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A social work perspective on the treatment of gifted and talented students in American public schools.

From the early days of the educational reform movement, critics have recognized the failure of the American public school system to provide its very best students with the opportunity to maximize their potential (Renzulli & Reis, 2004). Unfortunately, the treatment considered a quiet crisis by the U.S. Department of Education in 1993 (Ross, 1993) has not improved over decades of educational reform (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011). Although the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in most of the United States has led some to believe that the needs of high-ability students will be met, a close examination of those standards and the assumptions underlying them leads to the conclusion that they will, at best, have little impact on gifted education (Chu, 2014).

Although some funding exists, gifted students who do not suffer from a disability have almost no legal rights under state or Federal law to challenge the quality of the education they receive (Chu & Myers, 2013a). Social workers, as champions of social justice, understand the importance of helping vulnerable populations that face social, economic, and political inequalities. Social workers, applying a social systems theory (Hutchison, 2011), analyze these inequalities within the context of the environments in which disadvantaged populations live and then advocate on their behalf. Although social workers have served a variety of populations (Gitterman & Sideriadis, 2014), little attention has been given to the population of gifted students despite clear evidence that many gifted students have not been well served by our educational institutions (Chu & Myers, 2013b).

Who are gifted students? Generally speaking, giftedness consists of both innate potential for high achievement (Gagne, 2005) and the development of that giftedness into a "manifestation of performance or production that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain, even relative to that of other high-functioning individuals in that domain" (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011, p.7). The question as to which students should be categorized as gifted cannot be easily answered, however, because of the lack of any legal or academic consensus as to either a method for determining giftedness or the appropriate cutoff levels for any particular method. For purposes of this article, however, it is not necessary to use any singular definition of giftedness because those students identified as gifted over the broad spectrum of methods employed by researchers in this area face common issues.

Gifted students present intellectually and socially unique needs (Peterson, 2009) that warrant challenging and supportive experiences in the classroom (Moon, 2009). Advocates for gifted education question why American public schools rarely treat gifted students like other student populations with exceptional traits such as students with disabilities (Gallagher, 1991; Gottfredson, 2003). Although federal law requires all states to provide assistance to students with disabilities, only thirty-two states mandate some form of gifted education for students and only thirty-six states provide funding of any kind, with most of those providing only partial funding (Council of State Directors, 2013).

Part of the explanation for the lack of differential support for gifted students is the false belief that gifted students do not face problems (Moon, 2009). However, giftedness has been associated with many problems that can include social isolation and rejection, social adjustment problems (Colangelo & Kelly, 1983; Feldhusen, 1989), underachievement (Siegle, 2013), dropping out of high school (Davis & Rimm, 2004), and suicidal ideation (Cross, 2013). Gifted students can be grouped into multiple subpopulations (Robinson, 2004) that each present different vulnerabilities. According to Lee, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Thomson (2012), these vulnerabilities vary with students' ages, genders, types of giftedness, educational experiences, and levels of giftedness. Although giftedness often gives young students an advantage in popularity, by age thirteen the popularity advantage disappears as conformity pressures increase. Both gifted females and gifted students of color face stereotype threats that lower their performance on standardized tests and cause them to drop out of challenging classes (Moon, 2009). Creatively gifted students show particular vulnerability to underachievement (Moon, 2009; Seeley, 2003). Students with IQs over 155 demonstrate social isolation whereas those with IQs over 170 experience particularly profound social isolation (Lee, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Thomson, 2012).

Gifted students do not intuitively fall into the categories of socially diverse and vulnerable individuals helped by the social work profession (i.e., populations marginalized because of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, and socioeconomic status; National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2008). However, asynchronous intellectual development and heightened emotional and social sensitivities describe another category of vulnerability that typifies gifted children. The social work profession's purpose (Council on Social Work Education, 2008) and values (NASW, 2008) state that a society's respect for diversity promotes the well-being of the individual and the community in which the individual lives. Through a person and environment construct, social workers seek social justice for diverse and vulnerable populations by preventing the conditions that limit their human rights. The social worker's charge is to advance a society that recognizes and respects all forms of individual differences.

