Decades of research have documented a pervasive problem in American public schools and tried to offer a variety of solutions — to little effect: The general neglect of gifted students coupled with a persistent underrepresentation of low-income and minority kids in gifted and talented programs nationwide.
Many people assume that smarter kids naturally get ahead in school, but they face their own unique set of obstacles. For one thing, certain behaviors can be misinterpreted. Social skills may lag behind academic ones. The assumption that bright students will automatically succeed without additional resources can also hold back high-achieving children, whose particular talents often need to be nurtured just like any other special needs.
Even identifying the parameters of what it means to be “gifted and talented” — high IQ, above-average reading scores, creative aptitude, motivation, potential etc. — is fraught with difficulty.
Many of those challenges are compounded by ethnic and racial disparities, a timely issue given the bitter racial discord in this U.S. election year and debates about elitism and the 1 percenters.
Studies have consistently shown that black and Latino students are far less likely than their white or Asian peers to participate in gifted and talented programs, often mirroring the gap in test scores among the four groups.
But a study by Vanderbilt University published earlier this year found a stark difference even among white and black students with similar test scores: When scholars surveyed 10,000 U.S. elementary children with the same math and reading scores, they found that a high-scoring white student was twice likely as a high-scoring black student to get assigned to a gifted and talented program (interestingly, the gap between Hispanic and white students virtually disappeared).
“We document that even among students with high standardized test scores, black students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services in both math and reading, a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools,” wrote researchers Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding.
A January 2016 article in U.S. News & World Report noted that the Vanderbilt study did uncover one factor that seemed to level the playing field: When high-achieving black children were taught by a black teacher, they were just as likely as similar high-achieving white children to be assigned to a gifted program.
Similarly, a 2016 Atlantic piece on the study titled “Why Are There So Few Black Children in Gifted Programs?” pointed to possible racial bias, conscious and unconscious, in teacher referrals as one possible explanation.
The Vanderbilt scholars, however, were careful not to draw conclusions about cause and effect or labeling non-black teachers as biased. In many school districts, for example, tests not teachers determine gifted eligibility.
Theories behind this black-white divide include varying perceptions of behavior (one student may be labeled a problem child, while the other precocious), parental involvement or the possibility that black students may be more motivated by black teachers.
An earlier working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when teacher referrals in one school district were replaced by universal screenings that took income and language skill into account, the participation of black, Hispanic and poor students in gifted programs surged. The screenings proved to costly to maintain, however, and when they were curtailed, rates dipped back down.
‘Tired of Excuses’
“I’m tired of the excuses,” Kate Bachtel, board president of SENG, told The Diplomat. “After years of research into these disparities and all the complaints, we are still doing too little to identify and serve poor and minority students.”
SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) is a national nonprofit formed in 1981 that serves gifted and talented students. Bachtel listed some of the “many factors” contributing to the neglect of gifted programs in general and of minority disenfranchisement in particular.
One is a lack of understanding of gifted characteristics she sees among teachers and school administrators as well as the general public. “Many teachers are not given even basic training in the ways giftedness manifests itself in different contexts and cultures,” she said.
Importantly, high academic achievement does not automatically mean a student is gifted. In fact, some 20 percent of high school dropouts in the U.S. fall into the gifted category.
“If you see a child who is too intense, too sensitive, asks too many questions, moves too quickly or strikes you as ‘too much,’ pay attention — they may be gifted,” Bachtel advised. “Gifted students tend to search for meaning. Look for the poets and dreamers. And empathy for others is often a powerful indictor of a gifted child.”
She added: “They may be high energy, with a great need for movement and less need for sleep. And they are usually their own worst critics — perfectionists — which can lead to underachievement.”
Among poor and minority children these characteristics may be more easily labeled as disruptive behavior rather than signs of potential, she pointed out.
Other factors in the gifted “disenfranchisement,” according to Bachtel, include the failure of too many school systems to use multipronged approaches to identify such students.
Simply defining the term “gifted and talented” is problematic. An early definition judged students whose mental capacities developed ahead of their chronological ages. But as NPR’s Anya Kamenetz pointed out in a September 2015 article, “there are problems with this framework. No 6-year-old is truly mentally identical to a 12-year-old. He or she may be brilliant at mathematics but lack background knowledge or impulse control,” she wrote. “In addition, IQ tests become less useful as children get older because there is less ‘headroom’ on the test, especially for those who are already high scorers.”
Criteria vary widely across states and school districts — as do attempts to find gifted students. Even among states that actively devote resources to identifying these students, follow-up resources are often scarce. According to the U.S. News & World Report article, 35 states do identify gifted students but don’t require schools to assist them if they need help — and 15 states don’t track them at all.
Bachtel said “there are not the same legislative protections for this population” as there are for other children with special needs. And they do need help, she emphasized, including social and emotional support as well as advanced academics.
“Data show that two-thirds are bullied at school, double the average rates.” She noted that long-term exposure to bullying, poverty or crisis conditions can result in trauma and “extreme behaviors that mask giftedness.”
Money is another perennial problem. A survey conducted by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Virginia found there is almost no federal funding devoted to gifted and talented students; they receive $0.03 for every $31 in federal funds spent on children with disabilities. Varying by school level, 40 to 60 percent of gifted programs surveyed had no state funding whatsoever.
The survey also found that 84 percent of school districts nationwide dramatically under-enrolled poor students in gifted programs and fewer than half enrolled black and Hispanic students at levels that matched local demographics — meaning that disproportionate numbers of slots were typically taken by more affluent students who were white and, to a certain extent, Asian.
Model of Diversity
One school in particular, however, the Paterson Academy for the Gifted and Talented in New Jersey — a magnet school that draws students from all over its diverse district — seems to have found a formula that works. A public school that started with 125 students in 2012, it enrolled 220 students in grades two through eight this past academic year.
