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Global Education Review is a publication of The School of Education at Mercy College, New York. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative

Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License, permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original

work is properly cited. Citation: Brown, Elissa F., & Wishney, Leigh R. (2017). Equity and Excellence: Political forces in the education of gifted

students in The United States and abroad. Global Education Review, 4(1). 22-33.

Equity and Excellence:

Political Forces in the Education of Gifted Students

In The United States and Abroad

Elissa F. Brown

Hunter College CUNY

Leigh R. Wishney

New York City Department of Education


Divisive rhetoric and heated political discourse surround the identification and education of gifted

students and lead to opposing philosophical issues of egalitarianism versus elitism. Researchers have

long chronicled the ambivalence in the United States over the concepts of giftedness and intellectual

talent (Benbow &Stanley, 1996; see also Gallagher & Weiss, 1979).

Gallagher (2005) suggested that the two predominant social values reflected in American education are

equity and excellence: “The dual and desirable educational goals of student equity and student excellence

have often been in a serious struggle for scarce resources. Student equity ensures all students a fair short

a good education. Student excellence promises every student the right to achieve as far and as high as he

or she is capable. Because the problems of equity have greater immediacy than does the long-term

enhancement of excellence, this struggle has often been won by equity.” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 32). The ebbs

and flows of public perceptions of equity and excellence and political and historical events have

significantly impacted the evolution of the field of gifted education in the United States and abroad. In

order to understand these influences on the respective “outlier” student, it’s important to consider the

context of the country, significant events, overall educational reform efforts and the implications on the

education of gifted students. This article provides a backdrop of the United States’ ambivalence towards

gifted education as well as provides an overview of a sample of countries as frames of reference.

Implications for policy and practice are discussed.


Gifted education, politics of gifted education, international gifted education, equity and excellence


The ebb and flow of public perception of equity

and excellence, and political and historical

events, have significantly impacted the evolution

of the field of gifted education in the United

States and abroad. To understand these

influences on the respective “outlier” student, it


Corresponding Author

Elissa F. Brown, 919 West. School of Education, Hunter

College, 695 Park Ave, New York, NY 10065

Email: [email protected]mailto:[email protected]

Equity and Excellence in Gifted Education 23

influences on the respective “outlier” student, it

is important to consider the context of the

country, significant events, overall educational

reform efforts, and implications for the

education of gifted students. This article

provides an explanation for the United States’

ambivalence towards gifted education, and

provides an overview of gifted education in four

countries as a frame of reference. The countries

selected are South Korea, Singapore, England

and Finland. The criteria for selecting these

countries included elements such as

geographical spread, international test

comparisons of top students, explicit

programming or mandates for educating gifted

students or the opposite. Additional criteria

included population size and gross domestic

product as influences on educating gifted

students. Lastly, public perception regarding

serving a country’s brightest students provides

context and an additional element for



The methodology employed was a comparative

analysis of five countries (N=5). It is qualitative

in nature because educational systems are

contextually bound and socially constructed. The

researchers had no formal hypothesis in mind,

other than literature findings about the

relationship among policy (educational reform),

public perception, and the degree to which

programming for gifted and talented students is

formalized (Finn & Wright, 2015; National

Association of Gifted Children, 2016; Spielhagen

& Brown, 2008). The researchers visited

websites, reviewed laws and policies governing

gifted education, and in one case, spoke with an

international government official charged with

overseeing a country’s gifted education program.

Finally, consideration was given to countries

representing different populations sizes,

geographical and gross domestic product (GDP)

diversity, and history of educational reform

efforts focused on equity or excellence.

Gifted Education in the United


With a population of approximately 324 million,

the United States is home to diverse ethnic

groups and is the third most populous country in

the world. Americans identify themselves as

62.6% White, 15% Hispanic, 13% Black, 4.4%

Asian, with the remainder being American and

Alaska native, Hawaiian or other Pacific islander

or two or more races. In 2015, the GDP per

capita was $56,300. Education is the largest

expense in every state budget. Beyond state

education expenditures, the federal government

spent a total of $3.7 trillion in fiscal year 2015

with approximately $154 billion in education

spending accounting for 4.2 percent of the entire

federal budget according to the National Center

for Education Statistics (NCES, 2017). The Javits

Act, passed in 1988, is the only federal program

dedicated specifically to gifted and talented

students, but it does not fund local gifted

education programs (Civic Impulse, 2017).

