Commentary: The Major Purpose of Gifted Education Programs

Joseph S. Renzulli
University of Connecticut

It is better to have imprecise
answers to the right questions
than precise answers to
the wrong questions.

Donald Campbell


In a recent Hechinger Report (April 19, 2021) entitled “PROOF POINTS: Gifted Programs Provide Little to No Academic Boost, New Study Says,” the author cites a recent research study Redding & Grissom (2021) based on the same old way most researchers gather data on any types of school performance. And the article has been picked up by several news feeds using headlines such as “Study: Gifted Programs Not Beneficial.”

If the author and cited researchers believe that focusing on common core standards and increasing reading and math scores on standardized achievement test are the major goals for gifted education, they simply do not understand the difference between lesson-learning giftedness and creative productive giftedness. The major goal of gifted education is not to standardize young learners. Rather, most people in the field believe such programs will contribute to the reservoir of people who contribute to creative innovations in the arts and sciences and to all areas of human endeavor designed to make the world a better place.

Providing an inductive, investigative, and inquiry-based pedagogy rather the traditional deductive, didactic, and prescriptive brand of learning is a major goal of today’s gifted education programs. The focus is on applying knowledge-of and knowledge-how to real-world problems and situations in ways that model the modus operandi of the practicing professional, even if at a junior level of adult professionals. This approach increases collaboration, cooperation, the development of thinking skills and creativity, construction of models, scientific and artistic contributions, and preparation of publications and other creative products.

When it is argued that the prime mission of gifted education is to raise scores on high-stakes tests, we should not ignore the fact that people who make high-level contributions in their respective fields are a function of their interests, task commitment, analytic and creative thinking skills, and a range of executive function skills necessary for getting a job done. These kinds of introspective and exploratory skills are the things we should be using to determine the effectiveness of gifted and talented programs rather than just looking at test score increases. And although these skills cannot be measured as precisely as math and reading test scores, they are the things that count when it comes to developing creative and productive giftedness.

These skills cannot be developed through the sit-memorize-and-repeat teaching that improves the standardized test scores most researchers use as the dependent variables in their studies. Rather, an inductive and innovative pedagogy teaches young people how to find and focus a problem in which they have developed an interest and to apply investigative methodologies. Expert advice from adults, how-to books, and virtually unlimited Internet tools are necessary resources to gain advice from their teachers. And like practicing professionals, students must explore various product formats and potential audiences for their final products, performances, and presentations and other modes of communication.

If we are going to evaluate and pass judgment on the importance and value of gifted education programs, we must first and foremost examine the main purpose of these programs, which, as mentioned above, is to increase the world’s reservoir of creative and productive people. A good model for this brand of evaluation might be the ways in which we look at the quality of a doctoral program, medical school graduates, or conservatories that prepare our artists and performers. My neighbor, for example was recently diagnosed with a rare heart disorder. He and his doctor did a comprehensive search of all places and surgeons in the country who have experience with this surgery. They examined data about frequency and success rates and other things related to contributors to treatment and follow-up care. They did not inquire about surgeons’ SAT scores, Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores, or rank in class upon graduation from medical school. As Paul Branden, the pioneer contributor to the study of gifted education in science often said, “By their deeds ye shall know them, by the things they do that will tell us about their future capabilities.”


Barshay, J. (2021, April 19). PROOF POINTS: Gifted programs provide little to no academic boost, new study says. The Hechinger Report.
Redding, C. R., & Grissom, J. A. (2021, April 8–12). Study snapshot: Do students in gifted programs perform better? Linking gifted program participants [Paper presentation]. Virtual Annual Meeting of The American Educational Research Association, Toronto, Canada.