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Joy Velasco for Fatherly

Gifted and Talented Programs Deepen Segregation in Schools. How Can We Fix The Problem?

“It is educational malpractice to make a decision about who is gifted and who is not based on one test score or one item.”

Across the country, public school students who score high on intelligence tests are taken out of classrooms and placed into gifted and talented programs — or different schools altogether. These programs were created ostensibly to supplement general education and give students who excel in school more of a challenge. Students identified as gifted might be given an accelerated curriculum or take more field trips. Their grades generally benefit from being around other high achieving students, while the test scores of the students left behind tend to sink.

The idea of giving bright students more challenging material is innocent in theory. The problem is that the gifted and talented label is far more likely to be applied to students who are white and wealthy. School segregation was outlawed in 1954, but today you can still find schools where wealthy white children are placed in separate classrooms with better resources because of a label that is sometimes determined by a single, unreliable test. Gifted education as it stands today systematically privileges white middle-class children, ensuring a pathway through which segregation persists. 

According to the most recent federal data, Black children make up 15 percent of America’s students, but only nine percent of students in gifted and talented programs. Latino students comprise 26 percent of the student population and only 18 percent of those in gifted programs. And while 50 percent of the student population is white, white children make up 60 percent of gifted programs. In effect, many of today’s gifted programs exist as “a private school within public schools,” says Dr. Donna Y Ford.

Dr. Ford is a distinguished professor of education and human ecology at Ohio State University, and the author of 14 books, including Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education. Her research has revealed several pathways through which recruitment for gifted programs weeds out students of color and creates a pipeline for white middle-class students to special programs, higher education, and economic opportunity.

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For instance, screening for such programs often begins with tests that cater to the cultural references and experiences of middle-class white children. Many schools still rely on IQ tests, which were created by a known eugenicist and which experts agree are not a holistic measure of intelligence. While the US student population becomes increasingly more diverse, it’s served by a teaching force made up mostly by white women, who refer Black students to gifted programs at lower rates and suspend them at higher rates starting in preschool. Once in gifted programs, Black students are met with curriculums that cater to white students as well as teachers unprepared to meet their unique needs and learning styles.

All of this equates to what Dr. Ford refers to as educational malpractice. “Regardless of whether the school enrollment is majority Black, Hispanic, or mixed race, gifted education programs represent a White space in public schools, akin to segregation,” Dr. Ford and co-authors wrote in a 2017 research article.

It may seem simple enough to make sure historically underrepresented students make up the same proportion of gifted programs as they do the general population. So, if 19 percent of a school’s students are Black, 19 percent of students in gifted programs should be Black. But that’s called a racial quota, and it’s illegal. To provide schools a means to measure whether Black, Latine, and low-income students are adequately identified for gifted programs, Dr. Ford created the Dr. Donna Ford Equity Formula. The formula measures whether underrepresentation exceeds statistical chance.

The way gifted education promotes achievement gaps is just a small window into how the US school system promotes segregation and privileges white students. And it’s not just in conservative states. The most segregated school district in the country has long been New York City, where Black and Latine children made up 70-percent of kindergarteners in 2017, but only 10 and 8 percent of children offered spots in gifted and talented programs, respectively.

Fatherly spoke to Dr. Ford about her decades of research on culturally competent education, segregation within gifted education, how the pandemic is making it worse, and what the future looks like.

One part of your research I found striking was that while the population of students becomes increasingly diverse, the teacher population remains largely white women. What are the implications there?

I think the implications are a lot of cross-cultural clashes and misunderstanding. I think that we have to deal with deficit thinking among many, not all, but many white teachers. And this deficit thinking contributes to under-representation in gifted and over-representation in special education, and then over-representation in discipline.

So, we need more teachers period. But in particular, white teachers who are trained to be anti-racist and culturally competent. And we need more teachers of color to be cultural brokers and bicultural brokers. White students come to school all the time when they see teachers who look like them. Black students come to class and they don’t. Hispanic students come to class and they don’t. And so, this is about also having people who look like us to encourage you, maybe even to want to become an educator.

You’ve written extensively about how standardized tests that are used to determine admissions to gifted programs tend to identify middle-class white students and disadvantage Black, Latinx, and low-income students. How does that work?  What is it about the tests that align with the experiences of middle-class white students? 