Rather, Javits funds research and demonstration

projects through a competitive grant process.

Approximately 3.5 million dollars was allocated

in 2015 to fund 11 Javits grants, representing

less than .01% of federal discretionary funding.

Javits monies, distributed as research grants, are

earmarked for research demonstration projects

that target traditionally under-represented

populations in gifted education. One of the key

priorities of Javits funding is to reduce the

achievement gap for students at the highest

academic levels. The Excellence Gap (Plucker,

Burroughs, & Song, 2010) suggested that an

achievement gap exists representing differences

between subgroups of students performing at

the highest levels of achievement on state and

national measures.

Gallagher (2005) suggested that the two

predominant social values reflected in American

education are equity and excellence: “The dual

and desirable educational goals of student equity

and student excellence have often been in a

24 Global Education Review 4(1)

serious struggle for scarce resources. Student

equity ensures all students a fair shot at a good

education. Student excellence promises every

student the right to achieve as far and as high as

he or she is capable. Because the problems of

equity have greater immediacy than does the

long-term enhancement of excellence, this

struggle has often been won by equity,”

(Gallagher, 2005, p. 32). Even the term gifted is

value-laden, and, in some school districts is not

allowed to be used. Confusion over which

students to include in the definition of gifted

students confounds the problem. Harking back

to the earliest of researchers on the topic (e.g.,

Hollingworth, 1926; Terman, 1925), giftedness

was commonly defined as raw intellectual power

or simply IQ. The term giftedness was

synonymous with “intellectual giftedness,” and

the pioneering researchers investigated the

nature and characteristics of gifted individuals

only after setting minimal IQ standards for

identification. As the field evolved, a sense of

elitism and limited access to programming and

resources became associated with giftedness and

those who were admitted into the “intellectual

club” on the basis of their performance on the

Stanford-Binet or Wechsler Scales. Due, at least

in part, to this perception of elitism, as well as to

a social push to include more diverse students

into programs for the gifted, the field began to

consider alternative methods and procedures for

identifying gifted students and for broadening

ways in which gifted students are served. Yet,

even today, programs for gifted students are

frequently under-funded because state and

federal mandates often lack provisions to

provide appropriate services for those who learn

faster than their age-mates (National

Association of Gifted Children, 2016).

Moreover, no coherent or systematic body of

empirical research on policies or classroom

practices for gifted learners has emerged. For

example, despite seventy years of research on

the benefits of acceleration, no consistent policy

on acceleration exists across the states or, more

importantly, systematically implemented in

schools (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004).

Gallagher (2004) warned about policy initiatives

that attempt to improve education by targeting

achievement gaps, specifically citing the

“impressive” unintended but negative

consequences of No Child Left Behind for

students of exceptional ability because of the

law’s focus on bringing students up to levels

deemed proficient by state standards, without

consideration of students who were beyond


In recent years, the needs of students who

must be brought up to standard have been so

politicized that the concept of exceptionality has

come to exclude the exceptional needs of the

highly able student. Mandated minimum

competency testing has created ceiling effects for

highly able students, while states provide little or

no off-level testing to determine appropriate

educational experiences for those who already

meet the standards. However, parents and

educators seeking to address the needs of highly

able students face charges of elitism from

beleaguered educational administrators and


To complicate the matter, where gifted

education resides at the state level dictates the

funding stream as well as subsequent guidelines

and procedures for schools in individual states.

A recent State of the States Report (National

Association of Gifted Children, 2016) revealed

that there has always been a lack of coherence

and consistency in the location of gifted services

at the state level. Is gifted education more akin

to special education or general education?

Lacking a satisfactory answer to this question,

gifted educators face a professional identity

crisis and lack of influence in the educational

arena, at large.

The tension of equity versus excellence has

defined gifted education in the United States for

over two centuries. The need to discuss equity

and excellence within the context of the United

States and other countries is warranted because

Equity and Excellence in Gifted Education 25

educational reform efforts are intrinsically and

explicitly linked to government initiatives,

policies, and public perception. Leveraging

educational reforms for a specific population of

students, such as gifted students, in order to

provide parity with reform efforts, perceptions,

or government initiatives for other groups of

students, such as those with special needs and is

at the minimum, a challenge; and at the

maximum something that may never be

achieved in the United States because providing

resources or services for gifted students is

perceived as elitist (Finn & Hocket, 2012).

