Gifted Black and Latino Kids Are Being Ignored, and That's Bad for All of Us

Feb 9, 2016 12:00:00 AM


When I was in high school, I went to a summer program for advanced students at the University of Delaware. There were lots of smart people there, but one of the standouts was a young African-American woman named Shauna. One night in the dorm, she told the rest of us a story about her first-grade reading group. When she started first grade, she already read very well. Nonetheless, her teacher still put her in the lowest reading group. All the other kids were reading very slowly, so Shauna thought that was what she was supposed to do, too. Fortunately, her savvy middle-class parents quickly caught on, told the teacher their daughter knew how to read, and suddenly Shauna found herself in the highest reading group. After our summer together ended, Shauna and I fell out of touch. The other day, in a middle-aged fit of reminiscence, I looked her up on the Internet and discovered that more than two decades ago, she had become the first African-American to serve as president of the Stanford Law Review. Unfortunately, even now, decades later, too many gifted African-American and Latino students are stuck in the first part of Shauna’s story, where their talents go unrecognized. New research shows that even when African-American and white students achieve at the same high levels, the African-American students are only half as likely to be assigned to a gifted program. While lack of gifted programs in the schools many African-American students attend is a factor in this discrepancy, other research has demonstrated that teachers of the same race as an individual student are likely to have higher expectations for the student. In a country where the majority of teachers are white and the majority of public school students are not, this presents a big challenge. Ironically, it is possible that districts’ efforts to broaden the criteria on which students are judged as gifted have backfired, because new measures are likely to rely on an individual teacher’s judgment. One school district’s experience trying an alternative strategy points to a better way. A recent  economic working paper explains what happened when a large, diverse school district chose to screen all its second-graders using a nonverbal test that relied on questions about symbols and shapes. Students who met cutoff scores on that test were referred for free IQ testing. Under this new system the number of African-American students in the district’s gifted program nearly doubled, and the number of Latino students more than doubled. That was the good news. The bad news, however, came in 2011, when the district ended the universal screening due to its expense. Gifted program participation rates for African-American, Hispanic and low-income students fell back to their earlier, anemic levels. While many educators advocate for helping teachers  reduce their cultural biases, addressing those biases  doesn’t come easy. I hope more school districts will find the political will—and the money—to try strategies like universal screening to find and nurture gifted thinkers, no matter the skin color or family income of the child involved. Doing so could reduce the belief gap both by increasing equity and giving teachers more examples of what giftedness looks like when it doesn’t come in a white, middle-class package.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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