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22 Global Education Review 4(1)

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 …

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