Gifted Education: Opening the Gates
The programs vary widely. In some schools, students attend regular classes most of the time but are pulled out once or twice a week to participate in special activities like a Socratic debate. In other districts, students test into specific gifted schools or programs in which they are mostly or entirely separated from “nongifted” peers.
Does the federal government require gifted programs?
No. Instead, each state decides whether such programs will be required. They are fully funded in only four states, according to the Davidson Institute, a nonprofit that serves exceptionally gifted students. Another eight states neither require gifted education nor fund it. Other states are somewhere in between.
“The big problem with there not being a federal mandate is that it really matters where you live, what ZIP code you live in. It dictates what you’re going to get,” said Stacy Hawthorne, of the Davidson Institute.
Nationwide, only 56 percent of the nation’s schools teach students who have been identified as gifted and talented, according to Purdue’s Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute.
Do they make a difference?
Some research, though, suggests that the effect is less profound, with only science achievement improving for those attending a gifted and talented magnet program. And yet another study found that when schools move to stop grouping mathematics students into advanced and regular levels, often called tracking, high-achieving students achieve at the same levels, and middle- and low-achieving students score at significantly higher levels.
Who is moving away from gifted programs?
New York City is the first major school system to entirely phase out its program for gifted and talented students.
Seattle, meanwhile, ended a program for gifted middle school students. And a proposed math curriculum overhaul in California sought to end the practice of placing students in either regular or advanced placement math tracks starting in sixth grade. But the proposal, derided by critics as “woke math,” has been tabled.
In Virginia, a premier public high school has dramatically increased the number of Black and Hispanic students offered admission under a new application system. Other districts, like Montgomery County, Maryland, and Broward County, Florida, also have overhauled their admissions process.
And the data is startling: Only 8 percent of students in gifted and talented programs are Black, although they make up 15 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment. Latinos, similarly, make up 18 percent of gifted program enrollment but a 27 percent share of the overall student population, the most recent federal numbers show.
The reasons have nothing to do with intelligence, Gentry and other experts say. The public school teachers who often make the referrals are about 80 percent white. But when a Black child has a teacher of the same race, they have a higher probability to be admitted, a 2016 study found.
Affluent families also are much more likely to be able to shell out money for test-preparation classes and tutors. And if they don’t like the results of school testing, they can pay afford to pay for their own private testing.
Just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned segregated education in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Russia launched the Sputnik satellite. That raised fears that the country was falling behind technologically and led to an explosion in gifted and talented programs.
Some gifted programs emerged in magnet schools, designed to lure white children to predominately Black neighborhoods to integrate them. In other districts, the gifted programs were set up to keep white families from leaving public schools and taking their tax dollars with them.
Lewis Terman, who believed that the human race could be improved through selective and restrictive breeding, is credited with revamping one of the earliest IQ exams in 1916 and then following some of the highest scorers on his still-in-use Stanford-Binet test throughout their lives.
“The way to change it isn’t what New York is doing, which is to get rid of all the programing,” Gentry said. “What you do is you fix the problem. You say we have to open the programs up and make them accessible to kids who we have been excluding.”
Many districts are trying to do just that, said Lauri Kirsch, president of the National Association of Gifted Children. She said the best approach is to screen all students and to do so multiple times. She said districts also shouldn’t just rely on an IQ test or a teacher referral to identify them. Some districts use nonverbal tests to identify students who aren’t native English speakers.
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