Special Education What the Research Says

Gifted Education Comes Up Short for Low-Income and Black Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 23, 2021 | Corrected: April 27, 2021 8 min read
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Corrected: This article should have initially stated that Jill Adelson is now affiliated with Adelson Research and Consulting

It’s not enough for schools to provide more opportunities for talented low-income students and students of color to enter existing gifted education programs, new research suggests. The programs have to serve those students well, too.

While the typical gifted education services give a small boost to students’ reading performance on average—and a minimal bump for math—those benefits accrue most to high-income and white students, according to the research released at the American Educational Research Association conference earlier this month.

“We’ve been talking a lot about issues of representation and access—how do we fix the systems that are essentially giving very little access to students of color or low-income students for these programs—and thinking so with the assumption that if we can get people across the threshold and into the program, then they’ll realize all of these benefits,” said Jason Grissom, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and faculty director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance. He co-wrote the study with Christopher Redding, an assistant education professor at the University of Florida.

“From a policy point of view, if you’re taking it from the 20,000-foot view, I think this is raising questions about what’s happening with the typical gifted services approach, though there are lots of individual programs out there with positive evidence,” Grissom said. “So now we show that maybe also, we need to think about what’s happening in how students are being served once they’re in the door.”

Grissom and Redding used federal data to track a nationally representative sample of more than 18,000 gifted students who began kindergarten in the 2010-2011 school year through their 5th grade year. They used teacher reports to identify when academically talented students received gifted education services in reading, math, or other areas, and compared both their academic progress and their attendance and engagement in school in those years, to the years the same students did not participate.

The new findings come at a time when gifted services appear to be declining. A separate study published this spring in the Journal of Advanced Academics, Christopher Yaluma of Ohio State University and Adam Tyner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that from 2012-2016, during the time of Grissom’s study, the percentage of schools with gifted programs nationwide declined overall, but the percentage in high-poverty schools actually rose slightly, from 67.9 percent to 68.1 percent. However, students in wealthier schools remained more than twice as likely to actually enroll in gifted education—12.7 percent of them participated, compared to 5.8 percent of students in high-poverty schools as of 2016.

Line chart showing the changing numbers of schools with gifted programs
Bar chart showing the racial/ethnic breakdowns of students in gifted programs, compared to population share

Tyner and Yaluma also found that Black and Hispanic students were consistently underrepresented in gifted education, both nationwide and in high-poverty schools. In fact, from 2012 to 2016, the percentage of Black students in gifted programs fell 4.2 percent in high poverty schools and 5.1 percent overall, to make up less than 10 percent of all gifted students and less than 5 percent of gifted students in high-poverty schools.

“There’s just a lot of variation, not just in identification strategies but also in programming,” Grissom said. “From state to state and district to district, … you could have this mix of strategies where there are pull-out classes; there’s enrichment that’s provided within the general education setting where kids are in the same classes but they’re getting differential assignments; before-school and after-school programs. And then, you have more radical treatments like whole schools for advanced students. … It often makes it hard to draw out generalities.”

While students who qualified for gifted programs already performed on average 85 percent of a standard deviation higher than average on test scores in years they did not participate, Grissom and Redding found participating in the programs gave them only a minor boost. A gifted student who scored at the 78th percentile in a year she did not participate in gifted programs would score at the 80th in the year she did participate, for example—which is, for comparison, a smaller benefit than that seen for, say, allowing gifted students to work in groups with peers of different grades. While gifted students’ math scores were also slightly higher, it was only by a third the size of the gain as that for reading.

That makes sense, Grissom noted, because most elementary level gifted programs focused on English/language arts and reading content, even if students had been identified for aptitude in math or science. The study did find that students who were identified as academically gifted in math who received focused math services in their gifted education had larger, though still modest, gains.

“One issue that we’re really as a field trying to grapple with is how do we make sure we’re identifying student need and being focused on their needs in the services we provide,” said Jill Adelson, the co-editor of the journal Gifted Child Quarterly, who has also studied gifted education effectiveness.

Black students’ percentile gains during years they participated in gifted programs were nearly a fifth of a standard deviation smaller than those of white students, and the wealthiest quarter of students had improvements from gifted programs that were nearly a tenth of a standard deviation larger than those of students in the poorest quarter.

“Putting those two pieces together, it could very well be that the kinds of schools that Black versus white children attend, or that high-income versus low-income children attend, have different service-delivery models,” said Grissom, “you know, that the kinds of gifted services that are present in those schools differ systematically in ways that in the study we can’t see.”

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The findings highlight longstanding challenges in gifted education, according to Adelson, a research scientist with Adelson Research and Consulting: There is little consensus or consistency around what a gifted program should look like, particularly when targeting specific populations of students—another recent study found more than 70 percent of programs in three states provided less than three hours of instruction a week—and resource differences from school to school and year to year can hamstring services. While individual gifted education programs have shown promise in supporting low-income students and students of color, Adelson said, there have been no overarching studies of which gifted education approaches are most effective with these groups of students.

Funding, consistency can improve gifted education

It’s why North Carolina’s school board will vote later this month to integrate new rules around equity and program consistency into their gifted education programs.

“We can’t solve all of the inequities that we see in larger society that have become even more clear during COVID, but what we can do is make sure that we do not compound those inequities, and in the past, gifted ed[ucation] has done that,” said Sneha Shah Coltrane, director of advanced learning and gifted education for North Carolina’s department of public instruction.

Unlike many states, North Carolina does not fund gifted education on a per-student basis, but through a 4 percent set-aside for each school’s budget, amounting to $78 million in the 2020-21 school year, not counting an additional $15 million for high school Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual-credit advanced courses.

“What works in our favor is, it’s not based on the student, so as a result it’s not an exponential gain, where if, as a school, you have more students, you get more money,” Coltrane said. Those state funds must be attached to gifted education, and so can only be used for teachers licensed in the area.

North Carolina’s standards will call for all school gifted programs to:

  • Align gifted identification procedures with the services provided. Each gifted student receives an individual learning plan similar to a special education plan, tailored to the particular areas in which students should be accelerated or enriched.
  • Provide a range of different services in each program, from in-class enrichment to grade acceleration and after-school programs.
  • Collect and use meaningful data to improve student growth, and disaggregate student data to ensure students of all backgrounds are improving.
  • Foster “talent development” by using local rather than national norms to select students for gifted programs. For example, Pitt County schools, which serves a high percentage of low-income students, paired gifted education funding with Title I funding for low-income students to provide gifted education teachers for students who were promising but had not yet reached national norms for high test scores; the move has improved student achievement as well as increased the number of students identified for gifted services.
  • Provide focused professional development for teachers.

Schools also will get training to provide more support for gifted students’ social-emotional needs—a piece often left out of typical programs.

For example, Grissom said typical gifted programs did not improve students’ attendance, engagement, and interest in class or learning, or their likelihood to remain in school.

“Part of the narrative that we have around gifted education is that even if there aren’t effects on math and reading scores, … we’ll do things like make [high-ability students] like school more and make them feel more engaged,” Grissom said. “And it was one of the more surprising things that this does not seem to be the case.”

Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need 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 April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as Gifted Education Comes Up Short for Low-Income and Black Students

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