The HGM: Gifted Education

September 12, 2019

Editors' Note: this is a continuation of last year's article and survey about the HGM


The Importance of Gifted Education


Let’s address the concerns of people who don’t support the existence of the HGM or gifted programs in general. Several opponents argue that gifted programs promote elitism and go against the idea of equal treatment for everyone. First, it’s important to note the difference between sameness and fairness. Suppose a person who is growing faster and taller keeps asking for more food, while everyone else is satisfied. Assuming there is an abundance of food, would you deny food in order to give everyone the same treatment? No—not enough food leads to numerous health issues. Likewise, not enough intellectual stimulation for gifted students leads to lack of mental activity. Mental activity is important for neurological processes, but a lack thereof can result in mental problems later in life, such as depression.  

One person I talked to argued, “I think giving kids more challenging work is a great idea as long as they’re not being segregated from the rest of the class.” With all due respect, I argue that this may not be practical. Some general ed teachers do give more challenging assignments to their gifted students, but this does not always serve their needs. The need for a challenge doesn't just include giving gifted students more difficult homework or worksheets during class time; gifted students often require a faster-paced and higher-level curriculum. A teacher cannot teach two curricula at the same time.  Staying in the same classroom as their non-gifted peers means gifted students have to sit through material that they have already mastered, when they could be spending time learning something more appropriate to their ability level. In theory, they could spend the time working on something or learning content through reading, but gifted students often need more than busywork. Many students who have learning disabilities and developmental disabilities often have needs that a regular classroom cannot always provide, such as an adapted curriculum. Trying to meet gifted students’ needs in the same classroom would still segregate them; only the segregation would happen within the classroom.
Other concerns about gifted programs bring up ableism: discrimination against disabled people. Indeed, feelings of superiority in the HGM may be partly linked to ableism. I feel that this is due to flaws in implementation, rather than a philosophical idea inherent to the existence of gifted education. Perhaps people convince themselves that everyone has the same intellectual ability level because if they don’t, then it means some people hold more value than others; rather than confronting this prejudice, they subconsciously convince themselves that everyone has equal ability. It doesn't. It's just a difference in learning. If students are in a special ed class, does that mean they don't hold as much inherent value as people? Some people seem to think so. 


Furthermore, I’d like to point out that this logic doesn’t acknowledge the countless gifted students who also have disabilities or conditions, such as ADHD, autism, and dyslexia, which impair their ability to learn in conventional settings. These students are called twice-exceptional (2e), and I’m one of them. These disabilities and giftedness often overlap such that one cannot be adequately addressed if the other one is not addressed. Do we not deserve an education appropriate to our needs? While many gifted programs fall short in helping their 2e students, which necessitates improvement, some programs are specifically targeted towards 2e students. Even other gifted programs provide a great deal of support, even if they are not exclusively for 2e students.

Then there are people who don’t support the existence of gifted programs because it lowers the self-esteem of non-gifted students. One highly gifted SAS senior and I were talking about the survey, and she said she wrote that it shouldn’t exist. “I feel like if academies never existed and all students were able to intermingle, people who aren’t labeled ‘highly gifted’ would feel maybe more encouraged. There’s a lot of [non-HGM] kids I know who are really smart, but they don’t feel obligated to challenge themselves because they always think there’s some other students in higher academies that are far better than them intelligence wise.” I’ve struggled with the same problem. Although I’ve established that giftedness can be cultivated but not learned, I wish my dad hadn’t told me so in eighth grade. What happened was that when I started having difficulty understanding the material in a certain class as a freshman, I did not want to work hard because if I wasn’t naturally good at it, then I would never actually be good at it, so why bother anyway? Sometimes I couldn’t even look at my homework because I would start crying about not being as smart as the others. However, I’m not sure self-esteem issues should prevent the existence of gifted programs. There will always be someone who is better or gets things more naturally. And giftedness doesn’t guarantee that someone will actually be more successful. There’s still a lot of hard work to do, even for gifted people. Not being a music prodigy does not mean you can’t become a famous musician, and even if you are a prodigy, you will still have to practice a lot.


As important as gifted education is, there are many concerns about the HGM that are still valid. Other than ability level, the HGM is not meant to exclude certain groups. Yet other factors result in unfair exclusion, such as the design of the IQ test itself.


Legitimacy of IQ


There’s a lot of controversy surrounding IQ tests. When asked how the HGM could improve, an HGM student suggested the HGM “[base] entrance off of performance rather than that bullshit IQ test, aka change the whole meaning of highly gifted.” As we’ve already seen, countless gifted students don’t show their giftedness in school due to bad experiences, learning disabilities, or inappropriate environments. They aren’t any less smart than their high-achieving peers. If gifted programs only admitted students who already displayed high academic performance, they would leave out so many people—and fail to cultivate potential that may not have had the chance to thrive.  


That is not to say I don’t have my disagreements with the IQ test. To identify giftedness, an LAUSD psychologist will pick the kind of test the student will take, based on age and other factors (unknown to me). From my informal discussions with my classmates, most HGM students seem to have taken the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM), which I also took. The test is designed to be “culture-fair” by testing non-verbal intelligence and ability to reason, rather than knowledge gained prior to testing. Each question, which progressively gets more difficult, presents the test taker with an incomplete series of pictures that follow a pattern, and the test taker must choose the missing picture that continues the pattern. Still, there may be a cultural bias in asking children to identify patterns (see source 1 at the bottom). And it doesn’t identify the strengths and weaknesses of a person. A test result cannot confidently indicate whether or not an “ineligible” student can indeed succeed in a particular program. Some kids could do very well in HGM programs, but their strengths may lie in verbal intelligence or they might not do as well on the RPM. On the test day, someone’s thought process might be influenced by emotions and their physical condition, which in turn can impact their score. Like other IQ tests, the RPM condenses intelligence into a single score and thus oversimplifies the complexities of the human brain. Finding a more holistic approach to gifted identification won’t be easy, but perhaps such an approach would help the HGM and other gifted programs educate “the whole child” more effectively. Then, a score that is lower than the minimum eligible score wouldn’t necessarily indicate incapability.

But some people seem to think it would. One 2018 alumnus from the SAS told me that it is very hard for highly motivated non-HGM students to get into an HGM class. I suspect this is because people emphasize the “unique emotional and learning needs” of highly gifted students, in comparison to less gifted learners. But if a non-HGM student has demonstrated outstanding performance and wants more challenging work, then why deny that opportunity to the student? This same alumnus was my classmate in AP Physics 1, a class notorious for its difficulty. He ended up with an A in the class; many of us in the HGM got a B. In other words, while I do believe academic performance shouldn’t serve as the sole basis for eligibility, high achievers should have more access to HGM classes, even if they aren’t eligible otherwise.


Sources/Further Reading:

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