Even a few researchers outside of the field

of gifted education have become proponents of

gifted education, citing the nation’s rhetoric

toward equity as a failure of the country to value

its human capital. An incendiary report from the

Thomas B. Fordham Institute (Theaker, et al,

2011) brought into sharp focus the decline in

achievement among the top students in the

United States, those with the potential and

demonstrated capacity to excel in school and

assume leadership roles in the United States and

the global community. This report suggested

that the United States’ brightest students are the

unintended victims of the lofty goals of No Child

Left Behind. They are not making the much

heralded “adequate yearly progress” that is

supposed to characterize school success, but

instead are losing ground when their

performance is tracked over time.

Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B.

Fordham Institute stated that as a country,

Americans all lose by focusing on who is gifted

rather than on what we can do to nurture

intellectual potential: “Collateral victims are a

society and economy that thereby fail to make

the most of this latent human capital.” Finn

(2013) stated further that, “It’s not elitist to pour

more resources into educating our brightest

kids. In fact, the future of the country may

depend on it,” (Finn, 2013, pg. 1). He posited

seven explanations as to why education leaders

and philanthropists fail to take an interest in

gifted students. In brief, they are as follows:

 The country’s nervousness about elitism.

 A widespread belief that “equity” should

be solely about income, minority status,

handicapping conditions, and historical


 A mistaken belief that high-ability

youngsters will do fine, even if the

education system makes no special

provision for them.

 The definition of “gifted” itself has been


 The field of gifted education lacks

convincing research as to what works.

 Whether due to elitism, angst, or a

shortage of resources, the gifted

education world has been meek when it

comes to lobbying and special pleading.

 The wishful proposition that

“differentiated instruction” would

magically enable every teacher to

succeed with every child in a mixed

classroom. (Finn & Hockett, 2012).

The United States must be concerned with

its future workforce in order to ensure its long-

term competitiveness, security and innovation

(Finn & Wright, 2015), and paying attention to

what we do with our brightest students and what

other countries do with their brightest students,

matters (Organisation for Economic Co-

operation and Development, 2014). The United

States must ask not only how it is doing relative

to gifted education, but given the

interdependence of all countries and the global

economy, it must consider how other countries

fare with their brightest. The U.S. produces a

much smaller proportion of advanced students,

according to the Trends in Math and Science

Study (TIMSS, 2015), than our economic

competitors (Plucker, 2016).

Table I displays a sample of countries,

their population, Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

per capita, and national or federal efforts that

26 Global Education Review 4(1)

support or impede gifted education. GDP is

included in the chart because economists

Hanushek and Woessmann (2015) estimate that

a “ten percentage point increase in the share of

top-performing students” within a country “is

associated with 1.3 percentage point higher

annual growth” of that country’s economy.

Table I: Sample countries; their populations, GDP per capita, and federal initiatives

regarding gifted education

Country Population GDP per


Funding, Regulations, or Federal Efforts

in Gifted Education

United States 324 million $56,300  3.5 million for Javits grants

 No federal universally adopted definition

 No federal mandate to identify or serve

 Gifted education is not funded

 National advocacy efforts

S. Korea 49 million $36,700  Gifted Education Promotion Law (2002)

 Master Plan jointly developed by several

government agencies (2008)

Singapore 5.7 million $85,700  Universal screening to all 3rd graders

 1% of the population is offered seats in 9

of the country’s Gifted Education

Program (GEP) programs/schools

 The Singaporean government sees their

gifted students as a national resource in

the political and economic stability of the

nation (Ministry of Education, 2016)

England 51 million $46,300  No national mandate to identify and

serve gifted students

 Historical political skittishness about

gifted education as a way to segregate

through social classes

 Schools are encouraged in their self-

review and planning to include

provisions for identifying and servicing

able gifted pupils

 National advocacy efforts

Finland 5.48 million $41,200  Seen internationally as a “model” in


 Equality focus in education; all children,

regardless of background, should

generally be educated the same

 The focus in education is on learning

rather than testing

 Teachers are highly regarded, given huge

latitude, trusted to do what’s in the best

interests of students, and hold Masters

degree or beyond

27 Global Education Review 4(1)

Beyond Our Borders

The next section highlights several countries and

the degree to which they support or impede

progress in gifted education, by considering the

rules and regulations governing the education of

the country’s brightest students. The selected

countries, South Korea, Singapore, England and

Finland, were chosen to illuminate the diverse

ways of responding to gifted learners from

disparate areas around the world.

