Skip to content

What if Special Education Students got Gifted Education Treatment?

July 25, 2014

Response to Intervention diagram from Edina Schools

Response to Intervention diagram from Edina Schools

Every Bell curve has two tails.  Every line has two ends.  In education, we have special needs students and gifted needs students*.  What if we switched the treatment for those groups?

First, we’ll guarantee every academically or creatively gifted student a “Free Appropriate Public Education”.  Special education students will have no such guarantee, but be subject to a patchwork of state laws and district policies.  Some states will have great laws for special education students.  Some will have none.  Some districts will have magnet classrooms.  Some will have a failed policy of differentiation.


Map of State Policy from the Davidson Institute

Map of State Policy from the Davidson Institute


Second, the funding will be exchanged.  State and federal funding will be approximately $50 billion for gifted students, averaging an extra $5,918 per gifted student.  For special education students, federal funding this year would total $5 million, or 1/10,000 the funding for gifted students.  Depending on how special education students are counted, this could be less than $2 of funding per student.  State laws will vary greatly.  Some will fully fund special education.  Others will provide no funding whatsoever, even if there is a state mandate requiring some special education services.

Third, all gifted students will be identified through well-constructed tests and metrics that determine their areas and levels of academic giftedness and creativity.  To best suit their individual needs, categories of mildly, highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted will be recorded and schools will test for abilities in individual subjects, recognizing that a student can have high ability in one area but not in another.  Special needs students will sometimes be identified, lumped into a single level of special needs, and only be considered for special education if they exhibit disabilities in all areas.

Fourth, every teacher will be required to take a college course on gifted and creative learners and frequent professional development will be provided regarding gifted education.  Learning consultants and para-professionals will be available to assist with gifted education.  Unfortunately, no colleges will require prospective teachers to take a course in special education and most won’t even offer such a course as an elective.

Fifth, each gifted learner will be under an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  This program will be established through meetings with the parents, teachers, learning consultants, gifted education teachers, and any other necessary personnel.  Annual goals will be established and education provided will be measured against these goals.  Special education parents will have to hope that they get a sympathetic teacher who will attempt to make some accommodations to meet each child’s individual needs.  The school will not be accountable to meeting goals and progress may or may not be measured and recorded.  Services provided will vary greatly each year based on the teacher’s beliefs about special education and the commitment of the school.

Sixth, gifted parents will have a Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) to work with the school district for ” the purpose of obtaining the finest programs and services available.”  There will be an understanding that parents of gifted students bring a unique perspective and provide necessary information on providing gifted services.  Parents of special needs students will not have a representative committee, will receive limited information about district plans regarding special education, and will rarely have their input sought.  Only after policies have been developed will special education parents be notified of the changes that will affect their children.


Would you be outraged at how we now treated our special education students?  I certainly would be and I think that most parents, even those without special needs students would be.

The above was very simplified and not meant diminish the struggles that special education parents often face with schools or the real difficulties encountered raising a special needs child.  It is a recognition that the attitudes, policies, and experiences encountered in the schools are very different for special education and gifted education families.

It was just a mental exercise.  I don’t suggest ANY reduction to special education funding or services, just that we recognize that there is another group of students that desperately needs funding and services.  We should be outraged when our schools are failing to appropriately educate any students, regardless of what their needs are.

According to the 1972 Marland Report, Education of the gifted and talented: Report to the Congress of the United States by the U.S. Commissioner of Education, “Gifted and Talented children are, in fact, deprived and can suffer psychological damage and permanent impairment of their abilities to function well which is equal to or greater than the similar deprivation suffered by any other population with special needs served by the Office of Education.”  Although the former U.S. Commissioner of Education recognized the needs of gifted learners, the federal government has not followed up with appropriate measures.

Some states have recognized that gifted education is a form of special education and have incorporated gifted services into their special education services.  Gifted advocates and special education advocates are allies, both trying to change a one-size-fits-all system to accommodate children who learn differently.

Public education must have a commitment to all students.  When it fails to appropriately educate a group of students, it is failing in its mission and needs to be held accountable. Educators need to be trained to meet the needs, districts must develop policies and procedures, and budgets crafted to meet the needs of both gifted and special education students. I hope this exercise will help others understand the enormous work that still needs to be done to meet the needs of gifted learners.

*What about twice-exceptional students who are both gifted and special needs?  For purposes of this exercise, switch how those needs are treated.  2E parents probably understand the difference in treatment better than most.  Often 2E children receive services for their special needs, but not for their giftedness or may be excluded from gifted programs due to their special needs.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together we can make a difference for gifted children!

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Theresa permalink
    July 29, 2014 5:49 PM

    Your point is well made, and I agree that we do an abysmal job of supporting the needs of gifted learners. But I have to say, your piece comes off as “if those SPED kids didn’t get so many resources, well then the smart kids could get some.”

    I understand it is a mental exercise – but one that divides, rather than bridges. It is not one group against another in the real world. The two groups and their families should be working together for equity for both ends of the bell curve – not feeling slighted because one group gets protections that the other group doesn’t have.

