If you examine the data for any school, most likely you’ll find a correlation between the number of gifted students and the number of affluent families living within the district. Wealthier school districts typically have higher percentages of students who qualify (per testing) as gifted. Conversely, poor and rural districts report lower percentages of gifted children. For example, in New York City public schools, the number of gifted students increased 20% this year in the wealthier districts. But the number of students that qualify in the poorer districts is falling. In fact, so few students qualify in those districts, administrators haven’t opened gifted programs.

So why the discrepancy? And what are the long-term implications of this unequal system?

Let’s first examine what giftedness is. Just the word “gifted” can conjure up everything from eye rolls to feelings of superiority to the image of a model student who breezes through life. The basic definition is simple: outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains. But recognizing it in each individual child is the challenge. Often children who are gifted do not advance equally in all areas. They may read three or four grade levels higher, but still need help dressing themselves. Gifted children can be wired differently than their peers, feeling uncomfortable or uninterested in social situations. As for the stereotype of the straight-A, well-adjusted student? Yes, those kids do exist, but they are one subset of larger group. In fact, many gifted children also have a learning disability or a diagnosis such as ADHD, so their “gift” seems to be cancelled out by their struggles to make it through a school day. This is why it is so important to fully recognize each child’s strengths and weaknesses and educate them accordingly.

Easier said than done, right?

It’s easy to see how a gifted child from a disadvantaged background can fall through the cracks. They may come to school hungry, anxious or stressed. The child may dislike school, and feel discouraged while there. The teacher may have an over-crowded classroom and too few resources, and dealing with behavioral issues may take up a lot of his or her time. The school system may not have the funding to test for giftedness. To an overwhelmed parent or busy teacher, the potential may go unrecognized. Thus, the children who are gifted in one or more areas become bored, frustrated and disengaged.

Gifted children at well-funded school districts face a much brighter proposition. Their school can afford the testing. Their teachers have good classroom ratios and resources. And personally, there is a lower occurance of hunger, poverty or other obstacles to learning. Once their giftedness is recognized, the child can be challenged with the appropriate material. Their self-esteem improves. They can spend time with children who are wired the same way, making them feel less of an outsider. These children can continue to excel, and their future accomplishments are limitless.

Obviously, all children can’t live in top-rated school districts, and the school funding debate has no end in sight. At the state level, gifted programming mandates and funding vary widely. The good news is that the majority of states do mandate gifted testing and programming, and have some funding for it. But 20% of states do not mandate or fund gifted programs at all. In 2010, the Equity in Excellence Act was introduced by two senators as a solution to this problem. If passed, this bill would have “support[ed] high-need school districts in eliminating the achievement gap between high-achieving, low-income students and their more advantaged peers.” (source: NAGC). Unfortunately, this bill was not enacted.

Let us know your thoughts on gifted programming. Are/how are gifted children educated in your school district?