Gifted Education in South Korea

South Korea is located in the southern half of the

Korean Peninsula in Eastern Asia. The

educational research organization, the Korean

Educational Development Institute (KEDI)

makes it clear that South Korean society values

and emphasizes educational achievement,

particularly in the areas of math and science,

subjects that constitute approximately 95% of

the country’s gifted programs (Korean

Educational Development Institute, 2011).

Competition amongst students – and their

families – is fierce, as parents make significant

financial sacrifices to ensure that their child is

well prepared for high-stakes high school and

college entrance exams. On average, South

Korean parents spend approximately $1,000 a

month on supplemental education, including

weekend and after-school classes and private

tutors (Finn & Wright, 2015).

South Korea has made strides in its recent

effort to identify and educate gifted learners,

particularly in areas deemed valuable to the

nation’s future, (Korean Educational

Development Institute, 2011). On January 28,

2000, gifted education came to the forefront of a

national discussion of the state of the country’s

educational policy with the enactment of the

Gifted Education Promotion Law. The law,

which went into effect in 2002, to build a firm

foundation for a systematic plan for gifted

education within the country’s public education

system. According to Clause 1, Article 2 of the

law, a gifted and talented person is defined as

“an individual who requires special education to

develop innate potential with an outstanding

talent.” Moreover, the government believes that

“all members of a nation shall have the right to

an education according to their ability and

aptitude, to promote self-actualization and

contribute to the development of society and

nation” (Korean Educational Development

Institute, 2011).

A “Master Plan” for the promotion of

gifted education was jointly developed by

various government entities in 2002 and was

later readopted, with improvements, in 2008.

Several programs were implemented under the

“Master Plan.” On the elementary and middle

levels, gifted students chiefly participate in

STEM related after-school or weekend

programs, either in their own school or through

joint participation with neighboring schools,

universities, or government-funded research and

public service institutions (Korean Educational

Development Institute, 2011). Few gifted schools

or full time gifted classes at this level exist; for

fear that competition between families for spots

would worsen an already high-stress

environment for children. There is a much

stronger emphasis on gifted education at the

high school level than there is on the primary

level and students annually cram to gain

acceptance into these highly coveted full-time

gifted programs. An overwhelming majority of

gifted high schools focus on math and science;

areas in which the country’s students have

performed particularly well on recent global

achievement exams. The South Korean

government values their highly able students

and continues to increase the number and scope

of available programs that will serve to nurture a

wider range of talents.

28 Global Education Review 4(1)

Gifted Education in Singapore

Singapore is an island city-state located off

southern Malaysia in Southeast Asia.

Singaporean students continuously outperform

students from other nations on international

achievement exams, with particularly promising

data from students in the bottom socioeconomic

status (SES) quartile (Finn & Wright, 2015). The

education system, managed by the Ministry of

Education, is divided into three levels,

culminating with post-secondary school for

those who qualify. Education is compulsory at

the first two levels, as all students must attend 6

years of primary school and 4-5 years of

secondary school. While the Ministry of

Education is making efforts to move away from

high-stakes testing, there are still several

important exams, which largely determine

students’ educational fate (Singapore Ministry of

Education, 2016).

