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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!

8 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.


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

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