The Stories They Tell About the Gifted

How superintendents view gifted education stems from their personal and professional encounters


By Linda S. Conlon/School Administrator, September 2015

As an applicant for a coordinator position, I made my way through a long series of stakeholder interviews before landing in the office of the superintendent for the final round of hiring. There I met the leader of the 2,000-student Quaker Valley School District where I work in western Pennsylvania.

Heidi Ondek (left), superintendent of Quaker Valley School District in Leetsdale, Pa., with Linda Conlon, the district’s specialist for gifted instructional services. Photo by Angela Yingling

The superintendent chatted with me like an interested colleague, sharing philosophies and asking about mine, clearly dissatisfied with the status quo of the district’s gifted education program. And then he told me the story that would set my career in motion.

The superintendent’s son had attended high school in a neighboring district, in an affluent area that was proud of a distinguished record of academic ac hievement among its students. The young man breezed through his years there, barely breaking a sweat, while earning high grades that resulted in a first-choice college acceptance — only to nearly fail once he got there. He had never learned to study because he never had to. His high school’s coveted gifted program had not prepared him for the rigor he faced in college and that was a problem, his father professed with conviction.

My superintendent went on to talk about his nephew next, a young man of significant intelligence and remarkable creativity, who went through school unchallenged, unmotivated and unrecognized for his unique combination of gifts.

These two stories so captured the essence of what he believed was wrong with gifted programs that he told me at the conclusion of our talk that I was to “make ours a district where gifted is done right.” My marching orders as the newly hired coordinator of gifted programming called for academic rigor for all students (we now have an open-door policy in our Advanced Placement program) and alternative methods for identifying talent (now any student is eligible for gifted services based on need).

Emotional Baggage

I thought more about my superintendent’s stories as we worked to reform our gifted program, a task fraught with significant political and emotional baggage. Changes to any established program generate some dissent but tampering with gifted programs seems to trigger a circling of the wagons like no other.

Asking for stories and listening for the embedded issues that were trigger points or sacred cows helped to guide our district’s efforts without sounding the alarm. Nearly everyone interested in gifted education had a story and an almost irresistible need to tell it. The philosophical center, however, came from the superintendent’s stories, and attending to those embedded issues was critical, given his influence over district culture and resources.

A recent president of the National Association for Gifted Children noticed that top-level administrators had been inexplicably excluded from advocacy efforts and the discourse of the field. Virtually nothing was known about how superintendents viewed gifted education. Practitioners and researchers were strongly advised to find out in order to improve local programs and to strengthen the knowledge base of others in the field.

I took up the charge, as the focus of my doctoral research, to investigate what other superintendents had experienced in their encounters with gifted education by having them tell me a story about “gifted.” The stories were enlightening and clearly as influential as the people who told them. They were offered from diverse perspectives — some from experiences as a student or parent, others as a teacher, a principal and even a superintendent. All of them revealed key components of gifted education in general and what was most important to them specifically.

Student Advocacy

Superintendent Walter Amberg (pseudonyms are used here for each of the superintendents because the research subjects were guaranteed anonymity) related an unusual experience from his days as a first-year teacher. He had a 2nd grader he would never forget. She had been identified as gifted but was severely underserved by the weekly pullout enrichment program, which was all his school offered.

As a classroom beginner, Amberg struggled with what to provide her that would engage her quick mind as she clearly exceeded the regular curriculum. When he approached his principal about skipping a grade, the request from a new teacher was met with consternation but not an outright “no.”

Amberg took the initiative and did his homework by collecting data on his student’s current achievement, using pretests and the information on her gifted intake report, talking to her parents and the 3rd-grade teachers, then made his case to the principal. The student was placed in 4th grade and flourished there. Years later, she entered college early but ready. The parents were thrilled and his principal was happy to have given Amberg the chance to advocate for his student.

This early, positive experience had a profound effect on Amberg’s attitude toward acceleration and the limitations and inadequacies of a one-size-fits-all gifted program.