Eighty percent of Paterson Academy students come from low-income households. Its enrollment is 53 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black, 6 percent white and 21 percent Southeast Pacific/Bengali, according to Rita Routé, Paterson’s district supervisor of gifted and talented education.
“We have African American students sitting next to students whose families are from Bengal, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as well as Jordan or Syria. It’s a plus,” she observed.
Bachtel of SENG praised the school, noting a national tendency for gifted programs to overenroll affluent white students even in diverse districts. “I’m particularly impressed that this school’s enrollment mirrors its district population. That’s truly exceptional,” she said.
The students themselves are exceptional. The academy had three of them among the top 500 achievers at MathCON, a national online math competition for grades five to 12. The contest had 45,000 competitors from 42 states this past school year. Paterson Academy students are getting into programs run by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Routé told The Diplomat, and they’re also taking part in the state of Maryland’s annual Science Olympiad.
“It’s harder here,” said seventh-grade student Tawhid Ahmed, 13, in a phone interview last spring, “but I like that. In my old school I was the smartest. I felt bored. But here I can learn from other students. If I’m having a hard time with a subject, the teachers will take the time to take me through it step by step. And my parents like the teachers because they’re really nice.”
Ahmed said he is “very” interested in math and science and likes to write. He particularly enjoys independent projects and recently completed one on assassinated leaders throughout history, creating a series of pamphlets on the topic.
Traditional academics are only the beginning of what students learn at Paterson. All participate in “Accountable Talk,” student-centered discussions based on respectful interactions and rigorous thinking. At “Morning Meeting,” they encounter a range of enrichment topics, from cancer research to underachievement. And at teacher-facilitated “Club Time,” they can informally bond over a variety of interests geared to the gifted.
During month-long celebrations of countries and cultures, students undertake both independent and group projects. Each classroom represents a different nation, and students use “passports” to go from one to the other to complete academic activities or scavenger hunts. School-wide assemblies offer major productions such as a student-choreographed tango performance or food tasting.
Eighth-grader Ana Pena, 14, enjoys social studies and math, especially trigonometry, and wants to be a detective or a lawyer “because that way you get to help the world.” She praises Paterson for exposing her to students from varied backgrounds.
“It’s such a diverse school that now I see different points of view. It exposes us to other cultures, and I’m going to have a background most students don’t get. Two girls in my class are Bengali. There are Spanish speakers and African Americans, and we’ve learned to get along,” she said.
Fourth-grader London McKnight, 9, offered similar praise: “I have some friends from the Dominican Republic and Bangladesh, and even though we have different cultures, we treat each other the same way. At this school we don’t use stereotypes. A stereotype? Well, that’s where you heard one person is doing something bad and then you see someone from that culture doing the right thing, but you’re still seeing the bad. We don’t do that.”
Critically, academy students work in groups and take a problem-solving approach to learning in every class. “The only time they work alone is at assessment,” math teacher Dorothy Yilmaz-Thornton explained. “Students come in to my room in the morning, sit down in small groups and confer on their homework. Only if they can’t resolve something does the teacher step in — and their groups are constantly changing throughout the school day.”
McKnight says the collaboration helps. “We teach each other. If one of my friends has the answer wrong, he or she can turn to me. It makes our friendships grow closer,” she said.
“I like to write narratives. I don’t like opinion writing because it’s not as much fun, but with narratives you get to use your imagination and make your own ending,” said McKnight, who has written a novel titled “The Mystery Box.”
“I think it’s important to know I’m not the smartest kid in my family. I have four brothers and three sisters and all of them are smart,” McKnight added. “My dad [helps us and] tells us if we get a B to try harder.”
What Makes Paterson Tick?
What’s the secret of Paterson’s success? Part of it stems from widespread administrative support and intensive planning from day one, said Routé. She said that Paterson Public Schools State District Superintendent Donnie W. Evans strongly “wanted to open a school for the gifted” and set up a committee to find a potential pool of students.
It included students above the advanced proficient level of 250, particularly those who scored 275 or above in math, science and English on an assessment where 300 is a perfect score. However, admission into Paterson Academy depends on “multiple parameters” and never “just one piece of evidence,” teacher Yilmaz-Thornton emphasized.
“We surveyed all our principals, who said, ‘Do it, do it, do it!’ and we brought in district parents,” Routé recalled, noting that some of them disliked the proposed school location in a rather rough area and had to be convinced of its benefits.
Another key to the academy’s success is rigorous staff training, Routé said. All Paterson teachers and administrators, with no exceptions, undergo a district-funded certificate program in gifted education offered by Rutgers University.
Parents and students alike appreciate the results. “Regular schools” don’t challenge certain students because they “know everything being taught,” student Pena said. But at Paterson, she said, “You never have to stop. If you have a question or a topic you’re interested in, you can just go — go wherever your mind takes you, ask the questions, look things up! And you get help while you’re doing it.”
She added: “Every day my math teacher puts up a ‘guide’ to help us. A guide may be something such as, ‘A grade doesn’t define you.’ We’ve learned that a grade is something the world has made to define people, but it’s not the final truth. That truth includes your ideals, your dignity, your capabilities, how you look at yourself.”
Another guide says that, “If you doubt yourself, keep trying.” Pena said Paterson teaches students “that if we set a high bar for ourselves, there’s no limit.”
Yilmaz-Thornton described the school’s students as ambitious, driven and curious. “When I recently began teaching a particular topic, one student mentioned, ‘I watched a video on that last night because I thought you might be teaching that today,’” she recalled. “My kids are so inquisitive, so self-motivated. They ask why — always.”
About the Author
Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.