A ruckus over gifted education
Critics of gifted education programs in public schools complain of racial disparities, but advocates say fixing admission practices can solve the problem
Faith Powell knew something was different about her son ever since he was a baby. He seemed to pay attention to everything. As a toddler, he had delayed speech and was diagnosed with autism, but by 3 years old, he was teaching himself to read and could count to 100.
Powell began doing research about gifted children, but she found that the only gifted program in the Maryland public school district where she lived was a magnet school that started at second grade. She enrolled her son in a private school that gave him some advanced work, but overall, Powell felt like most school officials were more concerned about keeping her son with his age level for social reasons than for meeting him where he was academically. “I don’t send him to school for, like, a social club,” she said. “I send him to school to learn.”
Gifted and talented programs in U.S. schools in recent years have come under fire for racial disparities. Some public school districts are considering cutting such programs because of concerns that they underrepresent minority students, but advocates say a better solution is to improve how gifted students are identified in the first place.
Some gifted programs have attracted fierce local opposition. In Seattle, local NAACP education chair Rita Green advocated for ending the city’s Highly Capable Cohort program: “We want the program just abolished. Period. The Highly Capable Cohort program is fundamentally flawed, and it’s inherently racist.”
In October, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed he would end the city’s gifted and talented program after years of complaints about racial inequality. A panel selected by de Blasio had recommended in 2019 that the district cut its gifted program as a way of racially leveling the city’s school system. But New York City’s mayor-elect, Eric Adams, said he would reevaluate the most recent plan once he was in office.
“There’s no question that gifted programs do not reflect the population of the students in the schools,” said Marcia Gentry, director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute at Purdue University. Gentry co-authored a 2019 study that determined percentages of students missing from gifted education programs. In most cases, students were not identified as eligible for a gifted program either because their school did not identify gifted students or because it underidentified students of a particular race. The study found that at least 20 percent of students of any race who should be identified for gifted programs are not, but for black students, the percentage is as high as 74 percent.
Gentry said that many students overlooked for gifted education come from minority backgrounds or low-income families or they speak English as a second language. But she thinks that ending gifted programs isn’t the answer: “It’s an easy solution—take it away from everyone. But better would be, how do we diversify? How do we include more students?”
Claire Hughes is an education professor at the College of Coastal Georgia and an assembly representative for the Association for the Gifted, which is part of the Council for Exceptional Children. Hughes said that parents who have the financial means will find ways to supplement their children’s education and give them the academic challenges they need, but children in less advantaged families often only have the option of public education. “So when I hear, ‘Oh, we’re going to get rid of gifted education,’ what I as a gifted-ed professional translate that into is, ‘Oh, we’re going to get rid of opportunities in schools for kids who have no other opportunities,’” she said.
Lauri Kirsch, president of the National Association for Gifted Children, noted that states and local school districts, not federal officials, make decisions about gifted education: “There is no national requirement for any place to have gifted education.” According to her organization, the only federal money designated for gifted students falls under the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, where the money is earmarked for research and identifying minority and low-income students for gifted programs. Some states do not fund the programs, and among those that do, no federal agency tracks such funding.
Many concerns about racial inequity stem from how schools identify students to participate in gifted programs. If a school relies only on teacher nomination or a single test, some students who qualify may get overlooked.
As districts endeavor to remedy racial imbalances, Kirsch said schools should follow practices such as universal screening, where all students are considered instead of only students whose teachers nominate them. Other potential solutions include using multiple measures to identify gifted students (as opposed to a single test) and selecting the highest-performing students at each school rather than only admitting students who meet a national average.
When Powell learned about a private school for gifted students in Collierville, Tenn., Mid-South Gifted Academy, she decided to apply. Her son completed an evaluation that included an IQ test. His IQ score was 132. The family moved to Tennessee, and Powell’s son started at Mid-South this fall: She said he is excited about everything he does at his new school.
Powell said she hasn’t experienced racial concerns in the programs her son has participated in: “I’m black. So I have no idea what that’s about—it’s all about your child.” She hopes the number of gifted programs increases, and she thinks schools should inform families about such programs so that parents can advocate for their child’s education.
Powell knows not every family can afford private education. “What do you do when you have a child that’s gifted, and you just don’t have that kind of money or those resources?” she said. “There are a lot of kids who have gifts. And there’s just not any opportunities for them.”
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