A Resentful Role

Superintendent Sean O’Farrell’s experience with gifted education was more personal and not so positive. He found himself, by grade 5, completely bored by the math curriculum he had mastered years earlier. His teacher, believing she would kill two birds with one stone, set him up as a teacher’s assistant, helping the struggling students and checking their papers — and most importantly, keeping him busy and out of mischief.

O’Farrell soon grew to resent the arrangement because he loved math and was learning nothing new. He tired of reviewing math concepts for students who just couldn’t get what was so easy for him. O’Farrell learned firsthand that peer tutoring is not an effective strategy for gifted learners, so recalling this experience helped him to challenge other persistent myths in gifted programming. He strongly supports math acceleration today.

Superintendent Helene Cooper began her story by identifying the issue she found the most problematic and distasteful — telling a student and his or her family that the student does not qualify for the gifted program. “It was very heartbreaking because the family’s response to it was somewhat extreme,” she said, recalling one particular episode. “We had multiple meetings. I went through a lot of paperwork the family submitted. … I kept saying the district doesn’t set the criteria, the state does. It’s 130 IQ, you know. It’s got to be like that, just like students who aren’t eligible at the other end of the spectrum. They may have some barriers and challenges, but they don’t fit the criteria for special education.”

Cooper was troubled by the rigidity of the identification criteria. But despite the damage she felt it inflicted on the child and his family, she supported drawing the state-mandated line as an unfortunate but necessary evil. In reality, most IQ-based eligibility rules allow for lower IQ scores when other criteria indicate gifted ability, though such loosely defined flexibility can prove problematic if the program size must be limited and gifted evaluation requests are many.

Cooper’s overall affect toward gifted programming was negative as she felt forced to make entire families unhappy. Understanding this superintendent’s discomfort with the existing gifted identification paradigm helped her to focus on reforms that were more inclusive, such as offering a continuum of services rather than a single program students are either in or not in.

A Touchy Situation

With his narrative, Superintendent John Dowd shifted to the perspective of parent, describing the delicate and exasperating situation he encountered with his own child’s connection to gifted education.

“My 9-year-old son had been identified as a gifted student and my story is one of frustration because the program there is academic, but what I find is, well, sometimes the gifted teacher is one who was not successful in the regular classroom so they move the teacher there because it will be a smaller group and easier to work with. She’s a very nice person, but she doesn’t get gifted, in the sense that gifted doesn’t look the same for every child, and just because you get 100 percent on every spelling test or you do every math problem correctly, that doesn’t make you gifted.

“My son, he did well, obviously he did well enough to be identified on measures, but his real gift is problem solving, thinking things through in a way that he often manipulates the situation, so he had his gifted teacher played within a month of being placed in that room to the point that she asked for him to be removed because he was refusing to do the work!”

Dowd reluctantly ventured into this touchy situation — the skills and qualifications for teaching the most able of students — as he watched his son’s motivation and behavior deteriorate in a gifted program that didn’t address his needs.

Dowd’s story was the impetus for reviewing the competencies for a new job description and criteria for future openings in gifted education in his district. Because specialized certification for this population varies widely by state, Dowd focused on the teaching skills that would address advanced student need. His contention that this issue was at the heart of his own child’s work refusal bodes well for his renewed interest in placing specially trained teachers in charge of gifted programming whenever possible.

Revealing Tales

As I spoke to more superintendents, the big ideas of gifted education — identification (socio-economic, cultural and ethnic representativeness), curriculum, programming and service delivery models and acceleration — were revealed in every story. The telling of stories is both cathartic and enlightening.

What is your story about serving gifted students? How might it inform the way you view and address the program in your district? Can it be the catalyst for change? The embedded issues at the core of each story you tell or hear may provide direction for program evaluation and a roadmap for navigating the landmines of gifted education reform in your schools and beyond.

