling in love with something new. How will they leverage their new strengths after graduation? We can’t know. But we can be assured that they and other students who make such discoveries about themselves in high school will watch for more doors to open in their futures.

A new state law enacted in August required schools immediately to place all students who “scored at the highest levels” on state math tests into advanced or honors classes. While some school districts have sought waivers, seated students in online classes and scrambled to create and staff new sections of honors math classes, Transylvania County Schools have not. By and large, whether our students were designated “gifted in math” or not, they were already in the classes that complied with the new law. In a district with 541 ninth and 10th graders, I had to inform the caregivers of only seven students that the mandated change affected them.

Similar stories are developing outside of math. All TCS elementary schools screen every third grader in the spring to see if early talent development efforts among the whole population are paying off. Pisgah Forest Elementary is experimenting with science enrichment, just as it experimented with math enrichment six and seven years ago, planting the seeds of success visible among our high school math students right now.

Because Brevard High and Rosman High have promoted credit by demonstrated mastery to students as they leave middle school, more than 20 students to date have skipped over 31 first- and second-level courses in world languages, art, math, science, social studies and English. Brevard Middle School is piloting high school English 1 this year. Rosman High created its master schedule so that Rosman Middle students in Math 1 Honors this fall will immediately take Math 2 Honors in the spring.

From my perspective, we may not have an ideal education system in our state or country, but in Transylvania County Schools, we are getting math right, and we are closer to getting everything else right, too. The AIG program is still a force for good, especially because AIG is no longer a passport that students must carry to advance.

A teacher in Transylvania County Schools since 1999, Heidi Bullock is the AIG coordinator for the district and serves students and staff at BHS, RHS and DRS. If you would like to offer talent development, enrichment or other opportunities to students or learn how to be a “talent scout” for children and youth, contact her at or (828) 276-3947.

(Heidi Bullock is the AIG/advanced learning coordinator for the Transylvania County Schools.)


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