Tracing the Relationship between Gifted Education and the Needs of a Country

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Richelle Benjamin
Professor Jack Dougherty
EDUC 300
3 May 2012

Tracing the Relationship between Gifted Education and the Needs of a Country


The gifted child in American education is the child who exhibits a high level of intelligence and creativity. Gifted education in the United States exists to foster the abilities of these exceptional students in order to cultivate the skills they posses. These gifted programs cater to the needs of gifted students, providing a challenging curriculum instead of holding the child back with a curriculum catering to average or below-average students. This recognition of the need to distinguish the education of gifted students from other students has existed since the turn of the twentieth century. However, the gifted education provided in today’s public schools is definitely not the same type of education provided then.  An examination of the history of gifted education will show that the goals and methods of gifted programs have changed throughout the years. No doubt the goals, or the anticipated outcomes of gifted education programs, and the methods, or the ways in which gifted programs are being implemented, have changed since gifted education first started emerging within the United States. What this essay seeks to explore is how gifted education has progressed in the American school system… and why. How have the goals and methods of gifted education within the American public school system changed from the 1920s to the 1970s? What do these goals and methods say about the intended purpose of gifted education?

The answer to how and why the goals and methods of gifted education have shifted throughout its history relies on a broader history of the United States. The argument is that gifted education does not exist solely to benefit those children exhibiting exceptional qualities. Gifted education adapts to meet certain economic and political demands. It is not only about providing the gifted with an accelerated education, but about producing future Americans to rise to these economic and political challenges. The proof is in the academic literature—the books and articles produced for administrators and educators. These sources lay out how to educate a gifted child. They express concerns and share advice for how to go about providing the gifted child with a positive academic experience. Through these methods, the researcher gains a better picture of why gifted education does what it does. The goals and methods expressed in this literature speak to larger economic and political issues. The goals and methods of gifted education do, in fact, change to accommodate the overarching demands of the country, with the intended purpose of gifted education to produce citizens to meet these demands.


One of the first demands on gifted and talented education came as a result of the two major World Wars. World War I and World War II brought the United States into the forefront of international turmoil and affairs. In addition, the “involvement of the United States as a force and defender of persons… forced our leaders to seek other leaders” (Imbeau). Seeing how important good leaders were during these two wars, current leaders knew that their children had to be well educated in order to secure the safety and global dominance of the United States. Politicians and educators, therefore, looked to gifted education to prepare the minds of students who had already shown the incredible capability of becoming these leaders. The goals of gifted education during this time were to develop intelligent and globally aware young citizens who would later grow up to use their skills for the betterment of human kind, both within the United States and in the international world, especially when conflicts arose.

Another major historical event changing the goals of gifted education, even more so than the two World Wars, occurred in the year 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik into outer space. This event “caused an uproar because political leaders of the U.S. realized that this country had been upstaged by a potential global adversary” and that “educators who had been berating an educational system that drastically failed to meet the instructional needs… of our brightest youth… were correct after all” (Haenesly). Russia had beaten the United States in a contest of intelligence, and politicians saw that the best way to combat this was to promote the education of America’s gifted. Therefore, the goals of gifted education during the late 50s and early 60s began to focus on producing students who were globally competitive. The country needed youth with the ability to win the intellectual battle against its adversaries. Especially, “the fields of math and science were seen as the means of making sure we had the talent to lead the world in our exploration of space” (Imbeau). As a result, a greater emphasis on the subjects that would produce future space engineers had begun. Gifted education revolved around the need to send America outside the atmosphere.

Evidence of Sputnik and the Cold War’s impact on the goals and methods of gifted education may be uncovered in a comparison of literature produced before and after the event. In the year prior, 1956, D.A. Worcester published a book entitled The Education of Children of Above-Average Mentality. As stated in the introduction, and according to the author, “Science, industry, business and government are desperately looking for individuals of high intelligence and sound training to occupy positions of leadership” (Worcester 3)—the same positions of leadership required during the time of the World Wars. Worcester’s book illustrates the goal of gifted education as creating good future leaders. The proposed methods, however, are still lacking. Worcester’s is a small tome, only 65 pages. The suggestions on how to accommodate for gifted children are few a vague. The author himself admits that “we have no good studies which reliably compare the merits of various methods of caring for the needs of the gifted” (49). However, some methods are still suggested. These include allowing gifted children to accelerate, either by enrolling in programs which allow them to make rapid progress or by skipping a grade, and become enriched through experiences “for which the average of below-average child lacks either the time, the interest or the ability to understand” (39). The source proves that, prior to the launch of Sputnik, the ideas about how to educate gifted students were still very much underdeveloped.