The purpose of this article is to bring to light the treatment of gifted students in American public schools for a social work audience that understands the needs of disadvantaged and diverse populations. The hope is that school social workers can serve as natural allies for other educators striving to help this vulnerable and misunderstood group. Gifted students, like any other marginalized group, need advocates who can push the educational establishment to remove barriers and expand access to appropriate educational opportunities. Assisting gifted students falls within the social work axiological framework of advocating for diverse, vulnerable, and marginalized populations, and it is vital that school social workers recognize the problems faced by gifted students and help schools and parents take the steps necessary to help these students maximize their educational experience.

Gifted Students as Diverse and Vulnerable Learners in American Public Schools

Identification of Gifted Students

Most scholars reference some form of unique intellectual abilities as characteristic of giftedness (Feldhusen, 1989). According to Sternberg's theory of successful intelligence, for instance, intelligence is a contextual concept bound in the demands of the environment and the desires of the individual (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2007). Gifted students who show successful intelligence demonstrate a combination of analytic, synthetic, and practical abilities (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2002). Analytical ability allows an individual to problem solve by analyzing, evaluating, comparing, and contrasting information, popularly known as critical thinking. Synthetic ability allows an individual to generate ideas that are novel and useful. Practical ability allows an individual to translate abstract ideas into practice. All three abilities must be in place to achieve success (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2007).

These intellectual abilities shape the unique and complex learning characteristics of gifted students that differ quantitatively and qualitatively from those of other students (Bittick, 1995; VanTassel-Baska, 2003, p. 178). Although typical learners spend more time acquiring knowledge and demonstrating comprehension, gifted learners move quickly to the tasks of synthesizing, evaluating, and analyzing information (Winebrenner & Brulles, 2008). According to VanTassel-Baska, gifted students prefer challenging work that allows them to apply complex reasoning skills to multiple abstract assignments. Their intensity and precocity as learners drive their intellectual advancements. Gifted students like to "learn fast and move ahead" (VanTassel-Baska, 2003, p. 178) and can concentrate for long periods on topics that interest them.

Their complex and unique learning traits affect the gifted students' social behavior in the classroom. Most children select peers on the basis of mental age, not chronological age (Gross, 2002). Associating with others who equally value higher order learning motivates gifted students to learn (Feldhusen, 1989). While working with their intellectual peers, gifted students experience a higher self-concept through less selfcriticism (Gross, 1989). They experience collaborative work with these peers as delightful (Brody & Stanley, 2005; Gross, 2002).

Failure to take into consideration the differences in learning styles and social behaviors among gifted student can negatively affect their development. Middle childhood is a period of significant brain development with opportunities for diverse and positive learning experiences that refine this growth (Hutchison, 2011). By experiencing appropriate challenge in their operational years, the gifted school-age child develops the industriousness necessary to face increasing challenge associated with schooling in later years (Moon, 2009). Without this challenge, gifted students can suffer from academic disinterest (Davis & Rimm, 2004), or even worse, gross academic underachievement, which is a risk factor for crime, violence, and substance abuse (Seeley, 2003).

Unfortunately, according to the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted and the National Association for Gifted Children's 2012-2013 State of the States in Gifted Education (2013), only three states require general education teachers to have training in gifted education at any point in their careers (only seventeen states require such training for teachers in gifted education programs). The lack of training affects the ability of teachers to work with this population. Most teachers do not know that gifted students learn differently from their age peers in terms of habituation, retention, and abstraction of knowledge.

Vulnerability of Gifted Students

Many educators hold the popular myth that gifted students can make it on their own without much assistance from teachers (Winebrenner, 1999) and are the last ones who need special services (Abell & Lennex, 1999; Thompson & Subotnik, 2010). Many gifted students, however, do not make it on their own (Benbow, 1991; Colangelo & Davis, 2003). Gifted students experience many problems that can include social isolation and rejection, social adjustment problems (Colangelo & Kelly, 1983; Feldhusen, 1989), underachievement (Siegle, 2013), dropping out of high school (Renzulli & Park, 2000), and suicidal ideation (Cross, 2013). Without appropriate educational challenge, gifted students under achieve by asking themselves to complete only easy tasks they can perform perfectly (Davis & Rimm, 2004). Many gifted students drop out of high school, but the exact percentage is unknown because of the multiple definitions of giftedness used in the studies (Renzulli & Park, 2000). Peterson (2000) found that 53 percent of gifted students identified as underachievers failed to graduate from college after four years.

Failure to match intellectual and social experiences with their intellectual and social maturity needs causes gifted students to experience boredom, frustration, decreased academic motivation (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Moon, 2009), and ultimately underachievement (Reis, 1989). Gifted students have not shown steady progress in learning relative to other student cohorts. "While the nation's lowest achieving youngsters made rapid gains from 2000-2007, the performance of top students was languid" (Thomas Fordham Institute, 2008, p. 2). As students in the bottom quartile showed improvement since the 1960s, the top quartile declined (Benbow & Stanley, 1996).

Gifted students also face socialization problems in the classroom. Like all children, gifted students have a social need to belong. When they do not find peers who share interests and abilities they experience loneliness and social isolation, most acutely between the ages of four and nine (Gross, 2002).

The experience of isolation can also result from ostracism and harassment by same-age peers (Bittick, 1995). More than two-thirds of gifted students experienced bullying sometime between kindergarten and the eighth grade (Peterson & Ray, 2006). Name calling and teasing about appearance were the most common forms of bullying, particularly distressful to gifted students (Peterson & Ray, 2006). Gifted students experience this harassment differently from their classmates. As quoted in Medaris (2006), Peterson described the response among gifted students as follows:

Many are intense, sensitive and stressed by their own and others' high expectations, and their ability, interests and behavior may make them vulnerable. Additionally, social justice issues are very important to them, and they struggle to make sense of cruelty and aggression. Perfectionists may become even more self-critical, trying to avoid mistakes that might draw attention to themselves. (Medaris, 2006, para. 4)

Giftedness does not immunize students from emotional or social problems (Gallagher, 2003). It may even be a risk factor for some subpopulations of gifted students due to its association with heightened sensitivity to interpersonal conflicts and perfectionism that creates distress and feelings of alienation (Jackson & Peterson, 2003). These subpopulations include those from "nonmainstream cultural or socioeconomic groups, profoundly or creatively gifted, or gifted labeled disabled students" (2003, pp. 177-178).

When responding to social ostracism, gifted students face a forced-choice dilemma where they feel they must choose between satisfying their drive for intellectual excellence and attaining the social goal of intimacy with age peers (Gross, 1989). Gifted students who choose intimacy maintain group membership through a variety of strategies that include denial, sublimation, deviance, and underachievement (Benbow & Stanley, 1996). In the particular case of bullying, gifted students may even respond by having violent thoughts and internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety (Peterson & Ray, 2006). Gifted students are therefore socially, emotionally, and intellectually marginalized in the classroom.

Neglect of Gifted Students

Educational neglect is described as inattention to the special educational needs of a child by "refusing to allow or failing to obtain recommended remedial education services or neglecting to obtain or follow through with treatment for a child's diagnosed learning disorder or other special education need without reasonable cause" (DePanfilis, 2006, para 19). As diverse learners, gifted students think differently from the typical student population and need a differentiated curriculum that supports these developmental needs. This means that gifted students have special educational needs that require "services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities" (U.S. Department of Education, 1993, p. 2).

Teachers, however, often fail to recognize the needs of the students with the highest ability. This, in part, reflects the lack of pre-service training received by teachers in the area regarding best practices in educating gifted students. Without such training, teachers "may default to anecdotal or erroneous information, often informed by popular stereotypes" (Croft & Wood, 2015, p. 88). Teachers seem limited in their ability to recognize these needs: "Somehow, we seem to understand the struggle of those less capable than ourselves. We cannot, however, realize the frustrations and struggles of those more capable than ourselves" (Bittick, 1995, p. 140). Without the support of a significant portion of the faculty, gifted education is commonly perceived as a luxurious and unnecessary function of schools.

Educational neglect of gifted students has been prevalent for many years. In 1993, it was estimated that 1.5 million students needed a curriculum more rigorous than the then current standard (Riley, 1993). Although the recently implemented CCSS promise to be more rigorous, a closer examination shows that this characterization is designed to "persuade the audience to believe that standards are high level and rigorous, when they may not be" (Chu, 2014, p. 49). The authors of the CCSS view common methods of providing rigor to gifted students with suspicion and outright hostility for students who have not reached grade seven (Chu, 2014).

Prejudice against Gifted Students

In addition to neglect, gifted students often confront hostility (Schroeder-Davis, 1992). Intellectual talent carries a social stigma (Peairs, Eichen, Putallaz, Costanzo, & Grimes, 2011; Stanley & Baines, 2002) for gifted students. Males tend to hide their talents earlier to avoid being labeled geeks or nerds because male role models are more often seen in athletic roles (Stanley & Baines, 2002). By fifth grade, many children do not believe it is cool to achieve (Davis & Rimm, 2004). Talented black students are sometimes accused of "acting white" (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, III, 2003; Ross, 1993). According to Gregory (1992), the "pattern of abuse is a distinctive variation of the nerd bashing that almost all bright, ambitious students--no matter what their color--face at some point in their young lives" (p. 44).

The source of this stigma is anti-intellectualism (Bittick, 1995; Geake & Gross, 2008; Kearney, 1996) or resentment of intelligence (Schroeder-Davis, 1992, p. 4). This type of prejudice reflects a negative attitude toward an entire group of people (Schaefer, 2005) because of the belief that they have greater than normal intelligence. Outside the classroom, giftedness is often associated with negative connotations of elitism (Benbow, 1991; Freeman, 2005; Monks & Katzko, 2005), racism (Benbow & Stanley, 1996), and even neoconservatism (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). Inside the classroom, gifted students may be the least desirable peers and students. Students characterized as brilliant-studious-non-athletes were the least desirable hypothetical peers among high school juniors in a study by Tannenbaum (1962) and the least desirable hypothetical students among teachers in training enrolled in an educational psychology class and among experienced teachers in a study by Cramond and Martin (1987).


Gifted students have distinctively different learning needs from typical students (Moon, 2009; Tieso, 2003). They prefer higher order learning assignments that allow them to think more deeply and abstractly about the topic at hand (VanTassel-Baska, 2003; Winebrenner & Brulles, 2008). These tendencies, however, do not preclude the gifted student from problems that include personal insecurities (Gross, 2002), social ostracism (Peterson & Ray, 2006), intellectual underachievement (Siegle, 2013), and psychological disorders (Jackson & Peterson, 2003). Some gifted learners view their intellectual abilities not as an asset, but as a liability (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Stanley & Baines, 2002). Although American public schools demonstrate a concern for all types of students, the gifted population continues to be marginalized through neglect and prejudice. Popular myths rationalize these practices through a false belief that gifted students either have no problems, or if they do, can overcome them with their intellectual prowess (Winebrenner, 1999). Such intellectual talents, some believe, are static traits that would be impervious to any harmful condition in the classroom environment anyway.

The needs of gifted students in American public schools, however, still lack critical attention from those with power and influence. Federal legislation has no special provisions for gifted learners, and state governments have only provided services to this population on a limited basis (Baker & Friedman-Nimz, 2002; Chu & Myers, 2013a). Most teachers are not trained to understand the needs of these students (Council of State Directors, 2013). A social condition such as the treatment of gifted learners in schools will not receive critical attention unless it "threatens the values, the sense of morality, the security, or safety of those in a community or a society who have the power and influence to bring forth collective action and, eventually, the new policies, programs, and agencies will address this problem" (Garthwait, 2011, p. 9 7). Only when a condition achieves a political threshold will it be considered a true social problem worthy of critical attention and prioritization.


School social workers can bring unique skills and insights into this conversation about gifted education. As advocates, school social workers can inform school officials about the complexity of giftedness and the vulnerabilities of gifted students. With particular concern and insight about diverse populations and their social and emotional needs, school social workers can help classroom teachers understand the interaction of academic, social, and emotional experiences among those gifted students in particular who are twice exceptional and/or have very high IQ, are female, or are from a diverse cultural background or a low socioeconomic background. School social workers can advocate for recognition of gifted students as a special needs population entitled to an individualized educational plan. School social workers can also play a critical role amending the educational experiences for gifted students by helping these students through the role of counselor and through the role of liaison with family and community.

In particular, school social workers need to advocate for a national strategy that incorporates an evidence-based gifted education program into all schools. This would eliminate the current state of fractured state and district policies, support accountability in the classrooms, and apply best practices so that each student is assured of educational guidance commensurate with his or her abilities. This educational guidance would supplant common instructional strategies of cooperative learning and step-by-step problem solving that do not support the academic differentiation that gifted students need. When using a cooperative learning approach, teachers distribute gifted students among separate groups with students from the general population so that they can function as helpers in the group process to increase achievement for all students (Gallagher, 1991). Cooperative learning as a strategy for intellectual challenge is not the preferred instructional device for gifted students (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Gallagher, 1991). According to Davis and Rimm (2004), gifted students learn faster alone and prefer accelerated or enrichment assignments in lieu of cooperative projects where they do most of the work. Only when gifted students are grouped together in some form does cooperative learning enhance the achievement of gifted learners (Slavin, 1986).

According to Seeley (2003), the use of the step-by-step problem solving method of instruction discourages the visual-spatial learner typical among creatively gifted students who tend to conceptualize by whole images rather than by linear patterns. Holistic thinkers often find step by step problem solving confusing and hard to execute. In a classroom that rewards sequential tasks, this subtype of gifted students is particularly at risk for underachievement.

Gifted programs for culturally diverse students need to incorporate strategies beyond academic differentiation. Gifted black students, for instance, face additional challenges of a cultural nature as the process of participating in gifted classrooms creates the external perception of engaging in white activities that risk social ostracism from the African American community (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, III, 2003, p. 61) and the internal experience of what W E. B. Du Bois calls a "double consciousness" of two souls (Alridge, 2008, p. 65). These gifted students need culturally responsive curriculum about the African American philosophy of schooling and eminent African American educators such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, III, 2003). Additionally, gifted black students need counseling to develop an identity of achievement (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, III, 2003); an improved self-concept (Baldwin, 2011; Frasier, 2011); and habits of mind such as self-direction, communication skills, questioning skills, and perseverance (Frasier, 2011). Finally, gifted black students will need academic mentors outside their classrooms from their community-based programs, churches, and families (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, III, 2003).

A committed action requires a more complete analysis of the nature and needs of gifted students, why their needs are not being met, and what can be done. However, these actions cannot take place without first recognizing inequality of instruction in American public schools as a social problem that harms gifted learners. Gifted students meet the standards of a population that is politically, socially, and intellectually marginalized. Hopefully, society's agents of social justice will agree.


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Yee Han Chu, MSSW, PhD, is assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. Bradley Myers, JD, LLM, is associate dean for academic affairs and Randy H. Lee professor of law at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
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Author:Chu, Yee Han; Myers, Bradley
Publication:School Social Work Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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