The Gifted and Talented Classroom: Where Are the Children of Color?

When my family moved in third grade, my teacher recommended me for the district gifted and talented program. I was tested and accepted. It was a once a week pull-out program that provided enrichment in the form of advanced mathematics, projects, and my beloved Weighty Words. We put on plays, researched and portrayed eminent people (I was Eleanor of Aquitaine), and built tetrahedron kites. In junior high, for two periods a day, I researched and worked on major projects under the Autonomous Learner Model, read, analyzed, and performed Shakespeare, wrote and produced a soap opera, and created an ancient civilization for my archaeologist classmates to unearth. It was some of the best learning of my life.

Experiences like these are incredibly important to our gifted and talented learners. Unfortunately, they are opportunities that are often unavailable to Black and Hispanic students. Students identified as gifted and talented in this country are overwhelmingly White and Asian (I’ll disclose here that I am both White and Asian). Vanderbilt researchers Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding found that Black third graders are half as likely as Whites to be included in gifted and talented programs. This may be attributed to teachers with low expectations for Black and Hispanic children as well as parents who don’t know how to navigate the nomination process. Additionally, English language learners, because of their status, are less likely to be considered.

Broward County School District in Florida decided to try to change its identification process so that highly capable programs reflected the diversity of its student body. It was a relatively simple change. Instead of relying on parents and teachers for recommendations, they introduced program in which all second graders were screened using a short nonverbal test. Those who scored high were referred for IQ testing. The number of Hispanic and Black children identified as gifted tripled. (Read the full article at http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/upshot/why-talented-black-and-hispanic-students-can-go-undiscovered.html.)

I think this information is particularly important given the changes in law in my home state of Washington. In 2009, Washington State passed legislation that made highly capable programs part of the state’s definition of basic education. By 2013, all districts were required to have a highly capable program and to offer services K-12. This is great, as gifted and talented programs are often underfunded or eliminated altogether when money is tight. However, it had some unintended consequences. Previously in my district, we had started servicing gifted students in third grade (with some cluster potential second grade classrooms). Now, we had to serve K-2 students, which meant those students had to be identified. The problem is that it is difficult to identify giftedness in the early grades because what presents as highly capable at that age may just be a reflection of an enriching home environment, giving an edge to middle and upper class families, most of which are White and Asian in my area. Once students are labeled as gifted, the law requires us to continue to serve them throughout their education. This means that students who are not actually gifted may be taking a spot from someone who is (but has yet to be identified) and leaves fewer spots for underrepresented minorities.

I’m expecting some backlash from the affirmative action haters. I anticipate the argument that students should be admitted on the basis of merit. I’m not disagreeing…I just think we need to redefine merit. If you’ve done any work on white privilege, you know that the playing field for minorities isn’t level. It’s clear that relying on teacher and parent referrals isn’t reliable. Universal, nonverbal screening allows more children from a variety of backgrounds to be identified and included in a potentially life-changing program. Frankly, I think that those who are against universal screening are a lot like the people attacking Malia Obama. Some have suggested that she was accepted to Harvard because she is Black and the President’s daughter (ignoring the decades of “legacy” acceptances that benefitted mostly White students), while others have insinuated that she’s taking a “gap year” because she can’t hack it (nevermind that she’s fluent enough in Spanish to translate for her dad in Cuba). Some comments are much uglier and outright racist (I actually don’t recommend that you read the comments on the Fox News article in question so that your faith in humanity might remain in tact).

The fact is, gifted and talented programs across the nation do not represent the diversity of the student population. With global problems of climate change, pandemics, market instability, terrorism and the like, we can’t afford to let talented students slip through the cracks. We need to reexamine how we identify students as gifted and talented, for their benefit and for ours.