Earlier this month, Rock Bridge High School alumna Janylah Thomas posted on Facebook inviting people of color to share experiences of racism by faculty and students there. She received over 1,000 replies in which students shared not only their disturbing experiences but also the lack of adequate response by the administration, district or school board.
Janylah and many of her peers attended the most recent Columbia School Board meeting to make these testimonies in person. They also presented a list of demands. One was: “Disband Extended Educational Experiences and other gifted programs and redirect the resources to underprivileged kids.” I applaud the students’ commitment to racial justice, and I’d like suggest ways to distribute gifted education resources more equitably.
While equality means giving everyone the same resources, opportunities and rights, equity involves meeting people’s unique needs to promote fairness. Gifted education could be an important tool in promoting equity — but not as it is implemented in CPS.
The National Association for Gifted Children defines giftedness as “the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age, age, experience and environment in one or more domains,” and notes that it’s distributed across racial and socioeconomic groups. Yet CPS’s gifted programs serve kids who are 78% white (60% of CPS students are white), 2.5% Black (20% of CPS), 9% Asian (5% of CPS) and 7% multiracial (9% of CPS); only 11% of gifted students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, compared to 44% districtwide. We can either claim white kids are 10 times as likely to be gifted as their Black peers or admit there’s something wrong with the selection process.
Qualifying for EEE involves receiving certain scores on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, 3rd Edition in kindergarten or second grade, then meeting benchmarks on the Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children, 5th Edition .
Savvy parents may prep their kids or advocate for retesting, which skews outcomes. Moreover, NAGC criticizes overreliance on these tests, which tend to screen out culturally, linguistically and neurologically diverse kids. Instead, it recommends using multiple measures for selection, including teacher observations, student interviews and work samples — as well as identifying “twice exceptional” students (gifted with a learning/behavioral difference).
Gifted education programs nationwide show similar discrepancies. In 2014, 7.7% of white students were in a gifted program, compared to 4.4% of Blacks, 4.4% of Latinos and 13.3% of Asians. Students in poverty are also less likely to be identified as gifted, so poor Black and brown students face a double barrier. Scholars have found that admission criteria favor middle-class white students, so gifted programs function — contrary to best intentions — as part of a racialized tracking system that advantages already privileged students and contributes to the racism Rock Bridge students experienced. It’s no coincidence the school district’s discipline statistics are the reverse of EEE participation, with Black students overrepresented for suspensions; students with unrecognized gifts may express their boredom and frustration by acting out.
Gifted education may benefit some marginalized kids, including poor white and Asian students. But why not widen those benefits? While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that public schools serve exceptional children (whether gifted and/or special needs); it doesn’t specify how. Besides changing selection criteria, we could also choose the most qualified students from each school. In areas with de facto racial segregation, this practice has diversified gifted programs.
Even better, services to gifted students could be delivered through inclusion models, in which teachers certified in gifted education push into classrooms instead of pulling kids out, thus enriching the curriculum for everyone.
We can also train teachers to differentiate instruction, so all kids are challenged in their classrooms. Differentiation is part of the “continuum of services” NAGC recommends instead of pull-out programs alone. CPS’s plan to move to standards-referenced grading may help — while identifying which kids are already exceeding standards, teachers can plan how to serve them.
CPS would not be alone in reforming gifted education. Districts around the country, including New York City, plan to disband and reformulate their programs, given gross inequalities. I applaud the steps CPS has already taken toward improving equity, including through the Advancement via Individual Determination program, but more can be done.
Whatever alternatives are chosen, it’s unconscionable to continue EEE as is, given racial and socioeconomic disparities in participation. I respect other parents’ choices, but I wouldn’t put my own white, middle-class kids in EEE. Reinforcing the false belief that kids who look, sound and act like them are “the smart ones” would outweigh whatever educational benefit they’d gain.
These suggestions will be controversial. Most parents support equity but may hesitate if they perceive their own children might lose out. CPS personnel may cite their sincere efforts to broaden opportunities, but we should measure the success of these attempts not based on intentions but on outcomes, which, as Rock Bridge alumni pointed out, are unacceptable.
Rosalie Metro is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in the MU College of Education.