Specialization Versus “Core” In Gifted & Talented High School Education

BY DR. TONY FISHER | If you are responsible for designing the curriculum for a school of gifted and talented high school students with a diverse set of interests, you face a fundamental choice: What will you require of every single student in your school?  The answer to this question inevitably reveals something of your school’s educational philosophy. This article will explore some of the advantages of different approaches, with recommendations for ways in which one can work to have the best of all possible worlds.

The question of requirements, as posed above, is more complicated than it first appears.  Just about every G & T school is a “college prep” school with students who have high aspirations for their college admissions.  As a result, most schools will require a certain number of years in the core subjects (English, history, mathematics, science and foreign language) along with requirements in the arts.

However, those requirements allow for a great deal of variation.  At most schools, there are different “tracks” for mathematics classes, and there is sufficient research about student variation in speed of comprehension to justify that approach.  But – will your school take a similar tracked approach to foreign language study?  To science classes?  To the humanities?  If the answer to any of these is “Yes,” at what grade will your school begin to differentiate in this way?  How you answer may depend on a variety of factors, such as the size of your school and whether your school has already, to some extent, identified itself as a specialized school (e.g., as a STEM school or a Governor’s School for Social Sciences or the Arts).

There are some clear benefits to allowing for this kind of differentiation in multiple disciplines early on in high school (say, tenth or even ninth grades).  Students who show special interest in, and aptitude for, particular subjects can spend more time on advanced topics and less on basic skills, allowing for even more advanced study in future years.  Students who are advanced in one area, but whose learning style is less well fitted to others, can proceed at different paces in different subjects, and won’t have to spend a potentially disproportionate amount of time on a subject with which they struggle.  Your school could even allow students to choose “majors,” asking juniors and seniors (or even younger) to take multiple courses per year with a cohort of similarly-interested students.  This kind of design allows for every student to experience depth in some subject area, for potential inter-disciplinary approaches within the subject of concentration, and for the creation of smaller communities of learners dedicated to a particular discipline.  All considerable benefits.

However, delaying specialization and having a more substantial set of “core” requirements which gifted and talented students of all predispositions and talents take together has significant benefits as well.  As noted above, every school for gifted students likely provides all students with a solid foundation in a wide variety of subjects.  However, will your school hold its scientists and its writers alike to a high level of proficiency in both?  Your gifted scientist, who may end up being a leader in her field, will have plenty of time to specialize in her field of research, but perhaps no better chance to truly hone the writing skills which will be so important inwriting grants and in communicating to non-specialists why her work is so important; the future op-ed writer will not have another clear chance to learn about the sciences (and the bases of scientific thought and procedure) which may have bearing on his future columns.  Moreover, there is added value to students with the broadest range of interests and talents taking these classes together.  Having the gifted young mathematician and the gifted young historian study history side-by side – at least up to a certain level (say, through eleventh grade) – realizes benefits for both: the historian gets to see his subject through a different lens, while the mathematician returns to her field with a more sophisticated sense of history than had she only studied it with other mathematics-oriented students.

How, then, can your school have the benefits of a robust set of commonly required courses and still allow students to follow their passions earlier on in their high school careers?  Many schools are answering this question by creating a more comprehensive and intensive set of what I would call “co-curricular” activities.  These activities can range from science, computer science and mathematics research, to journalism (more than just the newspaper!), to international relations and government-related studies and activism.

I would suggest that these kinds of programs best complement a solid core curriculum when the following conditions are met:

  • The work of the co-curricular activities is as authentic as possible (e.g., favoring of science research over the more knowledge-based “science bowl”), and whenever possible, involves professionals in the field;
  • Co-curricular activities are arranged in such a way that students can make a lesser commitment early on (“dip their toes in the water,” so to speak) and then choose to increase that commitment over time if they wish;
  • The cumulative work of the required classes is not so overwhelming that students cannot dedicate themselves to meaningful pursuits outside the classroom.

Allowing gifted students to delve deeply and authentically into their interests – or find new ones – while they study all core academic subjects with the full spectrum of their peers is one way that a gifted school can have its cake and eat it, too.

To a certain extent, the main thrust of this article – advocating for gifted students to delay specialization, at least in their school course of study – runs against a trend of the times. Many cities/districts are creating more and more “themed” high schools and even middle schools designed to attract students with particular gifts and predispositions.  These schools often serve the important purpose of providing students and parents with meaningful choice.  Still, I do not know of a “specialized” middle or high school which does not also strive to give all of its students a comprehensive course of study. Therefore, I hope that the above discussion of advantages and disadvantages of different approaches can help planners at gifted schools think about how we can best serve our unique populations.

Dr. Tony Fisher is the principal at Hunter College High School.

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