Opinion | Michigan schools must stop ignoring gifted education

Sherry Sparks is an education consultant and past president of the Michigan Association for Gifted Children

Michigan’s School Finance Research Collaborative, currently touted as the preferred roadmap for increased school funding and distribution of those funds, only studied special and regular education. It completely ignored education for advanced and gifted learners.

Why does that matter?

School funding is both an education issue and a national security issue. Gifted education is not currently on our legislative or state government administrative radar, but if it becomes apparent only in the future, it will be too late to fix. 

Many recall when the Russians shocked America with Sputnik, the first satellite launched into space in 1957. At that moment, gifted education and individuals became essential to the U.S. government. Michigan funded gifted education from 1994-2009. Now, though, Michigan is currently at the bottom in the nation in providing gifted education

This is an insidious blind spot because the world has grown more dangerous, interconnected and vulnerable since Sputnik. All U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Russia interfered in our 2016 election process and today China is spreading its influence around the globe setting out to establish itself as the next No. 1 superpower.

As a strategy to achieve world influence, China has allocated $500 billion to locate every gifted child in the country and ensure each one receives a gifted education. China believes, as America once did, that gifted individuals have rare capabilities and therefore are invaluable to any country striving to fulfill its aspirations. 

It’s no secret that America’s high-ability students are not keeping pace with their peers around the world. China tops the charts on the most recent international tests while U.S. students, even in historically high performing school districts, fall farther behind. As other states and nations are redoubling their commitment to identify and serve high-potential learners, Michigan is failing these students, jeopardizing our future economic well-being in the process.

Julian Stanley from Johns Hopkins University wrote, “If we want young gifted people to be prepared when society needs them, we need to be there for them when they need us.” 

Well-educated, actualized, gifted children, youth and adults have the potential to transform America’s future. They predict vocational trends and needs and bring into existence innovations such as effective cyber technologies, systems that generate financial wealth, designs for efficient military strategies and equipment, and productive advanced technologies and infrastructure designs. 

Unintended consequences exist because we turned a blind eye to Michigan’s advanced and gifted children:

  • Eliminating gifted education hurt every Michigan child, not just gifted ones. Michigan’s standards are written at exceedingly high academic levels as is gifted education; however, most Michigan universities, colleges and school districts stopped offering courses and teacher training in gifted education when Section 57 was cut from the Michigan School Aid Act in 2009. As a result, very few Michigan teachers are trained in gifted education. Recent data show our state is not reaching the high bar of Michigan’s standards. Academically, Michigan is in the bottom third in our nation and at the bottom in overall student growth. Funding and providing gifted education teacher training to every Michigan teacher can help all Michigan children excel.
  • Misconceptions and myths persist about gifted children including: (1) all gifted children are white and come from wealthy families that give them what they need; (2) gifted children will do fine on their own so leave them to fend for themselves; (3) gifted children will magically make growth gains without a state mandate for gifted education, without identifying and knowing who and where they are, and without qualified gifted teachers; (4) and gifted children are socially and emotionally able to withstand low expectations for them, daily lessons that review previously learned rather than new content, and the stress and pain of being different. None of the above is true. In fact, outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor.
  • Americans invest heavily in training and acquiring talented athletes with the great promise of success in every sport, yet Michigan refuses to invest in gifted education and children with the capability for keeping our state and nation on the cutting edge in every field of endeavor and keeping us safe.

Further, public opinion on education for gifted kids is changing. A 2018 study (by California-based Institute for Educational Advancement, which promotes gifted education) showed that across the board, the greatest concerns were for increased identification and access to gifted services among minority and low-income students, and increased professional development for all teachers of the gifted:               

  • 90 percent support improved funding to help train teachers who identify and serve gifted children.
  • 89 percent support improved funding to help train teachers who are educating teachers in gifted education.
  • 86 percent support requirements that any teacher who serves gifted children receives special training.
  • 86 percent support additional funding to schools in underserved communities specifically to support programs for gifted students. 

All Michiganders want the best education for all our children. Let’s reflect on the past and present, envision, correct and act to create a preferred future.

All Michigan children matter and teacher training in gifted education can improve academic success for all of them. We hurt our children, our state’s academic standing and our nation if we ignore any of them and what they have to contribute. 

