Myla Goldberg’s novel Bee Season opens with an account of a traumatic moment in Eliza Naumann’s young life: when she doesn’t get picked to be in her elementary school’s Talented and Gifted program. Though only in second grade, she becomes “a student from whom great things should not be expected,” doomed to a classroom full of “C students who never get picked for Student of the Week, sixth-place winners who never get a ribbon, and short, pigeon-toed girls who never get chased by boys at recess.”
This passage is mostly sly hyperbole, but it highlights an assumption that a lot of students and parents alike make about gifted and talented programs: that they dramatically affect a child’s academic outcomes. If you make the cut, you’re destined for a life of success; if not, you’re cursed.
But the positive effects of talented and gifted programs may be overstated, according to a recent study in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. Scott Imberman, Sa A. Bui, and Steven G. Craig analyzed the standardized test scores of more than 14,000 fifth-graders in an urban school district in the United States. They focused on students who just barely made the threshold for their schools’ gifted and talented programs—and those who just barely missed it. The goal was to compare how students of roughly the same abilities do when they’re in gifted classes with how they do in regular classes. If the gifted and talented programs are effective, then the marginal students should end up with higher test scores than the marginal students in regular classes. If they’re not effective, then both sets of students would have around the same scores.