Gifted Dropouts: What if School worked for them instead?

Academically gifted and talented students in this country make up approximately six to ten percent of the total student population (three to five million students) These students differ from typical students in terms of learning style, depth and complexity of understanding, and potential. This difference from the norm for their age group means that the education program for gifted students should be modified to meet their needs. However, most gifted students receive the majority of their K-12 education in a regular classroom, taught by teachers who have not been trained to teach high-ability students. For many gifted students, much of the time they spend in school is wasted; they have already mastered the material and are marking time until they are allowed to skip a grade or are permitted to take college-level courses

The school situation for high-potential students from low income and minority backgrounds is especially troublesome. Data from every state reveal large "excellence gaps," the gaps at the top achievement levels between minority and white students and between low-income and more advantaged students. These gaps indicate a failure to identify high-ability students of color and from disadvantaged circumstances and support them to reach the high levels of achievement of which they are capable. These gaps also suggest there is a tremendous amount of talent being squandered. For those from families who can afford it, many gifted students attend private schools, attend weekend and/or summer enrichment programs, or have private tutors to compensate for what the schools fail to provide. Clearly, we can and must do better.

There is a definition of “gifted students” that was developed in the 1972 Maryland Report to Congress, which was the first national report on gifted education. It remains the current federal definition, though states and districts are not required to use it:

Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.

*Gifted students are so smart they can do fine on their own in school and don’t need help. And they always get great grades.

This is wrong on several fronts. For one, gifted students often aren’t gifted in every subject. A first grader who can read a fifth-grade book and thoroughly understand it may not be able to write legibly. Even in those areas in which students have a gift, they need teachers who challenge them, though most teachers are not trained to deal with these students. A 1991 study showed that between 18 and 25 percent of gifted and talented students, most often from poor families, drop out of school. Unchallenged gifted students can get bored, or frustrated, or develop bad study habits.

*Gifted students are good role models for other students and can provide a challenge for them in a regular classroom.

Actually, students who aren’t gifted don’t much look to their gifted classmates as role models. Kids generally model behavior at which they believe they can succeed, and a student who struggles with algebra is not likely to try to emulate a student of the same age zipping through Advanced Placement Calculus. In fact, research suggests that a struggling student’s self confidence can be harmed by relying on, or watching a gifted student who is expected to succeed.

*All children are gifted.

Many and perhaps all children have some special gifts. But in an educational sense, most are not, meaning that they tend to be on the same level academically as their peers and do not have the ability to learn and apply what they know at a level far above their years.

*Students with learning disabilities cannot be considered gifted and talented.

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Wrong. Some gifted students have various disabilities, including learning. Sometimes, a learning disability can mask a gifted ability in a child.

*Gifted students develop socially and emotionally faster than other children their age.

They don’t. Their social and emotional needs are the same as their peers, though because they are academically gifted, many adults make the mistake of thinking they are more emotionally mature than they are.

  • In 2011, research showed that just 32% of 8th graders in the United States were proficient in mathematics, placing the U.S. 32nd when ranked among the participating international jurisdictions. (Education Next)

  • Research shows that 25% of gifted people are underachievers, and they quit trying because nothing they do leads to any measurable success or satisfaction. (adapted from The Gifted Kids Survival Guide: A Teen Handbook)

  • As recently as 1995 America was tied for first in college graduation rates; by 2006 this ranking had dropped to 14th. (McKinsey & Company, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America ’s Schools)

  • The United States has among the smallest proportion of 15-year-olds performing at the highest levels of proficiency in math. Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, and the Czech Republic have at least five times the proportion of top performers as the United States. (McKinsey & Company, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools)

  • Four-fifths (81%) of teachers believe that “our advanced students need special attention – they are the future leaders of this country, and their talents will enable us to compete in a global economy.” (High Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB)

  • Nearly one million students who start high school every year don't make it to graduation. At a time when federal and state budgets are tight, dropouts cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue, healthcare, welfare and incarceration costs. (

  • Only 11 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States are in the sciences or engineering, compared with 23 percent in the rest of the world and 50 percent in China. (National Summit on Competitiveness)

  • China graduates about 500,000 engineers per year, while India produces 200,000 and the United States turns out a mere 70,000. (National Academy of Sciences: “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”)

  • 45% of new U.S. patents are granted to foreigners. (Education Week “A Quiet Crisis is Clouding the Future of R&D”)

  • American students rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading compared to students in 27 industrialized countries. (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)

  • Out of the national graduation rate of 79%, only 56% of students graduate from college within six years of entrance. (National Center for Education Statistics)

  • 88% of high school dropouts had passing grades, but dropped out due to boredom. (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “The Silent Epidemic”)

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