It’s no secret that there are immense structural problems with the state of education in the US. From funding shortages to outdated curriculum, the general consensus is that American education is failing its students. But it’s not just the act of educating students that we’re failing at. Teachers and schools are failing to identify and nurture potential talent so that gifted students can thrive.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon disproportionately impacts students of color — specifically Black, Latino, and Indigenous students. In contrast, studies prove that students of color are just as capable, and with just as much potential as white students, white students are far more likely to be identified as advanced than non-white students.
Since Brown vs. The Board of Education became the law of the land in 1954, schools are no longer allowed to legally segregate students by race. But the American education system has, nevertheless, adapted. White students are still offered a better education than non-white students. This problem has amounted to a modern form of segregation within the American public school system.
Schools are failing to identify and enroll students of color in gifted and talented programs
America likes to pride itself on the idea that every person born here has access to an equal playing field, but the reality is more complicated than that. No, schools are no longer separated by race. But programs within schools (like gifted and talented programs) have become segregated by default.
According to Dr. Marcia Gentry, Professor of Educational Studies at Purdue University, although students of color are just as likely to attend schools that identify gifted and talented students as their white peers, they are significantly less likely to be recognized as such. That means that non-white students have the opportunity to be chosen for these programs, but they are being blocked by gatekeepers who don’t see their potential.
A study conducted by Gentry found that while white students comprise 48% of all students, they make up 59% of gifted and talented students. While 15% of students are Black, only 8.5% of gifted and talented students are Black; 27% of American students are Latino, but make up only 18% of gifted and talented students.
When teachers only identify white students as gifted and separate them into talented classes, they are, in effect, segregating students. They are offering white students a more advanced curriculum and better education than their peers of color.
What is causing this modern-day form of segregation?
It can be easy to assume that non-white students aren’t being placed in gifted programs because they are inherently, well, less gifted. But this isn’t the case. Dr. Marcia Gentry believes that if the American systems for identifying gifted and talented students were working correctly, there would have been almost 500,000 more Black students identified as gifted and talented in 2016. It follows that the same would be true for other non-white students.
Several factors cause students of color to be overlooked by teachers and schools when it comes to being placed in gifted programs. Part of the system failure is the inherent cultural biases of gifted and talented tests. Experts believe that standardized tests are designed for students with “background knowledge” specific to white, middle-class students. That means these tests assume a general knowledge of phrases, language, and context specific to the white American experience.
There are also socioeconomic factors that affect this phenomenon. Census records show that people of color, in general, have a lower annual household income. That means parents of color not only make less money, but they have less time, less education, less emotional bandwidth, and, most of all, less power than more affluent (i.e., white) parents.
Middle and upper-class parents are generally more aggressive in pushing for gifted and talented testing for their children. Because white parents have lived experiences that make them believe they are smart and worthy of a good education, they believe the same thing of their children. The same is not true for parents of non-white students — many who might not even be aware of gifted and talented programs, let alone push for their children to be included in them.
Another factor is that, unfortunately, many teachers often hold implicit biases against non-white students, instinctively discounting or ignoring their non-white students’ potential. Implicit biases are especially hard to address because a teacher might not even know they are biased against a student. And if they become aware of a racial or cultural bias they have, they might be too ashamed to address it.
Why do gifted and talented programs even matter?
To some, gifted programs may seem superfluous — a waste of resources when schools’ budgets are already stretched thin. But the benefits of gifted programs are real and backed up by data. One study showed that talented students who are educated through pursue doctoral degrees at 50 times the base rate expectation.
The goal of genuinely effective education is not merely to teach children but to teach children how to love to learn. School shouldn’t be just about forcing a child to memorize facts and figures, but about stimulating a child’s curiosity. When a gifted child isn’t challenged in the classroom, they become bored, they lose interest in learning and become “mental dropouts.”
Think, for example, about learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve graduated to a two-wheeler, racing against people still in training wheels wouldn’t be any fun. The same could be said about education. If you’re advanced enough to start reading “Lord of the Rings” and “Little Women,” “Cat in the Hat” isn’t going to cut it anymore. Running laps around your competition doesn’t just feel unchallenging; it feels pointless.
Gifted programs challenge students, which, in turn, engages students more profoundly. As William Butler Yeats once said, “education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
How can we fix this inequality?
Because the problem of gifted and talented segregation is so structural, fixing the racial gap would require a massive overhaul of our current system. Schools need to start approaching their students’ education with an eye towards equity rather than equality. That means that schools need to begin evaluating both students’ needs and their talents while considering the contexts of their lives, like their race and/or their socioeconomic status.
To start, we must begin recruiting and training teachers of color. A study conducted by Vanderbilt University found that Black students are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs if their teacher is Black (compared to if their teacher is non-Black).
Gentry also proposes that there should be more than one way of qualifying students for gifted and talented programs, like capstone projects or creativity assessments. That means that culturally biased standardized tests alone wouldn’t be how students are identified as gifted.
The bottom line is, children across all races, ethnicities, and cultures come with specialized gifts. Schools have a responsibility to find these gifts and nurture them to their full potential. But as of now, they are failing to help students of color grow.