Study Questions Benefit Of Gifted Education Programs | KCUR

Study Questions Benefit Of Gifted Education Programs

Jan 14, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 4:12 pm

In 2008, 73 percent of teachers surveyed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute agreed that “too often, the brightest students are bored and under-challenged in school.”

Gifted and talented programs are in place to remedy that, and they’re heralded as a breeding ground for high-performing students.

Three million kids nationwide are placed in these exclusive programs — and parents view them as important to their kids’ futures.

But a recent study published in the American Economic Journal found that for students who barely qualify for the gifted programs, and for their peers who just barely didn’t, there was no difference in test scores.

Scott Imberman, an associate professor of economics and education at Michigan State University, co-authored the study and joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the findings.


  • Scott Imberman, associate professor of economics and education at Michigan State University
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And there are three million students enrolled in gifted programs around the country, and some of them are starting to see some changes to those programs. In North Carolina, high school students will be able to get credit without taking a class. All they have to do is pass a test to show they've mastered the materials. Supporters of that say that it'll free up gifted students to take more challenging courses. Next door, in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley unveiled the budget that calls for increase spending in programs for gifted and talented students.

But a recent study published in the American Economic Journal says gifted programs may not be all they're cracked up to be. Scott Imberman is an associate professor of economics and education at Michigan State University. He co-authored the study. Professor Imberman, welcome.

SCOTT IMBERMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

HOBSON: Well, you looked at 14,000 students in an urban school district and found that many of them did not benefit from these gifted programs. Tell us about your study.

IMBERMAN: Yeah. And so, more precisely, we - what we've done was that those who were just in the margin of getting into the gifted program didn't benefit. And basically, what we did was we made use of the fact that there is this cut off for getting into the gifted program. And we looked at people who are just above and just below this cut off, so that those who are just above, got in, just below didn't. The reason we do this is because if you're just going to take a bunch of students in a gifted program and compare them to other students, you don't know whether what you're finding is because of the program or because of just the fact that these students tend to be higher performing

So when we the study and we looked at this, we looked at the students' test scores maybe about a year and a half after they got into the program. And we found, much to our surprise, frankly, that we didn't see any change in their test score performance. Our perspective of what we think was particularly interesting was that these students had - were in classes with much stronger peers, with other students who are much stronger performing, and yet, it didn't seem to affect their achievement performance.

HOBSON: So basically, if they are at the bottom of the class, they are less incentivize to do well, or they can't quite handle the rigor of the program as opposed to somebody who feels very confident in their ability to master what they're being given.

IMBERMAN: Right. And that's what we speculate is the most likely reason that this is going on, in that in some sense that you do have these benefits from being around these higher performing kids, but it's upset by this problem of being this little fish in the big pond now, instead of the big fish in the little pond. But one of the things we were also able to look at was the fact that this district has a few magnet programs for gifted students. And when they have more students applying than they have room for, they conduct a random lottery to decide who gets in.

So we're able to use that to not only look at the impact of the gifted program itself, but in this context now, we were able to look at what the impact for some of the stronger students, of high-performing students, not just those on the margins, for giving them a more intensive program, a more intensive environment. And in that case, we didn't find impacts on math, social studies, reading or language, but we did find some improvements in science. So it's a bit of a positive effect there. It's, you know, there's something good that seemed to come out of it.

HOBSON: Now, professor, there are millions of students in this country who are enrolled in these gifted programs. And I'm imagining a lot of parents who are listening this and saying, wait a minute. My kid's doing much better in the gifted program than she was before she was in the gifted program or compared to somebody who's not in the gifted program.

IMBERMAN: First of all, you know, what we're looking at is essentially an average, right? So some students are going to do better and some students are going to be worse. And I think, you know, every parent has to decide for themselves whether their kid is performing, and use their own judgment to determine that. At the same time, you know, we're primarily looking at the students who are just on the margin of getting in. So we weren't able to really look at whether gifted - the gifted program was better for students, say, who are at the top of the class.

HOBSON: I think it's more of a message to parents who - maybe their kids, you know, in some of places miss the cut off or just barely don't get into the gifted program, and to keep in mind that's not the end of the world. It's not - it doesn't seemed like it's the worse thing. And your child may just - may thrive despite of that. You know, it's not that we're finding that the gifted program is bad per se, right? We're just finding that for these students, there's no effect. So - and sometimes, it doesn't really matter either way.

Well, what would you like to see done? Do you think there should be changes in the way that these programs work? Should they have a higher threshold for allowing people in?

IMBERMAN: I don't think necessarily that's the case. You know, one argument you can make actually is that because they set the - this threshold is set where the students don't do better or any worse actually might be the optimal threshold. Because maybe it's a case that the students higher or above are doing fine - or doing well, and if you made any lower, then you could start running into problems.

HOBSON: Now, you looked at fifth graders, right?

IMBERMAN: They were evaluated in fifth grade and entered sixth and seventh grade. So this is middle-school students.

HOBSON: Do you think that this concept would apply to, say, an honors college at a university, that the students who are getting into the honors college - maybe the ones at the bottom of the list - aren't going to do any better than they would if they had simply stayed with the rest of the pack in the university at large?

IMBERMAN: Right. So certainly, we don't have any direct evidence on that yet, although I think it'd be - you just gave me an idea for another paper to write.


IMBERMAN: But, yeah, that same concept could hold. And I think it would be very interesting to see whether or not it does.

HOBSON: Do you have any kids?

IMBERMAN: Yes, I do. They're too young for this stuff, though.

HOBSON: They're not in gifted programs yet.

IMBERMAN: Well, my oldest is in kindergarten, so we're not there yet.


HOBSON: Scott Imberman is associate professor at Michigan State University, and he co-authored the study that questions the effects of gifted and talented learning programs. We've got more information at our website, Scott, thanks so much for joining us.

IMBERMAN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.