Gifted education in Singapore begins in

the middle of primary school and continues

through post-secondary programs. The Ministry

of Education’s mission statement states that the

country is “committed to nurturing gifted

individuals to their full potential for the

fulfillment of self and the betterment of society”

and provides two rationales for the Gifted

Education Program (GEP), titled “The

Educational Factor” and “The Socio-Political

Factor.” The Ministry argues that children have

varying abilities and deserve an education suited

to their pace and needs. Moreover, according to

the Singapore Ministry of Education, properly

nurturing the gifted will help to ensure the small

nation’s progress and prosperity (Singapore

Ministry of Education, 2016). Through its

mission to provide educational excellence to

gifted students, the Ministry also seeks to

increase equity in the population of students in

the GEP, and strategically does not begin testing

until the end of third grade. The Ministry

believes in “leveling the playing field” for all

students. That is, it argues that students from

lower socioeconomic families will have an

increased chance at performing better on gifted

entrance exams after three years of primary

school, as it recognizes that not all children have

the same level of academic exposure prior to the

start of formal schooling. Gifted testing is

universally administered to third graders and

consists of English proficiency, math, and

“general ability” components. The top 8% of

performers on this test sit for another round of

testing two months later, and about 550

students receive GEP offers, which annually

corresponds to about 1% of the student

population. Students who accept offers are

placed into one of the nine GEP centers

throughout the country. The next top 4% of high

performers are designated as “High Ability

Learners” and all schools are encouraged to

differentiate their curriculum to correspond to

these students’ aptitudes. Some schools take this

charge very seriously, creating rigorous

programs of their own for these students, while

others do little to acknowledge these students’

gifts and talents (Finn & Wright, 2015).

At the end of sixth grade, all students,

including those in the GEP, take the highly

competitive Primary School Leaving Exam

(PSLE), which determines their secondary

school placement. Students in the primary GEP

are promoted to the secondary GEP based on

exam results, academic performance, and

teacher ratings (Finn & Wright, 2015). Students

who remain in the GEP can attend one of the

sixteen Integrated Program (IP) schools that

offer a school-based gifted education program,

which are six-year programs that allow students

to proceed to junior college without taking

entrance exams (Singapore Ministry of

Education, 2016). The Singaporean government

sees their gifted students as a national resource

Equity and Excellence in Gifted Education 29

in the political and economic stability of the


Gifted Education in England

England is one of four countries that make up

the United Kingdom (U.K.) and one of the three

that make up Great Britain. The other countries

are Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Ireland is part

of the United Kingdom, but not part of Great


England’s focus on gifted education is to

educate their most able children within the

school system. Social class in the U.K. is akin to

the debate about race in the United States,

therefore, educating their brightest students is

viewed with skepticism and as a form of

segregation by social class. Their approach is to

build on general education rather than placing

gifted education outside of the general education

structure (Eyre, 2004).

From World War II until the 1970s,

England used a form of education known as the

tripartite system of secondary schooling. At the

end of primary school, students sat for an

aptitude test and, based on the results of that

test, were placed into one of three pathways;

grammar schools, secondary modern schools, or

technical-vocational schools. The first, grammar

schools, emphasized preparation for university.

Beginning in the 1960s, the government began

phasing out the tripartite system, leaving only

164 grammar schools and 3,500 secondary

schools. Today, most students attend

comprehensive secondary schools much like the

United States. Currently, no federal policy

guides the education of gifted students in the

primary and middle years. Schools in England

have considerable latitude. English schools still

have national tests, curriculum, and inspections

but educating their brightest students is not a

top priority for the government; and much like

the United States, the implementation of

differentiated curriculum, instructional, and

assessment approaches are idiosyncratic.

However, the Department for Children, Schools,

and Families (2008) defines gifted learners as

“Children and young people with one or more

abilities developed to a level significantly ahead

of their year group (or with the potential to

develop those abilities,” (pg. 31) and produced a

guidance document for schools to use in

developing effective practices in identifying and

serving gifted and talented learners. Included in

the guidance document are recommendations

for including planning for provisions for gifted

learners as schools implement the institutional

quality standards (IQS), a process of self-review

and planning.

There are advocacy efforts such as

Potential Plus UK, which was established in 1967

as an independent charity that works with

families to support children with high learning

potential. The goal is to work with parents and

caregivers, versus schools and teachers. Another

advocacy organization is the National

Association for Able Children in Education

(NACE), whose membership is made up of

teachers and schools. The organization

specializes in supporting teachers to provide

excellent teaching and learning for able, gifted

and talented pupils.

Gifted Education in Finland

Finland is a Northern European Nordic country

and is world-renowned for its educational

excellence. In recent years, Finland has often

been used as a model for countries seeking to

increase their rankings on the worldwide stage.

