Reaching the Underserved in Gifted Education – by Holly Paul, Stacey Burt

A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle

The National Association for Gifted Children (2020a) defines gifted children as those “who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude…or competence…in one or more domains.” Gifted programs exist to provide enrichment to the core curriculum and support these children in reaching their potential. Unfortunately, racial and ethnic minority students are regularly underrepresented in these programs, with the largest disparity being black students. It is both immoral and illegal not to educate a child on the low end of the special education spectrum. Why, then, do we not have the same moral imperative to help all intellectually gifted students reach their potential?

While interest in the identification and education of gifted learners has waxed and waned throughout the history of the United States, talent identification again rose to the forefront as soon as the Russians launched the Sputnik rocket (Clark, 2013). As a country we entered a period of high interest in students that showed exceptional talent in the fields of math and science, and while all children demonstrating promise were selected for enrichment and academic acceleration, the majority of those students were white (Kellogg, 2016). The United States remains today at an elevated state of high interest in STEM talent as technology becomes a greater influence and defines national progress, yet blacks are still grossly underrepresented in this area (Hrabowski, 2018).

Barriers to Identifying Giftedness in Black Children

As our country becomes increasingly diverse, the gifted population continues to stand in stark contrast, with the demographics in gifted education having changed very little since the inception of the program. The National Center for Education Statistics (2017) points out that the discrepancy between the number of students who identify with a racial group other than white and the number of racial and ethnic minority students identified and being served in gifted education programs has become a pressing issue, however a disturbing disparity remains.

According to Peters, Gentry, and Whiting, (2019) the underrepresentation as of 2016 is as follows: Black 43%, Latinx 30%, and Native American 13%. Unfortunately, these numbers continue to remain stagnant. Ford, Wright, Sewell, Whiting, and Moore (2018) explain that “Black students are always the most underrepresented students in gifted and advanced courses. The average is approximately 40-60% depending on the year.” They go on to point out that this equates to more than 250,000 students being denied gifted services annually.

Why are fewer black students being identified as gifted?

There is no single answer to that question. Perhaps it could have to do with the race of the teacher in the room (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsey, & Papageorge, 2018). White teachers may not recognize gifted characteristics from another culture as readily as they recognize those from their own. Additionally, many of the assessments that test for giftedness use Standard American English (SAE) language and experiences from white culture, so blacks are more likely to score lower. Ford, Grantham, and Whiting (2008) suggest that perception of the student could also be a key player in underrepresentation of blacks in gifted programs. Couple the SAE with negative perceptions that many black student hold toward gifted testing and education, and this further lessens the chance qualifying (Ford, 2011).

Another barrier could be parents of affluence that have the resources and time to ensure their students get coveted spots in accelerated and advanced courses (Pirtle, 2019). Some point to the fact that there are no federal laws requiring gifted programming or federal funding to develop new, multicultural identification tools. Whatever the reason for the large populations of underserved children in gifted programs, our country cannot survive neglecting to cultivate the brightest minds of all races. Not only is it advantageous for the country to identify intellectual talent in all children, but America has a civil and ethical duty to do so. Kellogg (2016) reports that according the U.S. Department of Education, black students are 16.7 % of the total student population in the United States, yet less than 10% of the students in gifted programming are black.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects.

Attributable to the vast disparities in several areas- income, physical fitness, housing, and occupation to name a few, racial and ethnic minority communities have suffered disproportionately to their neighboring white communities. Due to the pandemic causing students to be educated in the classroom, online, and a hybrid of the two, an already arduous task has been exacerbated. Combine this with the already documented complications of identifying racial and ethnic minority students, and it is daunting to consider what could happen to this grossly underserved population. Ford (2020) pointed out that this horrific pandemic is an alarming reminder that academic lives matter, too.

Louise Rosenblatt (1938) began developing her transactional theory regarding reader response in the late 1930s. She asserted that reading is a transactional act between the reader and his or her text, and the meaning drawn from the text is based on student backgrounds, which vary widely. Rosenblatt points out that the reader counts as much as the book itself, because the reader is interacting with the text, making connections. If we cast that net a bit further, we see that the gifted assessment (the one that is written from a traditional, white cultural context) is doing the very thing Rosenblatt warned us against –  discounting the reader and his or her experiences.

Many mainstream teachers have little to no training in gifted education.

Unfortunately, for most teachers, if they do not seek out training for gifted education, they do not receive it. Teachers can easily recognize high test scores and avid interest in academics as a sign to observe a child for giftedness. However, many minority students have deficits due to lack of rigor in equitable education that can contribute to poor performance on standardized tests, especially if the test was normed using predominately white students.

School performance and school behavior is a product of a student’s culture and life experience. Due to a lack of multicultural education training, many white teachers may not understand the black culture, these experiences are discounted, and the teacher might overlook giftedness, instead focusing on behavior.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children (2020b), there are several barriers to identifying students. Aside from the lack of teacher training, the assessments used can be culturally biased, depending largely on verbal scores, proving challenging to students of color who commonly exhibit their giftedness through nonverbal expression.

Characteristics of Giftedness in Black Students

Black students are concrete, visual, field dependent learners. They rely on what they know and the outside world to assist with cognition. Because most teachers teach through verbal, abstract means, black students can become or be labeled as underachievers. Some of these behaviors can be misinterpreted by both teachers and parents as problem behavior. Characteristics of giftedness in black students that Ford (2011) points out include:

  • High nonverbal fluency and originality
  • High creative productivity in small groups
  • Use of language that contains strong imagery
  • Adeptness in visual arts
  • Highly motivated by games, music, sports, humor, and concrete activities
  • Extreme motivation from music, sports, competition, and humor
  • Articulateness in role-playing, sociodrama, and storytelling
  • Response to concrete and kinesthetic learning expressive use of gestures, bogy language; ability to interpret body language
  • Creativity in artistic and musical expressions
  • Best able to solve problems with visual and auditory content
  • Have strong memories; spontaneous recall
  • Fluency of ideas
  • Resourceful and adaptable
  • Strong leadership qualities
  • Strong vocabulary
  • Asks many questions
  • Has his or her own ideas
  • Has a keen sense of justice, injustice, and human understanding
  • Makes unusual connections
Key Take-Aways for Educators

Today’s teachers are ill-prepared to work with students who do not look like them. While many of the characteristics listed above are common sign of giftedness in most student populations, they are especially important to note in black student population. Ford (2011) reminds us that because teachers are often the persons making referrals for Gifted programs, it is critical that they are aware of these characteristics. Because there is typically only one assessment administered for gifted education, the flaws of which previously noted, educators need to have a paradigm shift. Rather than looking at grades and academics first, they should train themselves to look for the characteristics above.

Note when a child is observed exhibiting these characteristics. Once identified, be certain that the coursework is rigorous, pushing the students to think critically, problem solve, and engage in metacognition, preparing the student to tackle an assessment (Felder, et al., 2015). Then, reach out to the gifted coordinator and the parents.

Additionally, lobby for the district to administer multiple assessments rather than a single, high-stakes assessment and for professional development funds to be spent on training teachers on multicultural education. This would assist in closing the achievement gap across races for students at all levels. Parents, teachers, and all stakeholders are encouraged to take the time to understand the characteristics and frustrations in identifying giftedness, as knowing the hurdles is the first step to overcoming them.

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