    The other group also “gets” a huge amount of stigma, segregation, discrimination, and 80-90% unemployment when they graduate – if they do. Do you want some of that too?

    • July 29, 2014 9:57 PM

      Theresa, I absolutely understand what you saying and tried to make it not come off that way. As I stated, I don’t want any reduction in special education services and believe those services to be necessary.

      Both groups have needs, but one gets support and the other doesn’t. If support for special needs kids were cut to gifted education levels, people would be rightfully outraged.

      Unfortunately, gifted kids also face social ostracization, name-calling, and problems with employment. Gifted kids also have social and emotional issues experts view as similar to special needs children.

      Gifted advocates would welcome the chance to work with special needs advocates. Unfortunately, many special needs advocates are concerned that gifted education will mean cuts for special education and only see the positive sides of being gifted. They don’t see parents freaked out that their gifted children have never learned to work hard, overcome obstacles, or recover from failure. They don’t see the gifted girl who pretends she isn’t smart just so she can have friends. They don’t see the gifted boy who gets bullied daily.

      Gifted people get why special education is so important because they face the same issues of not fitting in academically or socially. We don’t want special education cut, but we do want people to realize it isn’t OK to ignore gifted students.

      • Theresa permalink
        July 29, 2014 10:19 PM

        Agreed. 🙂 Everyone should work together instead of clinging to a scarcity mentality that isn’t helping anyone. And yes, our gifted students don’t have it easy in school to be certain.

        I feel like I understand your perspective and I agree with it….and there is one thing that is bothing me still.

        Without special education for your third tier students there are serious questions about quality of life issues. Not “are they living to their full potential” questions, but can this person go to the bathroom independently? Feed themselves? Cook a meal? Get dressed without a helper? Communicate when they are injured or sick? Understand basic street safety? Keep themselves from self-harming until they are hospitalized? Attend a job…any job…even the most menial?

        Our most severely impacted students, without special education that teaches them key life skills, cannot live as adults without significant, daily resources from the state. It is different than the other side of the bell curve when we are talking about lost potential, self-esteem, self-worth. Those losses to those children are not ok either…but it is an entirely different question of need.

        In some ways, a third world problem versus a first world problem.

        It is just a perspective I thought was important to bring forth. Thank you for listening!

  2. Dena permalink
    July 31, 2014 9:46 AM

    I do so appreciate your attempt at shining a light on the disparity of educational opportunity afforded to the gifted student. I can’t imagine how any parent (other than the parent of a gifted child,) would react to six years of zero growth in school. Society in general would be outraged but because the child is gifted, the prevailing attitude is “so what”. I have often stated that I wouldn’t wish the heartbreak, isolation, fear and frustration of raising a gifted child on anyone. It is a very complex minefield. I think EVERY child should have the right to a quality education. I personally am sick and tired of the dismissive attitude toward the gifted. “They will be fine”, “Oh what a problem to have”, “Why don’t the gifted just help the special needs students? Everybody wins, right?” It is not acceptable for any student to spend year after year learning nothing, and yet people react as though I’m elitist, that I think my child is better than the other students. He isn’t “better” he is different, he learns differently, he experiences the world differently and he is isolated from his classmates because of it. The students all know he is as different as the special needs child and yet this fact seems to have all to often escaped his teachers. There are times when it seems that there isn’t any room in our society for a child like this. School is a place of boredom, ridicule and isolation. Yet to place him where it would be academically appropriate would present a whole host of social issues. He is academically ready for college, socially & emotionally he is not, nor do I think it is appropriate to saddle a child with a college work load. I think that the heart of this post is to point out that we as a society have made a place for those with special needs, unless those special needs are those of the gifted population.

  3. October 28, 2016 11:55 PM

    sadly, It is one group against the other in the real world. And the system is set up to make it so. And the mental exercise is brilliant and apropos. Thank you.

  4. October 28, 2016 11:57 PM

    Sadly, it is one group against the other in the real world. And that is what it boils down to with funding, and the system is set up to make that so. The mental exercise is brilliant. Thank you.

