Updated: Feb 11, 2021
If you follow news about gifted education, you know that there is often a lack of diversity in GT programs, and that it is a dilemma nationwide. A teacher friend recently voiced concerns about the absence of diversity in her GT courses, and she is far from alone. The problem concerns researchers, educators, and parents of children in underrepresented populations.
This isn’t just an issue for families in those populations, however, or a problem just for educators. If you have a child receiving gifted services, or if you have any involvement at all with gifted education or gifted advocacy, then this is your problem, too.
Let me explain.
First: for children with gifted needs, gifted education is necessary. Though definitions and identification methods can vary somewhat between experts, services for the gifted exist because of extensive research showing actual developmental differences in children at the extremes of ability testing. Just as with other learning differences, gifted differences require ongoing adjustments and interventions for affected children to learn in traditional schools. While some researchers focus on the talent development aspects of gifted education, from the perspective of many parents and psychologists – and teachers, as public schools continue to be underfunded – the real purpose of gifted services lies in the danger of not providing those services. Failing to understand and accommodate gifted needs can put some students at risk of negative outcomes, including underachievement, social isolation, emotional challenges, and dropping out of school.
It is also necessary to prioritize diversity and quality education for all students. Since the Civil Rights Movement, equal opportunity has been a leading priority in education law and policy, as it should be. Unfortunately, past injustices have a continuing economic impact on families and communities, and in many areas, students in low-income households do not receive the school and/or home support they need to succeed. It is important to note that segregation in education was still widespread within the lifetimes of many adults today, and educational testing has not always been used for ethical purposes. Someone 65 years old today was 9 years old in 1960, when, six years after Brown v. Board of Education, African-American students in New Orleans were tested in an attempt to prevent them from attending white schools – and Ruby Bridges became the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South.
In light of that history, it is not hard to understand the criticism of social justice advocates – particularly in parts of the country with struggling public schools – leveled at the absence of diversity in schools perceived as “elite,” with admission based on test scores.
Sadly, some of that criticism unfairly targets the very concept of gifted education, ignoring decades of research on the extreme, measurable differences and needs of students identified as gifted.*
We do know that CLED (culturally, linguistically, and/or economically diverse) populations are underrepresented in gifted identification – NOT because students from diverse backgrounds are less likely to have high ability needs, but because identification methods used in many districts and states need examination (Matthews & Shaunessy, 2008). Concerns range from problems with referrals for gifted screenings (students from diverse populations are less likely to be referred) to the possibility of language and/or cultural bias in testing tools. Undiagnosed learning disabilities can sometimes impact testing. Poverty can impact student performance in numerous ways, including nutrition, overall health, and a parent’s ability to be involved in a child’s education. Misdiagnosis is a concern for gifted students in general, because of their unique characteristics and reactions to a lack of challenge in school, but culturally diverse students are thought to be at an even higher risk of misdiagnosis (Beljan, 2011). In some environments, without an understanding of diverse learners, signs of high-ability differences can be misinterpreted as symptoms of a disorder. Improving identification is a difficult challenge, but if we fail – if educators and policymakers are unable to find and include more gifted students from diverse populations – these programs WILL appear elitist, and will remain vulnerable to attack by critics, whose energy and advocacy could be directed instead at improving education for all students in need. Continued attacks may also reduce support for identification and necessary services – which impacts all gifted children.
At first, for some, discussing this might feel uncomfortable. It should make us uncomfortable. If we can get past the initial stigma of the “gifted” word, and if we can defend that advocacy, then we can admit that common screening practices are far from perfect, and that they need our immediate attention. If we ignore this problem, we are failing the children – our children – most in need of help.
How can you advocate for recognition of giftedness in diverse populations, regardless of your own background?
1) Learn about the problem. Check out some of the resources below, do your own research, and consider connecting with the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children), SENG (Supporting the Needs of the Gifted), and the gifted organization for your state. Most website resources are free, as are the e-newsletters of some organizations. Other organization newsletters require a nominal membership fee for parents, part of which helps to support efforts to address this very problem.
2) Learn about solutions. What is your district doing to identify gifted students from diverse populations? Could your local parent group help support improvements? Research on this issue is ongoing, but some current approaches include universal screenings (testing all students in a grade or grades, rather than relying solely on referrals), a talent pool program to identify candidates for further investigation, portfolio work/review, using multiple criteria for identification, using appropriate tests for English Language Learner (ELL) students, inviting parents to submit information for the screening or appeals process, and raising teacher awareness of the different manifestations of G/T characteristics in special populations. My own family feels fortunate to live in a district using all of these. A number of resources and publications discuss solutions, including the work of Dr. Joy Davis, an advocate for increasing access and equity in gifted education, and a board member of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).
3) Learn about G/T education in your state. Local G/T policies are shaped by state law, if your state has G/T laws. Learning about current laws and policies can help you better direct your questions and efforts to support improvement.
