How Can You Really Tell Which Children Are Gifted?

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March 13 2013 8:15 AM

Who Should Be in the Gifted Program?

New York, D.C., and other cities experiment with making honors classes more inclusive.

Students arriving at school
Students arriving at school

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Starting in second grade, I took a school bus from my middle-class neighborhood to downtown Louisville, Ky., where my grade school was surrounded by public housing projects, as part of an effort to desegregate schools. The year I started there, I was identified as “gifted” and put in a separate, accelerated class, where my classmates were mostly other white boys and girls from the suburbs.

In 1975, the school system in Louisville had launched the district-wide “Advance Program,” which offered an enriched curriculum, just as the desegregation plan went into effect. All Louisville schools were required to have a mix of black and white students so that the number of black students never fell below or rose above a certain cutoff. (It varied over the years, but the range was around 20 to 40 percent.) In the Advance Program, however, the rules didn’t apply because classroom assignments within schools were exempt. The percentage of black students in the gifted program was 11 percent.

I had the choice to leave the school in fourth grade, as did my suburban peers, but most of us stayed at our inner city school because our parents liked the program so much. From second grade until my senior year in high school, my classes never had more than two black students at a time.

I would like to think that I’m smart, but it’s also clear that economic privilege and racial prejudice had as much—if not more—to do with admission to the Advance Program as intelligence. In the course of a lawsuit brought by black families against the school district in the 1990s, the school district was required to produce data from the program. The numbers showed that black students in Louisville who took the Advance Program admission test were much less likely to be recommended to join the program than white children, even if they scored in the top percentile. In fact, more than two-thirds of black middle- and high-school students who did well on the tests were denied entrance to the program by the teachers and counselors who made the final determinations, while only a third of white kids were rejected.

Gifted and talented programs have been the target of criticism ever since the concept took hold in the 1970s as huge demographic changes were transforming urban school districts. White, middle-class families were fleeing to the suburbs. Like magnet schools, accelerated programs for gifted students were attractive to many of these families and provided a way to counteract this flight and maintain diversity in city school systems. The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support.

Today, gifted programs still tend to separate students by race. New York City is a case in point. There, the education department has been struggling for years to change the demographic makeup of its gifted program—which is disproportionately white and Asian—and spread access to a more representative group of students. There are a handful of open-enrollment gifted schools in the city, but the district’s efforts at increasing diversity in the bulk of gifted and talented classrooms have largely backfired.

In 2006, a quarter of students in New York City gifted classrooms were white, although white students made up only 15 percent of the student population. The district attempted to level the playing field by eliminating a subjective system in which teachers and preschools played a major role in deciding which students were identified as gifted. From then on, students across the city would have to take the same two tests. Decisions about who made it in would be centralized. The hope was that using more objective measures would expand access and prevent in-the-know parents from gaming the system.

But relying on tests produced the opposite effect. Middle-class parents frantically prepped their 4-year-olds for testing. This year, 70 percent of students identified as gifted in the city are white or Asian, up from 68 percent last year, while just over a quarter are black or Hispanic.

In 2006, before it changed the admissions system, New York City opened 15 new gifted and talented programs to serve more minority children, bringing the number of schools with the programs to more than 200, according to officials at the time. By 2009, many of those programs had been shuttered. There were only about 140 schools with gifted classrooms that year. This year, there are just 88. The neighborhoods that lost gifted and talented programs tended to be those with high concentrations of blacks and Hispanics: Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Flatbush, Washington Heights.

Asked about the changes, department officials said they have actually increased the number of gifted and talented seats in recent years to meet growing demand. Given the decrease in the number of schools offering the program and the declining percentage of minorities in the program, it follows that the new seats are probably concentrated in just a few schools, many of them in affluent areas. So the question is, should they keep expanding the program? As a recent New York Times article noted, “The accelerated classrooms serve as pipelines to the city’s highest-achievement middle schools and high schools, creating a cycle in which students who start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools.” In the D.C. suburbs and other places, gifted and talented programs have the same dynamic.

Proponents of gifted education argue vigorously against doing away with it entirely. “There’s nothing worse than having a bright, talented child just sitting,” says Joan Franklin Smutny, director of the Center for Gifted, a nonprofit based in a Chicago suburb. “They need to be challenged. They need to be inspired.”

Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at University of Connecticut, agrees with Smutny: “The biggest problem with bright kids in urban schools, besides being picked on, is they are dying from boredom. The longer they stay in school, the lower their scores become.”

Supporting their argument is a 2011 study of high-achieving children by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. It found that many such students lose ground over time, prompting the researchers to worry that “closing achievement gaps and ‘leaving no child behind’ [are] coming at the expense of our ‘talented tenth’—and America’s future international competitiveness.”