In the majority of districts and states, standardized intelligence tests are used. And there are others, not just me, who consider them very biased in at least a few ways. One, they’re culturally biased, because a number of items on the intelligence tests are ones that are most familiar to the experiences of not just white students, but wealthy white students.

I was looking at something, a picture of probably 20 different apples. And it named apples —Fuji, Macintosh, apples that I don’t even know the name of. And I kept thinking, what if that was on an intelligence test? Those who don’t live in food deserts, who have actual grocery stores, have an advantage. You go in there, and you have all these different kinds of apples. You live in a food desert? Two choices to select from, right? That’s not trivial.

And then there’s linguistic bias because the test may use terms unfamiliar to Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. People are thinking about them being not English proficient. But I’m saying beyond that. So. you show a picture of a couch. I call it a couch. But the correct answer is a davenport. I mean, how many children are living in poverty from all racial backgrounds?

My son placed in early kindergarten. I was not an educator. I was a young single mom just trying to make it, but I knew my son was advanced. And so, on this test, they showed him a picture of a cow out there in greenery. And he didn’t know what it was. He was supposed to say pasture. Where the hell is he going to see a pasture in inner-city East Cleveland? You know an electrical outlet? Well, in my house, we call it a plug. So, she [the teacher] said, he called it a plugin. I said, well that’s what it is. She said no, that’s an outlet. And so she said he wasn’t ready.

So, the intelligence test does still contain those two kinds of biases. And it results in lower IQ tests for Hispanic, Black, and low-income students. And it disadvantages us, and privileges those who are wealthy and white with a lot of social capital and cultural capital.

It seems that there is a general level of acceptance that these tests don’t really work. Why do they still exist? 

There’s some level of awareness but there isn’t consensus. It’s very controversial. Unfortunately, even when they see differential scores they still continue to use these traditional intelligence tests. Because they think they’re objective, which they are, in many ways, not.

One of your recommendations for more equitable gifted program admission is that schools compare student test scores to the school or the district averages, rather than national averages.  Why is that more useful?

Well, schools don’t reflect the national averages. And I don’t have this information in front of me. But if 50 percent of our nation’s students are on free and reduced lunch, but you are in a district that’s on 95 percent reduced lunch or that’s on 10 percent reduced lunch, then you should not be looking at national averages to understand how to assess and respond equitably to the needs of your students.

You have to do district norms, and more specifically, I argue for building norms. So, in gifted education, the 1993 federal definition, my all-time favorite, says we should compare gifted children from the same income, background, and educational experiences to each other.

On one side of town in the same district, it can be quite wealthy. On the other side of town, it could be very low income. Far too many children in a title one school [a federal designation for schools with large concentrations of low-income students] will have a hard time competing with seniors in the higher resourced school building for gifted education. So to me, giftedness is relative.

Oh, this pandemic is going to further increase racial achievement gaps. It is going to further increase test score gaps, unfortunately. Because it’s the same situation – those families who have more resources can use them. For example, you have these educational pods or pandemic pods. So again all gaps — opportunity gaps, achievement gaps, test score gaps — they’re going to increase, unfortunately.

And if kids are testing or otherwise performing at a lower level this year than pre-pandemic years, should teachers change their expectations considering the circumstances? 

Well, we have to have high expectations for students living in poverty, and students of color. That’s what I meant by deficit thinking earlier — their expectations are just far too low in too many situations. And this is why I work hard to teach and do training to help teachers become more culturally competent and anti-racist. If deficit thinking decreases, expectations increase, and ultimately, the achievement gap, opportunity, gap, resource gap, you name the gap, they decrease drastically.

Another suggestion you’ve made for equity in education is that teachers reward effort over ability.

What I see is that educators just gravitate toward those who they think are “naturally smart.”  They seem to praise students who do well but don’t have to put forth a great deal of effort. But then you have students who put forth a lot of effort and still may not perform really high. And I don’t see much regard for this, much support for this. But I am someone who believes that effort will take you further in life, than this so-called ability.

And besides, all children learn differently. 

Yes. There are visual learners, auditory learners, tactile, kinesthetic, and more. There’s research on different types of intelligence. And with those different types of intelligence, there come different ways of approaching tasks and assignments. So we have to make modifications for that.