  5. Doug permalink
    May 29, 2018 7:25 PM

    In many ways we forget that it is likely those gifted students that will be the innovators, the engineers, the scientist, etc that will drive forward innovation. Should they not be the one’s to receive the greater portion of aid as they will likely be more vital to the economic security of this country and furthering their education is ensuring this country is relevant in the coming decades? Other countries ARE providing differentiated instruction and providing the resources to let their gifted children excel. If we are not we will be left behind, wages will drop and the quality of life of the general population will decrease. We will no longer be able to sustain our lifestyle and will likely revert to the working conditions of 5 generations ago (1900) where are children were forced into factories, work weeks were 80 hours or more, and some industries had 1 in 3 workers die on the job. The same conditions found in many “third” world countries. Perhaps we will not fall so far, but if other countries are consistently out doing us, being the innovators, and developing the industry to be first world countries we will absolutely see our quality of life erode and those that are most effected will be those in low paying position. While it would be nice to see a world where no matter what genetic gifts you are born with you would still see the same wage for the same effort, a world where those of lesser intelligence or possessing physical limitations don’t receive less pay or are required to worker harder or longer for the same pay this is not the world we currently live in and the sweeping changes required to build this world before we are overcome by our competitors is unrealistic, idealistic, and frankly impossible. This all boils down to the fact that if we are not nurturing our gifted to the greatest extent possible we are creating a reality for this country where those who need special education are likely to suffer as the general quality of life decreases. This is apparent when looking at the statistics of what percent of special needs students obtain high paying jobs. At best, in the educational system we may be able to graduate a higher percentage of special needs children with college degrees, but the reality is that in the current market, if you don’t have the right degree (STEM, Medical, etc) you are unlikely to get a job. Even if you have those degrees, if you don’t maintain a GPA over 3.0 you are still unlikely to find suitable employment (the good jobs don’t even accept resumes if you don’t have that 3.0 some if you don’t have a 3.5). This means unless the special needs students are getting excellent grades in difficult programs they are unlikely to obtain high paying jobs even if they happen to get a job working in their chosen field it will likely make very little more than a comparative job as a cook in a restaurant or a manager of a fast food chain.

    Then we need to consider the reality that schools are going bankrupt. We as a society have failed to maintain our schools and invest in their infrastructure. Our education system is falling behind and there is little we can do. As the baby boomer generation is retiring they are moving to a fixed income and no longer have the funds to reinvigorate our school system. The millennial’s on average have 30% less discretionary income than the baby boomers coupled with grossly inflated debt due to the rising costs of housing and education. For example, during the baby boomer generation it was a general rule that to be fiscally responsible you wouldn’t go in debt for a home loan that exceeded your gross income for one year, millennials often have to take out loans in excess of five times their annual gross household income and this is in an age where it is much more common for women to be in the workforce and occupying higher paid jobs (though still much less than a man for the same jobs, but that’s another story I am instead referring to an increase in the number of positions that women are allowed to occupy), So in general it is unlikely that the millennial generation has the financial ability to rehabilitate our school system.

    We also have to consider that their will be an ever decreasing job pools as a greater and greater number of jobs are automated. The current estimate is that in 20 years 45% of jobs will be able to be automated. This will either result in those people loosing their jobs and entering into unemployment, or working at greatly reduced wages, decreased workplace safety, and longer working hours due to competing with a machine that never sleeps, needs no medical insurance, never goes on strikes, and never makes human errors. This is the reality our children (and us) will face in the coming decades. It is terrible, but their is little we can do.

    Also due to an ever expanding world population, farming practices that degrade the soil, and an inability to use more sustainable methods while still being able to compete with large scale unsustainable industrial farming are very quickly going to lead to a shortage of food and mass famines. For example, world rice production has failed to meet the growing demand due to population expansion for a number of years now. Starvation in third world countries is imminent and our “only” solution is the development of a new type of rice through genetic engineering and changing the nature photosynthesis in rice from a C3 plant to a C4 plant and while potentially pushing this problem off for a generation or two, it is still entirely hypothetical, a dream, a possibility, but not reality. The reality is that we do not currently have a solution, but are working on it…and have been for years…

    Then there are reports from the USDA that state that the worlds topsoil in currently farmed areas will be depleted in 20 years. They have some optimism for scientific advancement and new technologies to avoid this fate, but again the report is 5 years old and little has changed in the basic methodology of farming practices to stem of this impending famine. We are still losing up to 6 inches of top soil a year in our best farming areas. Aquifers are collapsing across the globe which take thousands of years to reform half of the country is in a water debt and little action is taken. Our society is a house of cards ready to collapse unless we have great innovation.

    So I ask again, should we not be pooling our resources to ensure that our greatest minds will be able to solve these issues. Should we not be providing them the greatest opportunity to succeed, should we not provide a vastly superior education to those who can handle it? Or should we reduce them to mediocrity, boredom, and stunt their growth and progress so that someone’s feelings don’t get hurt, or so that someone who is struggling can make a few thousand dollars more per year when the reality is that such actions may be condemning millions or billions to their deaths if we fail to meet the innovative and technological demands placed upon our generation.

    Personally I am not too worried, I am what you call “gifted”. I will be fine either way. A huge population reduction though sounds pretty advantageous to the future of my family. Not being calloused, I try to inform people….no one listens, no one reads the scientific studies, publications by entities like the USDA, or even basic geology textbooks. People choose ignorance, because reality is bleak and that can only go on for so long…and we have just about exhausted our window to change things. We need those bright scientists and engineers, we need those gifted students and we need to pave their way any way we can. Our children’s very lives depend on it.


  1. Where is Education Emphasized? – Eng.Ed. Home
  2. Meeting Gifted Students' Special Needs | Oak Crest Academy

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: