Special Education

Even Gifted Educators Say Their Classes Don’t Reach All Who Need Them

By Corey Mitchell — November 25, 2019 5 min read
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Gifted and talented programs in school systems across the nation are failing to reach all of the students who need them, especially black, Latino, and Native American students, children who live in poverty, and English-language learners, according to a survey by the Education Week Research Center.

More than 60 percent of educators surveyed said they at least partially agree that their school district’s procedure for screening gifted and talented students identifies all or most of the students who belong in the program.

But more than 60 percent of survey respondents said black students and English-learners are underrepresented in gifted education—and more than 50 percent had the same concern for students who live in poverty and Hispanic and Native American children.

“We have a long way to go to improve our ability to recognize the gifts and talents in children from underserved populations and to identify them,” said Sally Krisel, a former board president of the National Association for Gifted Children who participated in the Education Week survey. “It is our obligation to meet the needs of all our kids, and all includes gifted and talented learners,” added Krisel, who is also the director of innovation and advanced programs in the Hall County, Ga., schools.

Education Week’s survey—which includes responses from nearly 800 gifted and talented teachers and hundreds more school- and district-level gifted and talented coordinators—highlights divides over access and opportunity in gifted education.

There was nearly an even split on whether respondents thought white students and children from high-income families in their districts were overrepresented in gifted education.

Respondents in large or urban districts were much more likely to report that students living in poverty were underrepresented in their gifted programs.

In conversations with Education Week, survey participants from several states reported grappling with a host of issues, but ensuring that all gifted and talented students have access to services was at the forefront.

Building Equity

The Lindbergh, Mo., schools—a 7,000-student majority white district in suburban St. Louis—began universal screening this school year for some elementary students, after decades of relying solely on parent and teacher referrals for gifted screening.

The district has a wealth of options for gifted education, including magnet schools that draw tuition-paying students from other districts, a setup that Tracy Bednarick, the district’s coordinator of gifted programming, said was a “bit of an elitist program.”

“If somebody was advocating for their child, they got noticed,” said Bednarick, who participated in the survey. Universal screening should “help build that equity, not just on the racial demographic level, but also on the socioeconomic level.”

Survey respondents split on whether their districts were taking similar steps to broaden access to gifted programs.

Roughly one-third of the participants said their districts put little or no effort into ensuring equitable representation in gifted education in the past five years. But a similar share, 30 percent, indicated that their districts were pushing to increase the odds that students from traditionally underrepresented populations are screened and identified as gifted.

In the 54,000-student Clayton County, Ga., schools, a high-poverty district in suburban Atlanta where a majority of students are black, Misha Thompson faces a different challenge: identifying gifted students who are transient or English-learners.

Thompson, an elementary school gifted education teacher who leads a districtwide team that verifies student eligibility for gifted services, encourages all adults, including support staff, to refer students for screening.

“It could be a cafeteria worker that they have a good relationship with,” said Thompson, another survey participant. “We open the process to anyone who has knowledge of the child and their abilities.”

Fourteen percent of the survey respondents work in urban districts, while 43 percent apiece work in rural and suburban districts—where educators were more likely to report that all students eligible for gifted services were receiving them.

Much of the national debate over gifted education has focused on New York City, where leaders in the school system and city government debated the future of programs and selective admissions processes that have led to mostly white and Asian schools for top learners in a largely black and Hispanic school system.

But the national landscape for gifted education looks different.

More than 80 percent of survey participants reported using pullout programs or honors and advanced courses to meet the needs of gifted students in their school systems. Only 22 percent of respondents reported that their districts use magnet schools or specialized high schools.

The struggles linked to gifted education are different in some parts of the country, where educators are working to provide opportunities for students.

In places such as Owen County, Ky., a rural district of 2,400 students, Stacey Perkins has a problem: There’s only one of her.

Perkins is the district’s lone gifted and talented teacher and coordinator, supporting about 300 gifted students, splitting her time among four schools.

“Some of the schools weren’t making sure that they were [providing services for the students],” said Perkins, another survey respondent in her second year in the job. “So, I’m trying to change that.”

In Arizona’s Deer Valley schools, Adam Laningham, the district manager of gifted and advanced academics, oversees gifted education for about 5,000 students, with a staff of two, including himself. The 34,000-student district covers parts of Phoenix and Maricopa County.

Using federal Title I funding, the district has hired more gifted specialists—specially trained teachers who identify and support more gifted learners in high-poverty schools. The move has boosted the number of students eligible for gifted services in all corners of the district.

“We’ve dramatically increased the numbers just by ... being more open-minded,” said Laningham, who participated in the Education Week survey. “We’re educating teachers on what really is ‘gifted’ ... [Being gifted] doesn’t mean they turn in their homework all the time.”

What did not emerge from the survey was a standard definition of giftedness.

Respondents cited more than a dozen factors in district or state definitions for gifted and talented, and more than a dozen different assessments, along with grades, and parent and teacher referrals in determining who is screened for services and who gets them—a “patchwork quilt” that Krisel, the NAGC president, said is “something that needs to be addressed.”

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Gifted Services Don’t Reach All, Survey Finds

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