Guides for teachers published after Sputnik, however, show to be drastically different from earlier versions. A book by Joseph French—published in 1959, just two short years after Russia launched its satellite—gives a different goal for gifted education and provides significantly more suggestions on how this education can be carried out. In its introduction, Educating the Gifted makes several claims that indicate the direct influence Sputnik and the Cold War has had on the author’s work. First, French says, “The United States wastes much of its talent, primarily because many of its brightest youth do not secure the education that would enable them to work at levels for which they are potentially qualified” (French 2). The specific use of the words “United States” contrasts with Worcester’s book, who does not mention his county so explicitly. The use of the name indicates a certain amount of pride as well as duty to the country—sentiments which have no doubt grown out of a need to compete with another major world power. As he continues, French writes, “The United States Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that the Soviet Union is producing four trained technicians to our three” (3). If the first quote does not convey an awareness of America’s competition with Russia, the second definitely does. In this way, French declares that the goal of gifted education is to prepare America to be more globally competitive.

The methods French chooses to discuss are revealed through several selected readings. These methods, unlike those of Worcester, are explained at much greater detail. One, in an article by Walter B. Barbe and Dorothy Norris, describes a “major work program” in which “gifted children, grouped together in classes, are not pushed though subject matter at a more rapid rate, but are allowed to delve more deeply into material and find out more about the subject matter taught at the same grade level” (221). This method encourages enrichment—providing children with a richer experience than the average student has access to. The aims of this method is to develop “initiative and creative power”, “critical thinking”, and “leadership” (221), just to name a few. The program seeks to create independent and invested learners. This is what educators also hope will foster a sense of global competition. By allowing students to discover their own interest in a task, they can master it further. In the fields where math and science are concerned, this offers a direct threat to students in Russia.

Another program highlighted in an article by A. Harry Passow discusses the development of a science program for gifted students. This is a direct product of Sputnik and the Cold War. Passow stresses the importance of focusing on “ideas, concepts, and relationships” (253) within science and offering students with something more advanced than the memorization of scientific facts. This program, the article argues, can and should be implemented at the elementary school level. The author argues that “science need not be confined to nature study and watered-down experiments… rapid learners are capable of projects and independent study” (255). Passow stresses that laboratory work for elementary school children, not demonstrations, are what is needed for a successful science program. Clearly, the purpose of this method is to introduce advanced science to students at a young age, to spark their interest in the subject, and provide the necessary groundwork for allowing them to further delve into the subject.


Unlike the World Wars and Sputnik, where the purpose was to create leaders to protect and compete on an international scale, the Civil Rights Movement changed gifted education in a different way. Says Imbeau, the Civil Rights Movement “forces us to reconsider all groups in whom talent may be found” (Imbeau). The movement opened education to minorities in America, and as a result, the definition of the gifted student changed to accommodate those who were non-white. The goal of gifted education changed to offer better equality within the school system. It rose to meet growing demands for integration and better opportunity. The new purpose of gifted education was to challenge the old purpose—to redefine what gifted education was and how it could help students achieve.

Ogilvie’s book, Gifted Children in Primary Schools, was published in 1973—nine years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. While it does not mention race specifically, Ogilvie’s work does offer alternative definitions of gifted students and gifted teaching, broadening the definitions to offer a wider range of methods for teaching gifted students. These are definitions which did not exist before. The book, unlike previous ones mentioned, pays special attention to two types of giftedness: general and specific. It also lays out instruction strategies for all subjects, even those for art and physical education. The book then takes the analysis a step further by discussing individualized education. Topics like “Styles of learning”, “Parental attitudes and home background”, and “Teacher personality” (Ogilvie 125) are also factored into the consideration of gifted learning. No doubt, this is the most comprehensive source of the three discussed thus far, proof that the Civil Rights Movement inspired a closer look at the child’s inclusion in a positive and opportunistic educational experience.


Gifted Education in the United States experienced a vast number of changes between the 1920s and 1970s. All these changes become apparent in the way writers chose to inform educators on how to properly implement gifted education within their own schools. The way in which methods for gifted education are written about becomes more specific, more comprehensive, and more inclusive as time progresses. This, however, is no coincidence. A look at major historical events and an alignment of these events with the biggest shifts in gifted education show that gifted education does not exist on its own. Instead, as the goals of gifted education shift to accommodate major economic and political events, such as the two World Wars, the Russian launch of Sputnik, and the Civil Rights Movement, the purpose of gifted education become clear. Gifted education does more than foster the exceptional talents of youth. It rises to meet the challenges that international and internal turmoil place on the country. It works to provide future leaders—both in the international and national realm.

Works Cited

French, Joseph L. Educating the Gifted, a Book of Readings. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Print.

Haensly, Patricia A. “My View of the ‘top 10’ Events That Have Influenced the Field of Gifted Education During the Past Century.” Gifted Child Today Magazine 22.6 (1999): 33–37. Print.

Imbeau, Marcia B. “A Century of Gifted Education: a Reflection of Who and What Made a Difference.” Gifted Child Today Magazine 22.6 (1999): 40–43. Print.

Ogilvie, Eric. Gifted Children in Primary Schools. Macmillan Education, 1975. Print.

Worcester, Dean A. The Education of Children of Above-average Mentality. University of Nebraska, 1956. Print.