The Missing Black Children in Gifted Programs

A teacher’s race—and racial biases—can affect how many African-American students are assigned to such classes.

Seventh-grade students take part in a trial run of a state assessment test on laptop computers at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Md. The new test is linked to the Common Core standards, which Maryland adopted in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and serves as criteria for students in math and reading.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Alia Wong, The Atlantic
Jan. 20, 2016, 10:30 a.m.

It’s a real­ity that’s rattled the edu­ca­tion world for years: Black and Latino stu­dents are far less likely than their white and Asi­an peers to be as­signed to gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted pro­grams. The odds of get­ting as­signed to such pro­grams are 66 per­cent lower for black stu­dents and 47 per­cent lower for Latino stu­dents than they are for their white coun­ter­parts.

Giv­en the well-known ra­cial dis­par­it­ies in aca­dem­ic test scores that gen­er­ally de­term­ine en­roll­ment in these pro­grams, the gap may seem in­ev­it­able. But even among stu­dents with high scores on math and read­ing as­sess­ments, black chil­dren are severely un­der­rep­res­en­ted in gif­ted pro­grams; a high-achiev­ing white stu­dent is twice as likely as an equally high-achiev­ing black stu­dent to get as­signed to such a pro­gram. (In­ter­est­ingly, the gap between Latino and white stu­dents vir­tu­ally dis­ap­pears when con­trolling for test scores and oth­er classroom and so­cioeco­nom­ic vari­ables.) Ac­cord­ing to a new study by Jason Gris­som, an edu­ca­tion-policy pro­fess­or at Vander­bilt Uni­versity, and Chris Red­ding, a doc­tor­al can­did­ate in edu­ca­tion­al lead­er­ship and policy at Vander­bilt, this sug­gests that “factors bey­ond ob­serv­able stu­dent back­ground char­ac­ter­ist­ics are re­spons­ible for ex­plain­ing the Black-White gap in gif­ted as­sign­ment.”

Even among students with high scores on math and reading assessments, black children are severely underrepresented in gifted programs. 

The study, which was pub­lished Tues­day in the Amer­ic­an Edu­ca­tion­al Re­search As­so­ci­ation’s peer-re­viewed journ­al, looks at a na­tion­ally rep­res­ent­at­ive group of more than 10,000 stu­dents who star­ted kinder­garten in 1998, track­ing them every few years throughout ele­ment­ary school. Con­trolling for a range of vari­ables—from stu­dents’ aca­dem­ic per­form­ance to their so­cioeco­nom­ic status to their age—it aims to provide new in­sight in­to why high-per­form­ing black stu­dents are so un­der­rep­res­en­ted in gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted pro­grams. It turns out that the char­ac­ter­ist­ics and tend­en­cies of teach­ers, ac­cord­ing to the study, could be ma­jor factors. Black stu­dents are three times less likely to be as­signed to gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted read­ing courses when those stu­dents are taught by non­black teach­ers versus black ones, the study finds. The au­thors ar­gue that pre­vent­able prac­tices and im­pli­cit bi­ases likely con­trib­ute to this dis­crep­ancy.

In re­cent years, teach­ers have been giv­en great­er dis­cre­tion in whom to refer to gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted classes. The re­search­ers have warned against draw­ing the con­clu­sion that non-black teach­ers are biased against black stu­dents, and their study isn’t defin­it­ive about what’s caus­ing the un­der­rep­res­ent­a­tion. They do, however, cite a num­ber of hy­po­theses, in­clud­ing that “ra­cial­ized teach­er per­cep­tions” may in part ex­plain why edu­cat­ors in­ter­pret their stu­dents’ be­ha­vi­ors and abil­it­ies in in­con­sist­ent ways. “What a teach­er may at­trib­ute to pre­co­city for one stu­dent may be con­sidered dis­rupt­ive be­ha­vi­or for an­oth­er,” they write. Con­versely, teach­ers of col­or may re­com­mend minor­ity stu­dents for gif­ted edu­ca­tion at high­er rates. Or black teach­ers may simply be more ef­fect­ive in both mo­tiv­at­ing black stu­dents to im­prove their own per­form­ance and en­ga­ging with par­ents, who are of­ten in­stru­ment­al in get­ting their chil­dren screened for and en­rolled in gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted in­struc­tion.

The find­ings are con­cern­ing giv­en how few classrooms are staffed with teach­ers of col­or, a prob­lem schools have failed to ad­dress des­pite the in­creas­ing ra­cial di­versity of Amer­ica’s school­chil­dren. In fact, as The At­lantic’s Ad­rienne Green re­por­ted last Septem­ber, a study of nine ma­jor U.S. cit­ies, in­clud­ing Chica­go, Los Angeles, and Phil­adelphia, found that the dis­par­ity between teach­ers and stu­dents of col­or ac­tu­ally in­creased in each of the dis­tricts between 2002 and 2012. Over­all, roughly 80 per­cent of U.S. pub­lic-school teach­ers are white, and, ac­cord­ing to the study, roughly the same per­cent­age of black ele­ment­ary-school chil­dren are taught by teach­ers of an­oth­er race. (The vast ma­jor­ity of the teach­ers stud­ied by the Vander­bilt re­search­ers—91 per­cent—are white.) “Great­er teach­er di­versity may help ameli­or­ate ra­cial gaps in stu­dent as­sign­ment to gif­ted pro­grams,” Gris­som and Red­ding write.

Still, the re­search­ers, who cau­tion against at­trib­ut­ing the gaps strictly to teach­er bi­as, con­clude that the gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted im­bal­ance can be ad­dressed even without di­ver­si­fy­ing the teach­ing force. Schools, they sug­gest, can im­prove train­ing for teach­ers tasked with identi­fy­ing gif­ted stu­dents, ex­pli­citly en­cour­age them to ad­dress ta­cit bi­ases, raise aware­ness about pre­ju­dices or ste­reo­types that lead to in­con­sist­ent prac­tices, or ad­opt uni­ver­sal screen­ing for gif­ted chil­dren. Or all of the above.

Ul­ti­mately, the ra­cial dis­par­it­ies in gif­ted edu­ca­tion can widen longer-term gaps in op­por­tun­ity. Par­ti­cip­a­tion in gif­ted-and-tal­en­ted pro­grams has been linked with pos­it­ive fu­ture out­comes, in­clud­ing im­proved aca­dem­ic per­form­ance, mo­tiv­a­tion, and classroom en­gage­ment. “The lower like­li­hood of as­sign­ment for high-achiev­ing Black stu­dents in classrooms with non-Black teach­ers,” the re­search­ers write, “di­verts gif­ted ser­vices from the very stu­dents who may be­ne­fit the most from such pro­grams.”

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