4) Get involved. What is your state G/T organization doing to support G/T students in CLED populations? Does the group offer opportunities to help with their efforts? An example: the “Gifted Plus” Division of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented (TAGT) works to support special populations in G/T education. You can also join efforts to support increased school funding, improved early childhood education, and the reduction of poverty and hunger – obstacles not only for some gifted students, but for ALL students facing barriers to achievement through education. If your time and resources are limited, you can still help correct misconceptions and raise local awareness among parents and educators. Check out the NAGC Myths about Gifted Students, and look for opportunities to reframe discussions about giftedness. In the district where I live, educators deliberately use language indicating that students qualify for gifted services, rather than “getting in.” Gifted accommodations are not a perk or an honor, but are designed to meet educational needs – and these needs are found in all cultures and populations. Gifted services ensure that students with learning differences can learn in school.
Can you advocate for diversity in G/T education if your child homeschools or is in private school? YES! Gifted students in all educational settings benefit from continuing research and strategies used to support gifted education programs in public school. Families forced to choose alternatives to public school can often relate to the struggles of unidentified gifted children needing services – and some children have no viable alternative to public education. For the benefit of gifted children in all schooling situations, it is critical to support improvement in identification.
This post barely scratches the surface of several complex issues, and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You don’t need an advanced degree to be part of the solution, however. No matter what role you play in education, if you care about the future of students from diverse backgrounds, or about the future of gifted students – my hope is that you care about both – this matter deserves your attention and your action.
To answer the critics of gifted programs: ignoring research on successful interventions is not an answer to the diversity dilemma. If researchers discovered a failure to diagnose and serve all children with a learning difference – as they often do – they would not recommend taking successful accommodations away from other diagnosed students. The same logic applies to gifted differences. If children with advanced learning needs are arbitrarily held back, and if they are refused the opportunity to learn, the long-term harm is real and significant. The answer: we must do a better job of identifying students with these needs.
It is possible to be an advocate for social justice and equal opportunity in education and a supporter of services for children with learning differences and special needs – including gifted needs. So, please, learn more, and consider getting involved in your district and in your state. It matters for the future of gifted education.
It matters for the children who need services the most – and taking action is the right thing to do.
Sources and Further Reading
Beljan, P. (2011). Misdiagnosis of culturally diverse students. In J. A. Castellano and A. D. Frasier, Eds., Special populations in gifted education: understanding our most able students from diverse backgrounds. Waco, Texas: Prufock Press, National Association for Gifted Children.
Biography.com. The Ruby Bridges biography. A&E Television Networks. http://www.biography.com/people/ruby-bridges-475426
Brown, E. (2015). How does a teacher’s race affect which students get to be identified as ‘gifted’? The Washington Post, April 22, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/04/22/how-does-a-teachers-race-affect-which-students-get-to-be-identified-as-gifted/?tid=a_inl
Davis, J. L. (2010). Bright, talented, and Black: a guide for families of African-American gifted learners. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Matthews, M. S. (2009). English language learner students and gifted identification. Digest of Gifted Research. Duke TIP. https://tip.duke.edu/node/921
Matthews, M. S. and Shaunessy, E. (2008). Culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse gifted students. In F. A. Karnes and K. R. Stephens, Eds., Achieving excellence: educating the gifted and talented. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
National Association for Gifted Children [NAGC]. Myths about gifted students. Accessed March 2016. https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/myths-about-gifted-students
National Association for Gifted Children [NAGC]. Networks – Special Populations. Accessed March 2016. http://www.nagc.org/get-involved/nagc-networks-and-special-interest-groups/networks-special-populations
Nisen, M. (2015). Tackling inequality in gifted-and-talented programs: using testing to place students in the advanced-learning programs can actually help level the playing field. The Atlantic. Sept. 15, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/09/inequality-gifted-programs-schools-testing/405013/
Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., and Enersen, D. L. (2007). Multiple criteria for identification. In Best practices in gifted education. Waco, Texas: Prufock Press, National Association for Gifted Children.
Robinson, A., Shore, B. M., and Enersen, D. L. (2007). Developing Talents in Culturally Diverse Learners. In Best practices in gifted education. Waco, Texas: Prufock Press, National Association for Gifted Children.
Silverman, L. K. (2013). What is giftedness? In Giftedness 101: the Psych 101 series. New York, NY: Springer Publishing company.
Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented. Gifted Plus Division. http://www.txgifted.org/gifted-plus-division
* Research and debate over nature vs. nurture and fixed vs. malleable intelligence are beyond the scope of this piece – but it is worth noting that several psychologists have studied early signs of gifted development, including characteristics thought to be present during a child’s first year. For observations about early gifted development, see:
Ruf, D. L. (2009). 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Kearney, K. (2000). Frequently asked questions about extreme intelligence in very young children. Davidson Institute for Talent Development. http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10162.aspx
Resources from the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum:
Gifted Cubed: The Expanded Complexity of Race & Culture in Gifted and 2e Kids. http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/ghf-press/gifted-cubed/
Gifted and Minorities: Articles, Blogs, Organizations, Websites, and Books. http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/resources/parent-and-professional-resources/articles/gifted-minorities/
We are proud to include this post in the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum blog hop: