What Does the United States Do for its Brightest Students?

Though there is some controversy on the nature of gifted and talented programs, make no mistake: the United States needs them.

Why Gifted Programs Exist

Endemic in American public schools is a focus on the academic median. Legislation of the No Child Left Behind era targeted struggling students in an effort to bring them up to par; in the meantime, many of our brightest were left to fend for themselves.

This is not to say that struggling students should not be given help. Children at all learning levels must be given curricula to suit their needs. Every child, both the struggling student and the gifted student, must be pushed to reach new heights. The National Association for Gifted Children frames solicitation of gifted and talented services as an issue of equity:

“Does this mean that we tear these scarce resources from other students including those with disabilities or living in troubled circumstance? No, quite the contrary. A moral society must care for and enhance the development of all of its citizens.”

Still, gifted and high-achieving students are often given little concern. A 2008 study focusing on high-achieving students of this period indicates that “teachers are much more likely to indicate that struggling students, not advanced students, are their top priority.”

FDR National Teacher Survey Question 11

With a paradigm that emphasizes meeting standardized expectations, high-achieving students receive little attention. They already exceed those expectations. But for these children, “average” should not be good enough.

Obviously, things have changed since 2008. Still, according to the 2014-2015 State of the States in Gifted Education report, there is work to be done:

“While there are individual areas of progress, our nation has yet to comprehensively address the educational needs of top learners in PK-12 schools.”                                

Because of their exceptional capability, gifted students require special services to reach their full potential. Talent must be honed through challenging and stimulating exercise. Gifted and talented programs do just that; they are an investment in developing the talent of the future.

What is Giftedness, Anyway?

Gifted is the term we use to describe exceptionally bright students. The current federal definition is derived from the National Excellence report of 1993, which states that:

Children and youth with outstanding talent perform
or show the potential for performing at remarkably
high levels of accomplishment when compared with
others of their age, experience, or environment.

These children and youth exhibit high performance
capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic
areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or
excel in specific academic fields. They require
services or activities not ordinarily provided by the

Outstanding talents are present in children and youth
from all cultural groups, across all economic strata,
and in all areas of human endeavor.

Note that it is only suggested that states follow the federal definition. Most states have created their own definition of giftedness for their programs.

Gifted students have the potential for high achievement in a variety of fields. Some may be scientifically or mathematically oriented. Others may excel at communication and critical thinking. Still others may exhibit great artistic sensibility.

Regardless of the venue in which they excel, the focus is on potential. While exceptional grades and test scores can be indicators of giftedness, these demonstrated quantitative achievements are simply the fulfillment of potential.

There are many telling characteristics of giftedness that set apart developing gifted children from others of their age, including:

  • Excellent memory
  • Highly developed curiosity
  • Thinking that is abstract, complex, logical and insightful
  • Deep, intense feelings and reactions
  • Vivid imagination
  • High sensitivity

Many indicators of giftedness are largely qualitative. Many of these traits demonstrate a need for support for not only their academic gifts, but their advanced level of emotional development. Some could argue that giftedness is defined by a child’s own experiences.

Problematically, the brightest are often measured in terms of their quantitative performance – that is, exceptional classroom grades, standardized test scores, and IQ examinations.

The Problems with Identification

It is impossible to quantify each child’s unique individual experience. This presents policy-makers with a conundrum: how does one create a standard of evaluation based on not only qualitative, but highly subjective information?

Simply-put: they don’t. Most states rely on a referral process in which teachers identify students with potential. These students are then screened for entry to local gifted and talented programs through IQ testing.

Predictably, reliance on purely quantitative evidence to identify the potentially gifted creates problems. Students from families with financial stability and backgrounds in education have more resources and intellectual stimulation at home, giving them an edge of their disadvantaged peers.

Underprivileged students lack opportunities at home. This translates to a lack of opportunity in the classroom, as they are unable to demonstrate quantitative achievement on the same level as their peers. When teachers and administrators fail to account for this, students with great potential are often overlooked.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2014 report clearly shows the ethnic disparity among students enrolled in gifted programs in the United States.

Percentage of Students in Gifted Programs

In the mid-2000’s, white students were enrolling in gifted programs at twice the rate of black or Hispanic students. Those of Asian/Pacific Islander background enrolled at even higher rates. Though this data is perhaps a bit dated, there is still plenty of evidence that this disparity still exists throughout the United States today.

Of course, the disparity is not only ethnic. Schools in rural areas often lack funding and human resources to support gifted programs. Students often lack simple resources and opportunities for enrichment. As a result, rural students are consistently underrepresented in gifted and talented programs because they are not given a chance to demonstrate achievement.

These facts are not unknown to educators and policy-makers. Even the Louisiana Department of Education admits that quantitative testing has its pitfalls:

“Few, if any, standardized assessment instruments adequately control for the effect of such factors as environmental impoverishment, cultural differences, or the lack of opportunities.”

But it remains true that it is impossible to create policy without quantitative standards. Bearing this in mind, how do we reach disadvantaged students? How do we begin investing in students with potential that are so frequently overlooked?

The Importance of Professional Development

The answer lies in professional development. The problem is not the quantitative measurements themselves, but our over-reliance on them. In order to better reach children who are often overlooked, teachers in every classroom must be able to recognize signs of giftedness. We must complement quantitative evidence with qualitative observations to create a more holistic and equitable system of identification.

Unfortunately, most states do not mandate professional development on gifted students for general education teachers. Without training on gifted and talented education, the only basis these teachers have by which to recognize giftedness are quantitative measures – again, test scores and classroom grades.

As shown by this crucial report (check tables 30 and 31), there is little support for training teachers of the regular classroom on giftedness. Only one state requires teachers receive this training before service. A handful mandate in-service training, but with a lax unspecified number of hours. A few states and some districts offer voluntary training programs to teachers.

More professional development for gen-ed teachers on gifted and talented education is our best bet to fix the broken system of identification. States must adopt policies to make this simple training accessible to every classroom teacher. Too many teachers simply lack knowledge on the qualitative signs of giftedness, and as a result we let too many students with potential fall through the cracks.

The Resource Map

In an attempt to visually display what the United States offers to its brightest students, I created this infographic. Data on funding was taken from the Davidson Institute, while other information came from the NAGC’s State of the States in Gifted Education 2014-2015 report. The report and the infographic show how services offered to gifted students vary wildly from state to state.

Gifted Program Resource Map v2

Please note that some states do not mandate or fund gifted programs, but specific school districts within the state may still have them. Specially marked on the map are:

  • Fully-funded: States sporting programs that are fully-funded by the state.
  • SRMS: State-supported Residential Math and Science Schools. These publicly-funded schools aim to recruit motivated high school students from across the state to bring them into an environment where they can explore academic interests through rigorous, college-level coursework and individual student-teacher relationships. Many of these schools also sport robust programs for the humanities and the arts.
  • Professional Development Required: States that require all general education teachers to receive coursework in the education of gifted students. Note that Nevada is the only state to require pre-service coursework. Many states not marked offer voluntary coursework on gifted education. Some districts in unmarked states require this professional development as well.

For more information on a specific state’s gifted programs, check the list below!









District of Columbia 





















New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota





Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota







West Virginia



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