June 14, 2015

The Problem with the ‘Gifted’ Label

By Eliza Jane Schaeffer

Educators call me gifted, but really I’m just lucky.

While I dissected a variety of animals in Academy Advanced Biology, students outside of the magnet program dissected none. While I participated in a month-long qualitative analysis in Academy Advanced Chemistry, my peers in other classes did not. While I am taught how to approach applying for college in a weekly zero hour seminar, other students, who may need it more than I, are not. 

But being labeled “gifted” does even more than unlock special opportunities. In a study at the University of Kentucky, random students were labeled as advanced. Those students performed at a higher level than their peers, simply because of their label. This discrepancy can be attributed to what researchers call the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which people become what others expect them to become. Students who aren’t deemed “gifted” feel inadequate, and perform to a lesser degree, while those who are labeled “gifted” feel empowered, and are often treated with more respect.

This system is based on outdated studies suggesting a “fourth grade shift” takes place, after which basic skills and intelligence are cemented. But newer studies question the existence of a universal shift. For some students, it comes earlier; for others, much later, and the late bloomers are done a great disservice.  As Sara, a high school sophomore, told us:  “I wasn’t identified as gifted when I was in third grade, and I feel like it really stunted my growth.  The label prevented me from tapping into a better [learning] environment.”

Even before third grade, children are sorted into groups within the classroom. But because there is no formal method, teachers use first impressions of affluence, obedience, and hygiene-reliable measures when determining adults’ potential for success, but qualities that are more reflective of the children’s parents than themselves.

Why all of these divisions? For one, it makes teaching more efficient. By dividing children into like-minded groups, teachers can alter their teaching style to match what they believe is that group’s level of intelligence. But as the research clearly shows, many if not most students are capable of more than is initially apparent. By grouping students before they have a chance to prove themselves in a classroom environment, we are likely retarding their intellectual growth.

I have taken full advantage of the opportunities granted to me by my label, but I cannot do so with a clear conscience. I see non-GT students who work tirelessly to do their best, I see GT students who carelessly disregard or disrespect the incredible opportunities available to them, and I see struggling non-GT students who need the best teachers’ attention, not the worst.

Would getting rid of the Gifted and Talented track create a little extra work? Perhaps. But educating the next generation should not be about convenience. 

I am at least gifted enough to know that.

This op-ed originally ran as part of a package in the Courier Journal reflecting on the release of Uncovering the Tripwires to Postsecondary Success.

Eliza Jane Schaeffer

Eliza Jane Schaeffer

Eliza Jane is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. She was previously the Chair of the School Governance Committee and founding Editor-In-Chief of the Student Voice Forum. Eliza Jane graduated from Henry Clay High School in 2016 and Dartmouth University in 2020.