History Of Gifted Education Essay

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Gifted education in America has waxed and waned in its presence and prominence over the past two hundred years. The need to identify and make special provisions for gifted students has been counterbalanced by a persistent belief that they need no unusual educational measures. This entry reviews that history.

Early Public Education

During the early years of the American public school system, gifted education programs were notably absent. Through the early 1800s, philosophical and behaviorist theories that one could be molded entirely based on controlled experiences were supported by the democratic ideal that all men are created equal and provided a strong basis upon which gifted education was deemed unwarranted.

Around 1850, scholars began to talk about the gifted or academically talented child. It was then thought that a very thin line separated genius and insanity, and the psychology of the gifted child provided the impetus for further study. Sir Francis Galton performed the first scientific study of giftedness in the late 1800s, ranking subjects based on their percentile intelligence score compared to the general population, thus furnishing the first comprehensive description of the gifted.

In 1861, William Torrey Harris, then Superintendent of Schools in St. Louis, Missouri, established the first acceleration program for gifted students based on the concept of flexible promotions wherein students could be promoted to the next grade level after either a year, semester, quarter, or five-week time period. However, this program did not give any consideration to a gifted child’s social needs.

From 1880 to 1900, the first homogeneously grouped gifted programs began. These programs provided advanced academic studies and social interaction between gifted students; however, such programs for the gifted were limited. The general belief among educators was that the gifted child should remain in the heterogeneous classroom, with the teacher making appropriate modifications for the student in the regular curriculum.

Specific Programs Begin

Gifted programs expanded to include special schools for the gifted with accelerated academic programs in the early 1900s. Whether grouped in a special class or school, homogeneous grouping of gifted students was proposed as a major step toward making education of the gifted (and all students) more efficient; this same rationale continues to be used today in justifying homogeneous grouping of gifted students.

During the 1920s, the Binet-Simon intelligence test was first used to study large groups of gifted children. At Stanford University, Lewis M. Terman supervised the modification of the original Binet-Simon test into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, used the test to identify more than 1,500 gifted children, and performed extensive field studies on these children throughout their lives.

The advent of a quantifiable measuring device for identifying gifted children was crucial to the continuation and refinement of gifted education programs. Gifted education programs in the 1920s were generally enrichment programs where the traditional curriculum was expanded upon in various ways. The influence of William H. Kilpatrick’s project method, which was developed during this time period, likely aided in influencing this shift from acceleration to enrichment orientation.

Although a few gifted education programs continued and flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, in general, neither gifted nor mentally retarded programs received widespread attention during this time. A 1931 White House conference report stated that although 1.5 million children with IQs greater than 120 had been identified in the United States, less than 1 percent of those children were enrolled in special classes. Of the students who were enrolled in special classes, the primary method of instruction used was still homogeneous grouping with less emphasis on acceleration than in the early 1900s.

Technology Focus

With the end of World War II and the rise of technological careers in the United States, gifted education gained attention. In 1950, the National Education Association Educational Policies Commission produced a report titled “Education of the Gifted,” in which a conservative increase in attention to the needs of and opportunities for gifted children was suggested, but special classes and homogeneous grouping of gifted children was not recommended.

In the early 1950s, the concept of giftedness was expanded to include talented youth. Talent could be expressed artistically and musically, with spatial relationships, mental reasoning, and other facets of intelligence not normally measured in IQ evaluations. Established in 1953, the Talented Youth Project at the Horace Mann-Lincoln Institute of School Experimentation in New York City was one of the first programs to study the various aspects of talented youth.

The gifted education movement came to the forefront of American public schooling with the launching of the Russian rocket Sputnik in 1957; better education of the gifted was seen as a means to protect national security. The American government responded to what was viewed as a national educational crisis with the establishment of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958. Through NDEA, funding was allocated for counselors to work with gifted children and for educational experiments on gifted children to be performed. In addition to the funding of gifted programs, individual students now were able to receive funding for postsecondary education, particularly in technological areas. The National Merit Scholarship program was begun; the National Science Foundation provided numerous scholarships to students studying science in college; and the Advanced Placement program was established.

In the early 1960s, concentrated study into creativity in education and the creative abilities of students began. E. Paul Torrance’s research showed that gifted children in special classes had more confidence in their ability to be creative than did gifted children of comparable ability in regular classes. Torrance’s Test of Creativity would later be used to identify children for gifted education programs. The emphasis in gifted teacher education classes at the time was on how to develop powers of creative thinking in gifted students.

Federal Interventions

The civil rights movement and President Johnson’s war on poverty in the 1960s shifted the nation’s attention to the economically and socially disadvantaged and precipitated efforts to identify gifted students from minority and low socioeconomic populations. The gifted curriculum programs of the 1960s had four categories of curriculum differentiation: (1) acceleration, or the presentation of older age material; (2) enrichment, characterized by extra work and extra resources; (3) sophistication, or learning more from the same curriculum; and (4) novelty, interdisciplinary, or unique classes.

In 1970, “Provisions Related to Gifted and Talented Children” (Section 806) was added to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Amendments of 1969, enabling federal funds to be used on gifted education. The provisions also directed the U.S. Commissioner of Education to study the extent to which special education provisions are necessary for the gifted and talented, whether federal programs currently established are meeting their needs, and how federal programs could be more effective.

Public Law 94-142’s passage in 1975 required that every American child be provided with a “free and appropriate public education.” Since then, gifted education has been recognized as a part of special (or exceptional) education. As such, students who display characteristics of giftedness are often referred for psychological evaluation and intelligence testing under the identification procedures used for special education students.

The first Gifted and Talented Children’s Education Act in 1978 authorized between $25 million and $50 million to be spent on gifted education programs. Repealed by President Reagan as a part of his platform of “new federalism,” gifted education spending policies were returned to the states, where they continue to reside today with states implementing a wide variety of funding formulae for gifted education programs.

The Current Situation

The gifted curriculum programs of the 1970s emphasized mastery of thinking skills underlying productive and creative thinking. The previously described methods of curriculum differentiation were also used throughout the decade and into the 1980s, with novelty and enrichment overshadowing the other methods.

In 1983, the publication of A Nation at Risk caused gifted education to receive attention once again because of a perceived threat to the superior status of the United States over other countries. Gifted education programs resumed their emphasis on academic acceleration and sophistication, with renewed attention to math and science. Although teaching of creative thinking continued, the use of creativity in problem solving was emphasized.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush and the governors of the United States signed Education 2000, a reform effort to increase the cognitive abilities of American students. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education released its first study on the gifted in two decades, in which differential education for gifted was favored and greater efforts to identify the gifted and talented from minority groups urged. However, since the enactment of No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush, students who are underperforming receive the majority of resources, and gifted funding and existence of programs have been reduced significantly, helping to reestablish the previously held belief that education of the gifted is unnecessary.

In those states and districts that continue to provide gifted programs, all of the categories of curriculum differentiation can be found. Not only do gifted education programs and funding vary widely from state to state, but they frequently vary within states as well. Programs are provided in a variety of school settings: part-time pullout programs, fulltime gifted education centers, special summer academies, magnet schools, regular schools that provide gifted classes, and even the traditional heterogeneous classroom.


  1. Colangelo, N., & Davis, G. A. (2002). Handbook of gifted education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Miller, R. G. (1997). Gifted selection criteria and performance in gifted sixth grade science. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida International University.
  3. Rickover, H. G. (1959). Education and freedom. New York: Dutton.

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