Although Finland’s recent Programme for

International Student Assessment (PISA) scores

have declined, students still continue to

outperform many Organisation for Economic

Development (OECD) countries, including ones

that spend far more educating their students

(Center on International Education

Benchmarking, 2015).

30 Global Education Review 4(1)

The country’s education system is rooted

in equality: all children, regardless of

background, should generally be educated the

same, with a particular monetary focus on

students who need the most help (Finn &

Wright, 2015). Students are placed in classrooms

with highly able and well-respected educators,

who are given autonomy in their instruction.

Students are only required to take one national

exam (the matriculation exam at the end of

secondary school) in the duration of their public

school years. The Finnish National Board of

Education (FNBE) explains:

The main objective of Finnish

education policy is to offer all citizens

equal opportunities to receive

education. The structure of the

education system reflects these

principles. The system is highly

permeable, that is, there are no dead-

ends preventing progression to higher

levels of education.

The focus in education is on learning

rather than testing. There are no

national tests for pupils in basic

education in Finland. Instead,

teachers are responsible for

assessment in their respective subjects

on the basis of the objectives included

in the curriculum (Finnish National

Board of Education, 2016).

Teachers, who hold Master’s degrees or

higher, are trusted to do what they believe is best

for each individual student, but it is the general

societal belief that no student should receive

“more” or “better” than others.

The Finnish public school system begins

with “basic education” at comprehensive schools

(ages 7-16), with an optional one year of pre-

primary education at age 6. Students can then

elect to enroll in general upper secondary

schools or vocational schools for approximately

3 more years before entering universities or the

workforce. Parents typically enroll their children

in a comprehensive school in their own

community, as it is widely believed that most

schools, regardless of neighborhood, provide a

great education. While the FNBE does not have a

gifted education policy and seems to shy away

from explicitly differentiating high-ability

students from others, parents of “gifted”

children sometimes seek out (or create)

opportunities that will allow their children to be

educated with likeminded children and their

families. Parents sometimes band together to

request specialized classes like Latin within their

child’s school or apply to one of their city’s

specialized arts or music schools (Finn & Wright,

2015). While not termed “gifted” programs,

there are more opportunities for specialized

instruction on the upper secondary level, as

many schools have strict admissions policies:

The selection of students for upper

secondary school is based on their

grade point average for the theoretical

subjects in the basic education

certificate. Entrance and aptitude tests

may also be used, and students may be

awarded points for hobbies and other

relevant activities (Finnish National

Board of Education, 2016).

While gifted education is not a priority in

Finland, it is clear that high-quality teaching is.

In 2014, only 20% of those who participated in

an entrance exam into teaching preparation

programs at Finnish universities were admitted

(Eurydice Network, 2014). Perhaps the most

effective undertaking Finland has made is

prioritizing the hiring of individuals who educate

the country’s students, and entrusting them to

properly differentiate for all of their students.

Equity and Excellence in Gifted Education 31

The United States and the four other

countries reviewed each are unique in their

approaches toward the way they view and

educate their brightest students. There is either

a bend towards equity, educating all students; or

towards recognizing excellence through

specialized programming, funding, or mandates

of its brightest students.

Implications for Policy and


Based on a review of contexts in five countries,

including public perception, mandates, and

value systems about cultivating and sustaining

programs for brightest learners, the following

implications are important to consider.

 Gifted education remains a state and

local control issue in the United States.

Due to the vast number of diverse

identification measures, programming,

funding, and national reform efforts,

achieving coherency of curricula,

teacher preparation, program delivery,

and accountability to provide for the

academic and social-emotional needs of

gifted students will be difficult, at best.

 When there are scarce resources for

educational funding in the United

States. and globally, conflicts occur over

who should be educated. Where this is

the case, gifted students are left out of

the funding allocation and priorities. In

other countries, such as Singapore and

South Korea, that are more monolithic

with less divisive demands for funding,

gifted learners are included within the

educational priorities, reform efforts,

and guidance provided to schools.

 Gifted learners are an integral part of

the overall student population in any

country and therefore, should be

thoughtfully and strategically

considered part and parcel of any

educational efforts, initiatives, and


 Public perception and parent

involvement serve as important vehicles

in any country in serving its brightest

learners. If the gifted student population

is viewed as vital to human capital and

thus national security, programming

and funding follow. If serving gifted

students is perceived as pulling

resources away from the “neediest”

students it is viewed as elitist.

