A Brief History of Gifted and Talented Education


At the turn of the twentieth century, advancements in education and psychology brought empirical and scientific credibility to the field of gifted education. The early studies of giftedness in the 1920s and 30s evolved from research on mental inheritance, subnormal children, construction of instruments to measure both the sub and supernormal, and the realization that graded schools could not adequately meet the needs of all children. Pioneers, such as Lewis Terman and Leta Hollingworth, spearheaded the movement and conducted some of the first widely published research studies on gifted children.

The field of gifted education continued to evolve mainly in response to the changing needs of the country, especially after the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s.  Further legislative efforts by the federal government in the early 1970s brought the plight of gifted school children back into the spotlight. The definition of giftedness also expanded along with programming options now available for gifted students.

Toward the close of the twentieth century, the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act funded such entities as the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented and provided grant monies for gifted education research.  A Nation at Risk (1983) and National Excellence: A Case For Developing America's Talent (1993), reports issued by the federal government, highlighted the missed opportunities to identify and serve gifted students nationally. In turn, a call was made for additional research and programming in the field of gifted education.  The issuance of national standards by the National Association for Gifted Children also helped solidify the field's intent and provide school districts across the country with a set of programming criteria.  Published in 2004, A Nation Deceived reported on the advantages of acceleration for gifted children, which illustrated America's inability to properly meet the needs of its most able students despite the overwhelming research supporting acceleration.


The twenty-first century represents a new era where the possibilities are limitless and, hopefully, the future for gifted and talented children will be a national priority.

Key Dates in Gifted and Talented Education

1868 William Torrey Harris, superintendent of public schools for St. Louis, institutes the earliest systematic efforts in public schools to educate gifted students.
1869 Francis Galton’s seminal work, Hereditary Genius, is published indicating that intelligence was passed through successive generations. His biographical study of over 400 British men throughout history leads him to conclude through statistical methods that intelligence was derived from heredity and natural selection.
1901 Worcester, Massachusetts opened the first special school for gifted children.
1905 French researchers, Binet and Simon, develop a series of tests (Binet-Simon) to identify children of inferior intelligence for the purpose of separating them from normally functioning children for placement in special classrooms. Their notion of mental age revolutionizes the science of psychological testing by capturing intelligence in a single numerical outcome.
1908 Henry Goddard studies in France with Binet and is introduced to the Binet-Simon measurement scales. Subsequently, he ferries the test back to American in order to translate it into English and disseminate it to American educators and psychologists.
1916 Lewis Terman, the “father” of the gifted education movement, publishes the Stanford-Binet, forever changing intelligence testing and the face of American education.
1917 The United States’ entry into World War I necessitates the mobilization of a large scale army. The Army Alpha and Beta were created and administered to over one million recruits, further legitimatizing intelligence testing in both academia and with the general public.
1918 Lulu Stedman establishes an “opportunity room” for gifted students within the University Training School at the Southern Branch of the University of California.
1921 Lewis Terman begins what has remained the longest running longitudinal study of gifted children with an original sample of 1,500 gifted children.
1922 Leta S. Hollingworth begins the Special Opportunity Class at P. S. 165 in New York City for gifted students. This class would yield nearly forty research articles, a textbook, and blueprints for Hollingworth’s work at P. S. 500, the Speyer School.
1925 Lewis Terman publishes Genetic Studies of Genius, concluding that gifted students were: (a) qualitatively different in school, (b) slightly better physically and emotionally in comparison to normal students, (c) superior in academic subjects in comparison to the average students, (d) emotionally stable, (e) most successful when education and family values were held in high regard by the family, and (f) infinitely variable in combination with the number of traits exhibited by those in the study. This is the first volume in a five-volume study spanning nearly 40 years.
1926 Leta Hollingworth publishes Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture, which is considered to be the first textbook on gifted education.
1936 Hollingworth establishes P. S. 500, the Speyer School, for gifted children ages 7-9.
1944 G.I Bill of Rights making a college education available to veterans from World War II who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to pursue higher education.
1950 J. P. Guilford gives the key note address at the annual APA convention, challenging an examination of intelligence as a multidimensional construct.
1950 National Science Foundation Act provides federal support for research and education in mathematics, physical sciences, and engineering.
1954 The National Association of Gifted Children is founded under the leadership of Ann Isaacs.
1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education ends “separate but equal education.”
1957 The Soviet Union launches Sputnik, sparking the United States to reexamine its human capital and quality of American schooling particularly in mathematics and science. As a result, substantial amounts of money pour into identifying the brightest and talented students who would best profit from advanced math, science, and technology programming.
1958 The National Defense Education Act passes. This is the first large-scale effort in gifted education by the federal government.
1964 The Civil Rights Act passes, emphasizing equal opportunities including those in education.
1972 The Marland Report-The first formal definition is issued encouraging schools to define giftedness broadly, along with academic and intellectual talent the definition includes leadership ability, visual and performing arts, creative or productive thinking, and psychomotor ability. [Note: psychomotor ability is excluded from subsequent revisions of the federal definition.]
1974 The Office of the Gifted and Talented housed within the U.S. Office of Education is given official status.
1975 Public Law 94-142 The Education for all Handicapped Children Act establishes a federal mandate to serve children with special education needs, but does not include children with gifts and talents.
1983 A Nation at Risk reports scores of America’s brightest students and their failure to compete with international counterparts. The report includes policies and practices in gifted education, raising academic standards, and promoting appropriate curriculum for gifted learners.
1988 Congress passes the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act as part of the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
1990 The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented was established at the University of Connecticut and included researchers at the University of Virginia, Yale University, and the University of Georgia.  [Note: funding for the NRC ended in 2012.]
1993 National Excellence : The Case for Developing America's Talent, issued by the U.S. Department of Education, outlines how America neglects its most talented youth. The report also makes a number of recommendations influencing the last decade of research in the field of gifted education.
1998 NAGC publishes Pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Program Standards to provide guidance in seven key areas for programs serving gifted and talented students. The standards were revised in 2010 as Pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Programming Standards.
2002 The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is passed as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The Javits program is included in NCLB, and expanded to offer competitive statewide grants.  The definition of gifted and talented students is modified again:  Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.
2004 A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, a national research-based report on acceleration strategies for advanced learners is published by the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa.
2006 NAGC publishes national gifted education standards for teacher preparation programs and knowledge and skill standards in gifted education for all teachers.  The standards were revised in 2013.