Linda Conlon is secondary academic specialist in the Quaker Valley School District in Leetsdale, Pa. E-mail:


The Conundrum of Gifted Education: Embrace, Reject and Lament

For my doctoral dissertation, “The Stories Superintendents Tell About Gifted Education: A Study of Their Narratives,” at the University of Pittsburgh, I prompted 18 superintendents to recall an encounter with gifted education in a personal or professional role. The stories illustrate what superintendents think but are understandably reluctant to say.

The issues embedded in their interviews revealed attitudes that could more effectively guide the work of gifted education coordinators and others responsible for design and delivery of services at the local level.

The summaries of the three superintendents’ stories below illustrate dramatically disparate mindsets toward gifted education and perhaps its fate in their school districts. I used pseudonyms for each superintendent because I assured them of confidentiality as subjects in my research, but the stories are factual as related to me.

Superintendent Bonnie Bullington

A student named Jeffrey had arrived at Bullington’s high school, located in western Pennsylvania, with a long history of emotional and disciplinary problems, including an incident where he set off a small bomb on a neighbor’s porch.

At the time of Jeffrey’s admission, the school did not have a program or special room for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. However, one was created for him out of necessity. After numerous angry outbursts and consistently failing grades, Bullington investigated Jeffrey’s history in greater depth. She was astounded to discover he had an IQ of 150, well into the highly gifted range. Further complicating matters, Jeffrey should have been a senior, but his earned credits placed him in the freshmen class.

The superintendent placed Jeffrey in some advanced classes, arranged for him to test out of others and had to battle some resistant teachers along the way. In the end, she says, “Jeffrey came through.” Bullington followed Jeffrey’s progress through college, and he graduated with honors in chemistry. He is gainfully employed — “not making bombs,” she quipped.

Bullington’s persistence in looking for a solution to Jeffrey’s behaviors and her recognition of the student’s dual exceptionalities were key in providing him with the desperately needed intervention. The superintendent’s experiences helped her district support a substantial array of services, some crossing the program boundaries of special education, gifted education and regular education.

Superintendent Stanley Coffman

Coffman’s story was from the vantage of his long-term and current position in a rural school district of 1,500 students.

A student in his school system had parents who aggressively sought acceleration in mathematics. The student was identified as gifted when he was in elementary school, which, Coffman said, “was too early in his career to have been tested.” His IQ at that time was about 127.

“To me, if you come from an educated home, I think most kids  in kindergarten, 1st, 2nd grade, they’re going to shine just because of the environment in which they lived. … This student was really no more gifted than a lot of other students we have in the classroom,” Coffman said.

Over the years, the district reluctantly accommodated his accelerated progress in math, but balked when the student exhausted the district’s curriculum and the parents requested dual enrollment at a nearby college. To solidify his position, Coffman explained that his own son’s IQ was significantly higher than this student, but as a parent, he chose to do nothing “special” and his son was successful without intervention.

Coffman questioned the value of early identification and the need for subject acceleration and resented the parents’ expectations. While stating the gifted program teacher “did some good things,” clearly he viewed gifted education as more trouble than it was worth.

Gifted education in this district is likely to remain responsive primarily to demanding parents and merely tolerated by staff and administration.

Superintendent Paula Hensley

As both a parent and an administrator, Hensley lamented that she expected something more from gifted programs, saying they “should have been more private … individualized” and tailored for each child. “They are more of a program, a pullout where students who are identified as having gifted abilities are taking a problem-solving course — something maybe a little more in-depth.”

As an administrator new to the 750-student small-town district after working in several other places, Hensley said she “witnessed a principal of a building who basically explained that the gifted program, one tenet, one hallmark of being gifted was that you are invited to attend any or all field trips that were offered in the building. That’s probably an example of what I do not believe the gifted program should be.”

Hensley was decidedly dismissive about gifted education in general, having seen no model or services in her entire career that met her ideal of more tailored, personalized instruction. However, with such a clear view of what gifted education should look like, she could be open to guidance in creating programming that is more attentive to the unique needs of individual students.