So Much Potential, So Few Grants: The Logic of Investing More in Gifted Students

The reflex of most funders in the education space, whether they are foundations or major donors, is to help the neediest kids learn and to gain a better shot at opportunity. So it's not all that surprising that few grant dollars support gifted students. The very term suggests these kids already have a head start. So what's the imperative to finance extra help and support? 

In fact, this is an area that does deserve attention from funders. The National Association for Gifted Children notes that many of the nation's 3 million gifted kids come from "all cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups." But sadly, many will never get a chance to realize their full potential. The problems surrounding the education of gifted students are twofold: a lack of ability to identify high-achieving students, and the inability to properly challenge them, even when they are known to educators. More than 7 in 10 teachers of gifted and talented students say their brightest students are never challenged nor provided with the opportunity to thrive in their classrooms. That's a serious problem for those children; but it's also a problem for a society that, ideally, is able to tap its very best human capital.

Among the few funders we've identified in this space are John and Leslie Malone. Their Malone Family Foundation was founded "to improve access to quality education—particularly at the secondary school level—for gifted students who lack the financial resources to best develop their talents." (John Malone is a billionaire media mogul, so there's no shortage of resources, here.)

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Another funder that cares about gifted students is the American Psychological Foundation, the charitable arm of the American Psychological Association, which recently issued a request for proposals for the 2017 Esther Katz Rosen grants program. The annual fund was established in 1974, with the intent of enabling and enhancing the development of identified gifted and talented children and adolescents, as well as encouraging promising psychologists to continue innovative research and programs in the field. Since 1992, the fund has also supported a yearly lecture on the psychological understanding of gifted children and adolescents, in honor of the late Esther Katz Rosen, Ph.D., who dedicated her life to helping high-ability students achieve their fullest potential.

Academically gifted students only represent 6 to 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. While they need modified programming to reach their highest potential, they’re more often than not educated in mixed-ability classrooms by teachers who aren’t specially trained in teaching gifted students. High-ability students have different learning styles, depth and complexity of understanding, and potential than their peers; after they quickly master classroom material, much of their subsequent school time is wasted.

While the problem applies to the entire gifted and talented population, it’s significantly worse among low-income and minority students. Major gaps in the top achievement levels between minority and white students and low-income and advantaged students would indicate a serious lack of identification of high-ability disadvantaged students and students of color.

For students of all races and socioeconomic levels, finding sufficiently challenging programs is a hurdle. Specialized attention is often only given to gifted students whose families are willing to pay for it, whether in the form of private schools, enrichment programs or specially trained tutors. There is a clear need to make this type of programming more accessible to high-achieving students from modest means, with new studies indicating that gifted programming positively influences students’ futures by affecting their post-secondary plans.

So to reiterate: This is a prime area for philanthropic intervention. And the dividends from investing resources early on can be significant down the line. 

In a study of 320 gifted students whose talents were identified when they were adolescents and received services through a secondary level, the group pursued doctoral degrees at 50 times the base expected rate. Some 63 percent of the students in the study earned advanced terminal degrees, and 44 percent held doctoral degrees or above. Comparatively, only 2 percent of the general population holds doctoral degrees per the 2010 census report.

Another study followed 2,409 intellectually talented adolescents who were provided with gifted and talented services and then tracked for 25 years. Their creative accomplishments, including literary achievement and scientific technical innovation, showed that ability patterns identified when they were as young as 13 were significant predictors for later creative achievements. The participants went on to have a combined 817 patents and 93 published books. One of the participants earned the Fields Medal in mathematics, and another won the John Bates Clark medal for the Most Outstanding Economist Under 40.

The Esther Katz Rosen Grants range from $1,000 to $50,000, and are given to graduate students and Ph.D. holders who are committed to research, pilot projects, and research-based programs to mitigate the deficiency in suitable programming and opportunities for gifted and talented students. Applicants must hold a doctoral degree or be a graduate student at an accredited university for research proposals, and must be affiliated with a school or education institution.

The 2016 grants were awarded to Danika Maddocks, Ph.D., and Tracy Misset, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Montana, respectively. Both recipients had proven track records of researching and implementing modified classroom climates and teaching methods for gifted and talented students, and both had worked with the National Association for Gifted Children in the past.