Gifted And Talented Programs Have A Big Problem

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Back in the dark ages, I was in the local gifted and talented program. Once a week, we left class to learn about things outside of our normal curriculum, like how the stock market worked and the life cycle of bacteria. We took field trips to local museums. All of my friends were in it: the more well-off kids, the kids with nicer houses, the kids whose parents could shell out for things like Girl Scouts and gymnastics lessons and horseback riding in our rusty steel-mill town.

Looks like nothing has changed, according to a study out of Vanderbilt University

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, in the 20111-2012 school year (the last year for which they have reliable data), 3.2 million children were enrolled in gifted and talented education programs, though those numbers varied wildly by state and by demographic subgroup. Turns out, implementation of gifted and talented programs are typically left up to the states and local school districts to figure out.

Who gets into gifted and talented programs, according to the Vanderbilt study? The same upper middle-class white kids who got into mine, so many years ago.

As a result, there is an increased “variability in the quality of services and creates inequities of access for students in poverty, from racial and ethnic minority groups, English learners, and those with disabilities.” So if you’re a low-income student, a student of color, a student who doesn’t speak English as a first language, or a student with a disability, you are very likely at a major disadvantage.

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According to the Vanderbilt study, low-income kids miss out on gifted and talented programs the most. Using data from local schools, they found that “gaps in the receipt of gifted services between the highest and lowest SES [socio-economic status] students are profound, and these gaps remain substantial even after taking into account students’ achievement levels and other background factors.”

The richer you are, the more likely you are to land yourself a place in the gifted and talented program — even if you’ve got the same scores as the poor kid sitting next to you. And as The Balance reports, using numbers from the U.S. Census, there is a significant racial wealth gap in American that, in turn, influences education.

So who gets into gifted and talented programs, according to the Vanderbilt study?

The same upper middle-class white kids who got into mine, so many years ago.

Moreover, the study found that the gap wasn’t across schools, according to an article by Nashville NPR. It was within schools. In other words, individual teachers, administrators, and whoever scouts kids for these programs were making these decisions. Jason Grissom, who co-authored the study, said that, “We found kids going to the exact same schools had very different probabilities of being assigned on the basis of socioeconomic status.” These kids had “the same level of academic achievement,” measured by math and reading scores. But the richer kids got in. The poorer kids didn’t.

Some of this may have happened because the richer parents pushed. I know my parents did. When they first tested me, my test scores were abysmal. But my mother insisted I deserved the gifted and talented program, and demanded to have me retested. Low-income parents, on the other hand, may not understand the benefits of gifted and talented programs, according to a monograph by Carol Ann Tomlinson. She points to the example of Hope Academy, founded to help inner city children in Chicago develop giftedness. The director assumed people would be “lined up around the block” to enroll, but found this was not the case. He ended up going door-to-door, and using brochures and ads to help inform parents about Hope Academy and how it could benefit their children. He used the program brochure to help parents “think about their children in a different way by considering questions such as: Does your child make up stories, invent things, seem to be in constant motion, and use big words?”

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By encouraging parental involvement, we may be able to help close this wealth gap in gifted and talented education. This is just one solution among many to help close the achievement gap. Others include better testing, more diverse entry requirements, and implementing affirmative action-like programs.

We need to fix this problem now, before more qualified students fall by the wayside.

The ability of these high-achieving, low-income kids to access gifted and talented programs can have severe consequences down the road, too. The National Association of Gifted and Talented Children’s Emergent Talent fact sheet notes that high-achieving, low-income students attend selective colleges at a rate of 14%, rather than the 21% of their “more advantaged peers;” only 49% graduate from college, compared to 77% of the other kids; and 22% earn a graduate degree. A whopping 47% of the other kids manage it. Those differences are staggering, and they may have their roots in early selection for a gifted and talented program.

So we need to fix this problem. And we need to fix it now, before more smart kids fall by the wayside, before more deserving kids learn to think they’re not as smart as their rich peers, before the forces of institutionalized capitalism and racism combine to shut out worthy students.

In other words: we need to fix gifted and talented programs before it’s too late.

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