The racial disparities are “a great shame, of course,” wrote Chester Finn, the president of Fordham, in a recent blog post, “but it’s not exactly a surprise that more affluent kids are likelier to end up in gifted programs. Their families don’t face the stress of poverty, and they tend to have two parents who read to their children, send them to preschool, etc.”

Determining whether a child is actually more intelligent than her peers or whether she’s just the product of more affluent, ambitious parents is a difficult task for school systems interested in breaking the cycle of privilege that gifted education tends to fuel. Experts caution against relying heavily on tests, as New York does, but there are no national or even state standards defining giftedness, according to the National Society for the Gifted and Talented, an advocacy group.

The society suggests that parents and teachers check a list of traits, including whether children are “perfectionist and idealistic,” “asynchronous,” or “problem solvers.” Smutny says teachers should be trained to look for a different set of characteristics, such as creativity, well-developed imaginations, and curiosity, which she says are correlated with above-average intelligence. They must also be trained to “cut through” stereotypes, she says, so that talented children who are also poor or from a racial minority are not overlooked.

Is there a better way to provide education for gifted children without exacerbating racial inequities? Officials in the Washington, D.C., public schools believe they’ve found a possible answer. This year, for the first time in more than a decade, the D.C. schools have reintroduced gifted education. The decision comes as many city neighborhoods are experiencing a surge of new middle-class, white families, and one reason for the reintroduction of gifted classes is to entice more of them to choose public, not private, schools. The district opened one gifted program in a middle school near the affluent blocks around Georgetown University.

But it also opened one at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7, a majority low-income, black-student-attended school, and at West Education Campus, in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood, where there is a small but growing population of Hispanic immigrants mixing with the predominantly black population.

Unlike traditional gifted programs, which usually require a test to get in, the D.C. programs are open to any student who wants to enroll. D.C. is aiming the program both at students who are book smart and those who may struggle on traditional measures of achievement but have other extraordinary talents that are harder to measure with a test. The plan is to “build up the gifts they have rather than just focus on their weaknesses,” said Mathew Reif, the district’s director of advanced and enriched instruction.

The principal at Kelly Miller, Abdullah Zaki, explains that the idea is to expand the concept of giftedness. “If there’s a kid who is not reading at grade level but has the gift of gab and can argue you down in a heartbeat, they’re obviously interested in debate,” he says. “We can take their natural gift and talent and hone and polish it.” Working on the skill the student enjoys and is good at might improve other skills that don’t come as naturally—such as analysis or reading of complex texts, Zaki says.

The open-door policy D.C. has embraced may offer a way around the dilemma of identifying gifted children. “The bias should be to let students who want to try these classes try them,” says Gary Orfield, a political scientist at UCLA who has advocated for more racial integration in schools. “There should be a very explicit commitment to race and class diversity and targeted recruitment to make it happen.”

But simply allowing all comers to participate in gifted education doesn’t erase its problems. When Kelly Miller launched its gifted program last fall, principal Abdullah Zaki says he “thought it would be a big clamor throughout our community—parents rushing to get their kids into our building. That didn’t happen the way I wanted.”

Convincing the black families in Kelly Miller’s neighborhood to enroll their children has been a challenge, partly because for many the term “gifted and talented” was a foreign concept, Zaki says. He’s taken to using synonyms like “honors” to persuade parents to take an interest, even if it doesn’t quite capture what the school is trying to offer students.

In addition, placing students with a wide range of abilities together is a difficult undertaking for teachers. It takes tremendous skill to create lesson plans that will challenge high-achieving students while not leaving others behind—one reason gifted programs were created in the first place. D.C. has hired three specialized teachers to lead the gifted curriculum at each of the middle schools with the program. They spend time each week with small groups of students working on projects tailored to the group’s talents and interests. But the specialized teachers’ time is divided among all of the classrooms in the school. And Kelly Miller is also offering a more traditional version of gifted education, with a track of accelerated math and literacy courses for students who score well in those subjects.

The “schoolwide enrichment model,” as it’s known, has had some success elsewhere, but there’s no data yet to show how the schools are doing. D.C. officials say they’re watching the experiment closely and will look at test scores and teacher, parent, and student responses, and other measures at the end of the year.

The D.C. model may end up being a watered-down version of gifted and talented education that can’t match the more exclusive programs found in New York and other places. But it’s also much fairer, and it may also be a more effective way to reach the students with innate talent. The Fordham study’s other major finding was that a large number of children are “late bloomers,” whose abilities appear only later in their school careers. At Kelly Miller, Zaki says the whole point is to identify these students—the ones with potential and talent who have so far been overlooked, possibly because of their race or class. “That’s the excellent thing about it,” he said. “These kids exist.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization based at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the author of Divided We Fail: The Story of an African-American Community That Ended the Era of School Desegregation.

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