Now, I’m also maintaining that we have to look at how children learn through a cultural lens. And that’s where I use the work of A. Wade Boykin, who talks about movement and being vervistic, affective, oriented, communalistic, social time perspective, and more. So I go through those eight or nine characteristics that tend to epitomize how blacks, not all of us, but many of us prefer to learn. And that is a matter of equity. If you see that your students learn differently, then you should teach in a different way. Or, more specifically, have multiple ways of teaching. If you only have one teaching style, that is certainly not equitable. And it contributes to achievement and performance gaps.

Some schools are getting rid of gifted programs after the big issues with them are made clear. Do you think that’s like a good solution? 

Well, it’s a desperate solution, and it’s one where it seems to be that districts have tried quite a bit to diversify their gifted program, and it’s not happened. And too often, there is pushback, primarily, from upper-income white families, upper-income white mothers. It’s an act of desperation when they start saying, “Let’s get rid of gifted programs.” I’m not condoning that. But I’m saying either you’re going to have equitable, gifted programs, or we’ve got to make some significant changes in how programming is done.

Could providing enrichment programs to all students help? Or do you think it’s always best to pull certain students out?

I believe that students can be served in the general education classroom if teachers have training. I don’t think that they have to be necessarily pulled out. The bottom line is there should be a range of programming options for students who are intellectually gifted, who are highly gifted, or moderately gifted. What about those who are academically gifted only in language arts? Or only in language arts and math? Or in math and science? Or just science? What are you gonna do about the creatively gifted? We need quite a range of options.

I’ve seen some arguments that defend gifted programs with the argument that they are a good way to prevent white flight. But if gifted programs are going to be segregated anyway, is one form of segregation better than the other?

I would take out the word “good”. That’s what many families are using gifted programs for. And so to prevent white flight, educators have gifted programs, and families flock to those communities that have gifted programs so that they don’t necessarily have to put their children in a private school or a parochial school. They can save a lot of money and they can have a private school housed in a public school. So there’s misuse and abuse of gifted programs. Absolutely. And administrators know that this is the way to keep higher-income families in their community. It’s a way to keep the tax base up.

A while ago, but I will never forget it, I was interviewing a superintendent about why he did not push harder to get more Black and Hispanic students in a gifted program. And one of the things he said was if he diversified he might lose his job. And then he said if he didn’t lose his job, there would still be a white flight if there were more Black and Hispanic students in the gifted program with white, especially higher-income students. Unfortunately, I think that’s common.

Right. So it’s intentional.

Yeah, these gifted programs are a draw to bring in the higher-income families.

And over the course of your career, have you seen change?

No.

Do you feel like there’s been any progress?

No.

What do you see as the future of gifted education? I guess that’s two questions, what you hope to see and what you actually might see.

Well, I don’t expect to see enough changes to make me feel like the programs are equitable. I don’t see myself being satisfied at all.

And what I hope to see is that, frankly, we have more equitable programs in terms of access and representation of these underrepresented students.

I hope all districts will apply that equity formula so that they can numerically quantify what minimal representation should look like and see what the barriers and gatekeepers are. And yes, that’s often teachers under-referring Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. That’s the number one reason for underrepresentation. And then let’s look at what tests are being used — not just which test is used but what are the cutoff scores? Who is administering the test? What is the test? Is it an individual test? Is it a group test? Why did you choose that particular test? Are you seeing differential IQ scores? And if so, then choose another test. Are you only making a decision based on one test? Or are you using multiple criteria?

I think it is educational malpractice to make a decision about who is gifted and who is not based on one test score or one item. It should not be based solely on the teacher. It should not be based solely on a test score. It should not be based solely on a checklist. In our gifted education, they just take this one test score, just one number, and mark you as gifted or not.

So he [Ford’s son] did well enough that she let me make the choice about whether he could go to this kindergarten early. So for a low-income inner-city mom who didn’t know what she was doing in terms of testing, but who knew how to teach her son, based on how my mom taught me and I knew the importance of education and talking. It kind of paid off, but not quite. By the time he was in second grade he was talking about dropping out of school. He was so bored and frustrated. And my very first book, my dissertation, and book, was on underachievement among gifted black students. And it came from watching how all this work I put into my son was being undone. And quickly.