 This is a relationship between a

country’s international test comparisons

of its brightest students and a country’s

gross domestic product.

 Countries tend to use different lenses to

determine the degree to which gifted

students are served. For example, in

Finland, teacher expertise is seen as

fundamental to a strong educational

system, thus an effective teacher can

meet the academic and social emotional

needs of their gifted student population.

In South Korea and Singapore, investing

in the brightest children is a way to

ensure international competitiveness

and cultivate human potential.


The values, traditions, cultures, and politics of

countries shape the perception of equity and

excellence. Unfortunately, the definition of

excellence, which should be an objective and

absolute standard toward which all students

should strive and aspire, has given way to more

subjective meanings laden with values and

context. Equity in school curriculum,

instruction, and assessment has become a belief

in equality of outcomes and that all students,

regardless of their ability levels should receive

identical instruction. As Gallagher noted, in

Yecke’s (2005) book, The War against

32 Global Education Review 4(1)

Excellence, “Efforts to offset economic and social

barriers to cognitive development will succeed in

equalizing academic aptitude only to a certain

degree: Some students will still learn faster than

others, even if the discrepancy between the most

and least rapid learners is decreased,” (Yecke,

2005, pg. 170).

Attempts to meet the needs of gifted

students in the United States, England, and

Finland, have been largely thwarted, denied, or

ignored due to an overriding philosophical bend

toward equity. In every decade, champions for

the gifted have introduced legislation, policies,

research, and pedagogically sound practices in

an effort to provide appropriate challenging

educational experiences for these learners. Yet,

excellence has given way to a definition of equity

that has precluded the needs of the ablest

learners in the school population. Excellence

should not be perceived as a group norm; rather,

it should be viewed as an individual quest for

higher learning seen as in countries such as

Singapore and South Korea. Competition is a

necessary component in society’s idea of success,

but social activists fail to see this when it comes

to gifted and talented students. True educational

equity cannot disallow opportunities to pursue

excellence at appropriate ability levels, areas,

and interests for the individual learner.

Concerns over elitism continue to plague

educators globally seeking to provide

appropriate services for gifted students and to

respond to criticisms of those services

(Spielhagen & Cooper, 2005).

Will there ever be a time when the United

States can embrace all learners, including those

who learn content more quickly, understand

concepts more deeply, and process information

in a more advanced manner? Will the United

States ever consider replicating elements of

other countries programs for gifted students and

implementing it within its borders? Because the

system of education in the United States has

largely been relegated to state and local control,

programs for the gifted are embedded in school

system decisions surrounding curriculum,

instruction, and assessment. Even when there

are national reform efforts that affect all

students, such as Every Student Succeeds Act

(ESSA, 2015), gifted students are (perhaps

unintentionally) left out. Educational provisions

for the gifted are an integral part of the overall

school program, but reform efforts conceptually

do not translate to implementing better

programs for the gifted (Spielhagen, Brown &

Hughes, 2014). When will equitable experiences

founded on excellence in research, excellence in

practice, excellence in policy, and excellence in

funding be employed for all learners, here and



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About the Author(s)

Elissa Brown, PhD, is a Distinguished Lecturer and

Director, of the Hunter College Gifted Center. She is an

education policy fellow under the Institute for Educational

Leadership. Previously, she was the Director of Teacher &

Leader Education Programs and Gifted Education at the

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. From

2002-2007, she was the Director of the Center for Gifted

Education at the College of William and Mary in

Williamsburg, VA. She has served as a state director of gifted

education, a federal grant manager, a district gifted program

coordinator, principal of a specialized high school and a

teacher of gifted students. As a professor, Elissa coordinates

and teaches the Advanced Certificate program in Gifted &

Talented at Hunter College and has served as an adjunct

professor at several universities, including Rutgers and Duke

University. She is a published author in the field of gifted

education and presents widely. She lives in East Harlem,

New York.

Leigh Wishney, MS, is an experienced teacher for over ten

years both in general education and gifted education

classrooms. Currently, she is serving on her school’s

leadership team to implement best practices in gifted

education in her Title I school in Bronx, NY. She holds a

Masters in Education and a gifted education extension


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