The Broward County experiments change the face of gifted education research – this is why.
The Broward County Experiments
Can teachers spot gifted children?
Well, I have heard everything from “Of course they can!” to “Of course they can’t!“. How you response is probably based on what you think gifted means.
The Broward County experiments tested if teachers could spot gifted children – and much like the Mythbusters, they came up with some unexpected results.
What did they find?
What can we say about these experiments? We can say that when a teacher picked out a child for the gifted program, they had a 50% chance of getting it right. Half of the kids they picked had a high IQ. Which, even with the different definitions of giftedness (top 10% or top 2%), isn’t bad.
But the next bit is the kicker.
Because, the researcher also tested all the kids the teachers didn’t pick. Teachers in Broward County only found 40% of the gifted children. Four in every ten.
Teachers missed 60% of gifted kids in their classroom.
Most Gifted Children Are Never Found
Who was left out:
- African American kids;
- Poor kids;
- Disabled kids;
- and kids whose first language wasn’t English.
Go back and read that again, because it’s worth emphasising.
When teachers looked at these kids, they saw disadvantage not potential. The disadvantaged kids never got picked for gifted programs.
And this is why the Broward County experiment is so important.
Because almost all research on giftedness – starting with the very first study by Terman – doesn’t start with an IQ test of a whole population.
It starts with teachers picking out who to test.
That means that almost every test out there on giftedness and how ‘awesome’ it is, starts with eliminating the majority of children who are disadvantaged: they’re poor; they’re a minority; they don’t speak the same language as their teachers; they’re disabled.
Get a group of kids together and get rid of everyone who does badly and guess what?
Wow! They perform above average! Surprise.
Giftedness is Stressful
So, what about the kids who never make these studies? It’s a good question.
Do gifted kids just breeze through everything? Will they have no problems adapting to bad environments for their learning needs? Do they just ‘succeed no matter what‘?
And what about the actual lived experience of parents of gifted kids? Is it all plain sailing?
Natalie Rimlinger, at the Australian National University , looked at this, and found the actual experience of raising a gifted child – with or without disabilities – was similar in stress levels to raising a disabled child who is not gifted.
This is important – and probably deserves it’s own post, but to bring the point home:
Difference of ability doesn’t cause stress. Lack of help and support for different abilities causes most problems.
Ability or disability has very little to do with it at all.
The Social Model of Disability is Right
If this sounds a lot like the social model of disability, you are right. In my opinion, this is evidence that looking at disability as a lack rather than a difference is fundamentally wrong.
It is the way we organise and cater for different needs that is the problem – not the different needs themselves.
When children are in an environment that makes learning difficult, that is stressful, they and their families suffer. It has nothing to do with their ability – or lack of ability.
If you are different, and no one helps you, it sucks.
We Keep Missing Gifted Children, and it Skews Everything
Are we missing a bigger picture here? Is giftedness always an advantage? And how does it interact with other types of disadvantage? There are a few promising studies on this. But largely we are still in the dark.
By eliminating populations from studies, researchers have skewed their results.
And from the little data we have, it looks like giftedness may be far more stressful, less of an advantage, and have a lot more in common with disabilities than we previously thought.
I personally believe that many ‘truths’ in education norms aren’t as solid as people think. And that mismatch between stereotype and reality causes so much stress for families caught up in the middle.
We don’t know what we don’t know. There is a giant massive hole in the research.
So, what about all the current studies? It’s not that they are wrong. It’s just that they may be more limited than we previously thought.
So, What Can We Say About Gifted Children?
That is somewhat limited, due to who has been studied. But we can say that white, middle class boys with educated parents, do better if they’re also gifted.
For the rest? Hopefully some one will look into that. But I’d bet a solid dollar that it’s going to upset the apple cart. And it can’t come soon enough.
- David Card & Laura Giuliano, “Can Universal Screening Increase the Representation of Low-Income 16 and Minority Students in Gifted Education?,” National Bureau of Economic Research – 2015,
- McBee, M. T., Peters, S. J., & Miller, E. M. (2016). The Impact of the Nomination Stage on Gifted Program Identification: A Comprehensive Psychometric Analysis. Gifted Child Quarterly, 60(4), 258–278.
- Natalie A. Rimlinger, ” Dwelling on the Right Side of the Curve: an Exploration of the Psychological Wellbeing of Parents of Gifted Children “, Australian National University, 2016.
- Andrew Van Dam, “It’s better to be born rich than gifted,” Washington Post October 9, 2018,
- David Lubinski and Camilla P. Benbow, “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth After 35 Years: Uncovering Antecedents for the Development of Math-Science Expertise,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, no. 4, (2006): 316-345,