For decades, researchers have shown that students who gain entry into gifted education programs are disproportionately white or Asian American. In New York City, a mayor-appointed panel even recommended eliminating gifted and talented programs because of the opportunity gap. But other school districts and experts are finding different solutions.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
September 13, 2019
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (9); Adobe Stock (1)

At age 4, Donna Y. Ford’s son was a bright boy. And when he took a test for early entry into kindergarten, he did very well, except, according to the school psychologist who tested him, with some of the vocabulary he used and a lack of social experiences.

“She pointed to an outlet and he called it a plug [which was deemed incorrect]. I still call it a plug, and I’m a distinguished professor,” says Ford, who lived in East Cleveland, Ohio, a mostly black and low-income community, at the time. “She said he didn’t know what a veranda was. And I was like, neither do I. Do you see any around this neighborhood?”

The school psychologist, a white woman, recommended that Ford's son, a black boy, wait to enter kindergarten until the next year, just a few months before his sixth birthday. He did, and, by second grade, he was bored in class, failing assignments and a “teacher’s nightmare.”

Ford eventually demanded testing to find out if he qualified for gifted programs, and he did. "He did much better," says Ford, now a professor at the Ohio State University and expert and author on gifted education. "He was finally challenged."

That was years ago in the mid-1980s. But black and Hispanic children and those from low-income backgrounds still face an uphill battle when it comes to taking advantage of the gifted and talented programs their schools offer.

For decades, researchers have shown that students who gain entry into gifted education programs are disproportionately white or Asian American. According to a 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of Asian American students; 8 percent of white students; 5 percent of Hispanic students; and just 4 percent of black students are enrolled in gifted and talented programs.

Numbers like those are triggering school districts to rethink how they identify bright students. Most recently, in late August, a mayor-appointed panel in New York City released a report that urged the city to eliminate gifted programs in the school system, the country's largest, and resource the creation of what they call new "pro-integrative programs" instead. Through these programs, communities will receive resources to "pilot creative, equitable enrichment alternatives" to replace the current gifted and talented program. The NYC Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Critics of the proposal say nixing gifted and talented programs isn't the answer, especially for the culturally diverse or low-income students who do receive extra programs through the system. In some cases, it's their only opportunity to supplement the education they're receiving in the classroom. Ford hopes the headlines from New York bring attention to what she calls a "national crisis" and moves leaders to find ways to ensure equity in gifted and talented programs for all.

"It is virtually solvable," says Ford. "We don't live in a perfect world, but we can do much, much better."

A Lack of Standard Requirements

Unlike requirements for other learning differences, no federal mandate requires schools to identify or serve gifted youngsters, which Ann Batenburg, an associate clinical professor of gifted education at Southern Methodist University, calls the "real underlying issue."

"There is legislation that protects almost every other kind of child," says Batenburg. "If you are a second language learner, you have court cases and laws that protect you. Special education has massive federal legislation that protects those kids, guarantees services and provides guidance on how to identify. We don't have any of that for gifted."

Instead, it’s left up to states to set the rules. "We are very dependant upon local policymakers to ensure that gifted children are recognized and served at all and, if so, to what degree," says Sally Krisel, immediate past president of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Right now, teacher recommendations and testing are the primary ways students are identified for gifted and talented programs, but high test scores have proven to be better at predicting the income level of a student, not their academic achievement, says Batenburg. Higher-income students, generally, do better on the tests.

"We have all searched for the magic test," says Krisel. "If there were a test on the market that measured this complex thing we call giftedness with equal sensitivity for children from all backgrounds, all different development of their gifts, then we would all be using it and we wouldn't be having this conversation."

When making recommendations, teachers can bring their own perspectives to the table too. One study found that even when black students have high standardized test scores, they are still less likely than their white classmates to be offered gifted services unless their teacher also is black. U.S. teachers, however, are overwhelmingly white—82 percent of all educators in public schools, according to a U.S. Department of Education report.

Teacher evaluations for giftedness often don't take into account unique differences that black, Hispanic, and low-income students bring to school, says Ford. For example, a teacher might rate a child based on their inquisitiveness but in some cultures, it's considered insulting for children to ask adults questions. They may look for a strong vocabulary, but, Ford points out, a gifted child whose primary language isn't English may not be proficient in it yet.

Gifted Identification Programs That Work

Universal screening of all children is one way for schools to identify all gifted students. In one study, where all second graders were screened for giftedness, the number of Hispanic students referred for gifted programs increased by 130 percent. For black students, the number went up by 80 percent.

Using local norms is another method that researchers say could make gifted programs more diverse. Instead of basing a child's giftedness on national or state performance standards, schools would compare them to other students in their school districts or, even, their specific schools. A study published this year found that when using these school-specific criteria instead of national ones, black representation in gifted programs quadrupled; it tripled for Hispanic children.

"Using a local norm idea is not unheard of for schools," says Matthew Makel, director of research and evaluation at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and one of the study's authors. When forming the basketball team, they don't look for the point guard who meets all-state criteria, they simply pick the best point guard for the school. Same goes for the first chair trumpet player or the lead in the school musical. "But it can feel, for many, like a shift in context or perspective for gifted programs."

Hope for a Gifted Future

Gifted programs, however, often lose out in school districts where budgets already are stretched. There's the belief that smart kids will do just fine, but that's a myth, says Batenburg. She adds that when gifted kids sit through school all day learning nothing new, they disengage from what's happening in the classroom.

"What I think is lost is not just academic skills and motivation and interest in school," says Ford. "It diminishes and compromises their future in a lot of ways. They will not graduate with the skills and grades and scores to get into competitive universities. They might not even want to go anymore." One study found that the United States has a "permanent talent underclass" because it fails to identify and challenge all gifted students.

Officials in Florida, Illinois, and Detroit are making changes to their gifted programs to boost equity without scrapping offerings altogether. And when programs work correctly, they offer huge benefits to young students. In North Carolina, about 80 percent of school districts offer universal screening, according to the state's Department of Public Instruction—this is one of the nation's more robust gifted identification programs. Teachers in Raleigh, North Carolina noticed Canaan Page, who is black, long before he took any placement test. They nurtured his reading skills in kindergarten, then starting in third grade, he was pulled out for gifted classes. "The teacher I had made it really fun for me," says Canaan, a sixth-grader who now attends accelerated middle school classes, participates in gifted programs through Duke University, and dreams of becoming a basketball player or an engineer.

His mom, Henrietta Brunson, a preschool teacher, is thankful for the opportunity her son received. "If he was really bored in school, you can have the tendency to play with other kids and then be disruptive in the classroom," she says. "I'm glad he had an opportunity to step out of that classroom so he wouldn't get labeled."

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