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Tue, 04/30/2019 - 6:51pm

From what I have heard the word "gifted" is applied very unevenly in Michigan schools with parents in some school districts putting pressure on the school district to get their kid in a "gifted" class as a status symbol kind of thing whether they are truly gifted or not.

Gary Lea
Tue, 04/30/2019 - 8:17pm

Okay, what have you heard about Michigan parents and schools?

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 10:02pm

Exactly as I explained it.

Some Mom
Tue, 04/30/2019 - 9:49pm

Unfortunately that can be true. And some gifted kids just don't fit the holes a district expects. They're the ones who can't get into a district's gifted program in KG or 2nd grade, but if they are lucky enough, like my kid, to have parents who can figure out how to meet their needs, will be taking college classes in 9th grade and go off to college with 4 years of that kind of academic experience. I know several parents whose kids got into our district's dedicated elementary program, but chose to leave.

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 1:00am

It is disappointing that Ms. Sparks doesn't describe how that money should be spent and the type of results it should deliver, without those it sounds just like any other government program grab for more tax dollars.
One of the concerns I have is the emphasis on test results, what should we expect from such additional spending, will there be a measurable improvements, will it change their performance in post high school education[more degrees, more certifications], how will it change their lives [additional income]?
Another concern is how will labeling kids as ‘gifted’ [a term I have not seen clearly defined] change their social lives, will it create a burden, will it establish a stereotype of a ‘gifted’ person, will it raise expectations. I would rather see the emphasis on opportunities and exposure to more things that the student can pursue and grow into. As an example of 'gifted' student stigma is the AP classes, it overweight's the classes without ensuring the value, if a student isn't taking an AP class they aren't seen as ‘gifted’ and yet they may gain more interest and do outside learning in non-AP classes, and do schools have a consistent standard of what is a ‘gifted’ student program.
How will a gifted student program matter after high school graduation, will it make them a better teacher, a better accountant, a better reporter, a better engineer, a better welder, a better IT technician? Post-graduation is the great equalizer that shifts how people use their learning.
As for Sputnik, that was a one-time event and is irrelevant, we are the most creative country per capita in the world, it is our culture that allows people by interest and effort be creative above their capabilities, it is the collective wisdom of group with diverse perspectives that keeping America improving the world with ideas and practices. I want each student to have the opportunity to grow to maximize their capabilities, but to simply create a label and stick it on a program to get more money firther diminishes the credibility and acceptance of government programs and spending.

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 9:41am

Again, we see everything in our world moving towards more and greater individualized custom products and service EXCEPT for K -12 schools! Here we get the usual school assignment by zip code forced on everyone (unless they process the wealth to bypass it) because of the tight bond between the teacher's unions and one of the main political parties. If you want to wreck something make it a free governmental entitlement.

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 11:04am

That's nonsense. Michigan is among the top six states nationally in terms of charter school enrollments and a national leader in school choice. School assignments are a function of zip code insofar as they reflect the geography of where people live, which is the primary hurdle families face in choosing a school, not unions or the the Democratic party. But please by all means take your cheap shots at public education. After all, it is the single best explanation for America's rise as a global superpower. Maybe you weren't aware of that. Also, keep in mind your views put you in opposition with the founding fathers. They recognized that some "government entitlements" are essential to the future of our country. After all, that is why Thomas Jefferson included both a philosophical justification for public education and funding to support it in the Ordinance of 1787. You can read about it here:
And while I'm at it, why do you call it a "free" government entitlement? There is nothing free about it. It is the number one item in our state budget, and for good reason.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:34pm

And this is exhibit one for why the US spends at the top of the chart for educating our kids K - 12 and yet gets sub par results. While at the same time student from the world over want to come to our U.s.

Melissa Jenkins
Wed, 05/01/2019 - 10:29am

Many gifted kids who are under challenged in school become disillusioned with the school system and typically underachieve. In extreme cases, they may even drop out of school without graduating and some get into trouble. A challenged gifted child will thrive in school and learn with an incredible depth and breadth of learning. This child is much more likely to be confident in his/her abilities and go on to higher education. Supported gifted individuals go on to become productive members of society and may even make great discoveries. It is quite easy to determine whether a child is gifted or not through IQ and/or achievement testing. Gifted kids can be given the opportunity to skip grades and/or sign up for advanced classes, without costing the school system an extra cent. Accelerated programs and cluster grouping can help keep gifted kids challenged at minimum expense to the school system. Including a few gifted education classes in Michigan teacher training and making them mandatory should not cost that much either. Doing this can bring immeasurable intellectual wealth to Michigan and help the economy overall. So why not fund it, even to a small degree? Gifted children don't need a lot of financial help to thrive. Let's please consider giving them at least a small budget! If you want to learn more about gifted children in Michigan, please check out my website: www.giftedinmichigan.com or join my facebook group "Gifted In Michigan". Other great organizations are the Michigan Association for Gifted Children (http://mygiftedchild.org/) and Southeast Michigan Mensa (https://mensadetroit.com/).

Laura M.
Wed, 05/01/2019 - 4:44pm

This was absolutely what happened in my case. I went to a private school through 4th grade where I was being prepared, and conditioned to skip 7th and 8th grade. I had the highest grades of all elementary level. My parents could no longer afford that level of education for me so I switched to public school. I went into 5th grade and passed by the skin of my teeth. This continued throughout my school career. I always had great math teachers who would teach and give me work separately, while letting me help my peers with their work. I would skip classes all year just to show up and pass the final with flying colors. Those teachers couldn't stand me. I dropped out the same month I turned 16 to get my GED the year I was supposed to graduate. I feel like the average person are those who argue against this. Our public school system is okay for most people, and has helped us excel as a country in the past. However those of us who are truly gifted have the ability to do great things, not just average. Those of us who are average be average. You are so important to society. Those of us who have more ability need to be appreciated. Those minds need to be prepared, and worked to their full potential.

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 11:09am

This piece is high on patriotism and low on evidence. I'm willing to buy the general premise, but can you give us a more detailed policy picture here? What are other states doing? How much does it cost? How many Michigan students might be eligible? How would we implement it?

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:47am

My husband's job moved to Michigan and we did not accompany him due to this issue - he comes home on weekends.

The verb "teaching" requires that someone is learning. If a child does not gain a years worth of growth after sitting in a classroom for a year, the education was not appropriate.

The general guideline other states are using are cognitively gifted (top 5% on IQ measures) or Academically gifted (top 5% in nationally ranked achievement test in multiple subjects).

I have a middle-school aged kid testing in the top 2% of the grade above what he actually is in. If we moved to Michigan our options would be limited to online metro Detroit (not where we need to be) or waiting until 9th grade and putting him in with the seniors.

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 6:38pm

How do I say this, it applies to many comments and a consideration for those hyping 'gifted' programs and I only use this comment because it brings out a sense of exclusiveness for the 'gifted.'
I don't know what a 'gifted' person is because I think it takes a whole person to succeed.
I have heard about those testing out with high IQs and have known some, I have known some of those that always were the quickest to grasp the subject no matter how challenging and how advanced it was, but without the understanding and skills to work within the broader environment they did not always succeed in applying all that they knew and understood. This wasn't as apparent in the lower grades, more so in high school, it more obvious in the college classrooms and was most in the workplace with peers, they had 'the' answer but didn't know how to apply it or describe it so others could use it. I have even seen those who have had the opportunity to apply their capacities to learning be challenged and be shown less creative/innovative than those without the level or quality of the education of the 'gifted', even to the point where the 'gifted' did not accept the competing approach and even the individuals presenting it. The best way to describe them was to put them in a room, slip the problem under the door and have them slip the answer back.

I make this point is because too much of the flavor of the article and comments gives the impression of the exclusivity [activities away from the less 'gifted'] of the 'gifted' and the programs they deserve. My concern is the passion is providing for the 'gifted' to the exclusion of the whole person. I say this from being the least 'gifted' of my wife and daughters, my son-in-laws, and if by academics success in school is an indication even our grandkids. So what have I been able to offer all of these others is expanding their environment, appreciation of personal skills beyond knowledge. The 'gifted' seldom have to struggle to learn or succeed, so I was able to offer them the value of persistence and how that is necessary beyond the classroom, even in the cloistered world of academia the environment is not so control that adaptation and communications are skills necessary to have to find the opportunity to use your knowledge and skills, to compete in the world of the competition of ideas and innovation, to understand others' ideas, to think differently from what you have been taught, from what the group is thinking, from what others are thinking, to look for different perspectives.

My concern is the way education programs for the 'gifted' are presented and seem to be perceived lends to an approach of exclusivity and isolation for the students.

I appreciate the high IQ, I appreciate those who have extremely quickly recall, those that have superior learning skills, I believe it is important to keep the growing minds of kids excited with newness and wonder, but don't become so preoccupied with that to ignore the whole of the student and that after high school the world for them will change drastically and they need to be prepared for that as they will be there longer than they were in school.
There are many schools north and west of Detroit that are very effective at educating the 'gifted' students, they may have a long commute but they do allow one to be home nightly.

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 12:38pm

My understanding is that it would not be legal for a school, charter or other to say they require a certain score on a test to qualify for admittance to their school? Given this, it's hard to see how your curriculum wouldn't always be dragged back to the median ... or lower. Probably woldn't pass the political correctness police anyway.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:47am

My husband's job moved to Michigan and we did not accompany him due to this issue - he comes home on weekends.

The verb "teaching" requires that someone is learning. If a child does not gain a years worth of growth after sitting in a classroom for a year, the education was not appropriate.

The general guideline other states are using are cognitively gifted (top 5% on IQ measures) or Academically gifted (top 5% in nationally ranked achievement test in multiple subjects).

I have a middle-school aged kid testing in the top 2% of the grade above what he actually is in. If we moved to Michigan our options would be limited to online metro Detroit (not where we need to be) or waiting until 9th grade and putting him in with the seniors.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:21am

With my own children, I have seen the enormous difference gifted education can make. In first and second grade, my youngest daughter made almost no progress in reading. In one of the best school districts in Michigan, the learning consultant and teachers didn't notice that her Fountas & Pinnell reading level hadn't changed in over a year because it was still ahead of grade level. Attempting to accelerate in math was difficult, so she remained at grade level.

In third grade, she started at Avondale's gifted program. Her teacher evaluated her reading level, set a growth goal, and took steps to help her learn. In math, testing indicated she should move up a level, so they put her in fourth grade math. Shortly after, her teacher contacted us to move her up to fifth grade level math. School-initiated acceleration never happened in her former district.

What did acceleration mean to her? In second grade, math literally bored her to tears. Math homework time goes much easier now. Sometimes there is frustration because it can be hard, but she is learning great skills in overcoming obstacles. Often a small amount of help and she wraps up her homework quickly.

Science and social studies have been great! Not only do they go further in depth, but they connect it to other subjects and real life. When my older daughters have asked their middle school teachers about learning at the same depth, their teachers have told them their classmates aren't ready. How frustrating to want to learn more, but being told to stay with the class.

Academically has been wonderful, but socially and emotionally have been the real blessings! She is so much happier, she feels her abilities are welcome, and she has friends that understand and value her. This is something I've heard from many parents in the school in regards to their own children.

She is learning to work hard, overcome obstacles, and recover from failure. What good is the brightest individual who doesn't have those life skills?

Will she be Michigan's next great innovator? Probably not, but there is a much greater chance now for her and for the kids in her class. Studies have shown more patents, seminal works of art and literature, and historic achievements from students educated through gifted education than the same IQ students who don't receive it. One shining example is Google, whose Sergey Brin and Larry Page both received gifted support in school and at home. Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg, and Terrance Tao all also took part in gifted education programs. Sputnik is not a one-time event. Sputnik is one event in a chain of many events that have transformed the world.

Michigan has a choice. We can continue to not support gifted learners and lose the greatness they can bring our state. Or we can provide gifted education and reap the benefits of the highly intelligent and highly educated top 5-7% of the population that are most likely to create jobs and innovate Michigan companies to the very top! Investing in kids is investing in the future.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:40pm

Is cuz the program is racists. Gifted is for rich white kids. My beautiful black babies is more smart but I don't get no money for them.