Part of the problem is that educators, psychologists, and politicians can't agree on what "gifted" really means. Until the 1970s, the term was applied only to those scoring above a certain level (usually 130) on standard IQ tests. But in 1972, a Department of Education report established a broader definition that recognized giftedness in creativity, leadership, and the visual and performing arts. It encouraged states to provide special services for extraordinary learners but didn't make gifted programs mandatory.
Due to the lack of federal standards, decisions about gifted programs are left to the states and districts. This means there is a wide variability in the type of programs available and who qualifies for them. Some start in kindergarten, others not until second or third grade. Some school districts group gifted children in special classes; others provide pull-out programs or mainstream them into regular classes where teachers work separately with them. Although gifted kids may be allowed to skip a grade, schools and parents are often reluctant to accelerate kids because they're afraid a child will be out of place socially in a class with older kids, says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., director of the Family Achievement Clinic, in Cleveland, and author of Keys to Parenting the Gifted Child. "However, research clearly shows that kids who skip grades do fine academically and socially." This may be just what they need to be truly challenged and have a love of learning.
But let's acknowledge the elephant in the room: The lack of options for gifted kids may also be due to the ambivalence Americans feel about anything that smacks of elitism. Why should exceptionally bright kids be singled out for special services when so many kids struggle just to read and write? Shouldn't cash-strapped schools put what little money they do have into enrichment that benefits kids who are falling behind?
"There is a deep misunderstanding about programs for intellectually gifted kids," says David Henry Feldman, Ph.D., professor of child development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. "Of course, children with learning disabilities or special needs deserve all we can give them. But equal education means giving everyone equal opportunities to learn, not teaching everyone the same way."