Martinez: Gifted education is systematically denied to minority students

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

I was, without a doubt, a precocious child — one of my earliest memories is reading out loud to my fellow preschoolers who couldn’t yet. When my parents noticed I was still reading at an above-average level years later, they were able to move me to a school that taught to individual student levels, rather than state standards. Because of their knowledge as educators, they were able to advocate for my education, and I will be forever thankful for that privilege.

But this is not a reality for many other students, especially minorities. The journal American Educational Research Association Open showed that black and Latinx children are less likely to be screened for public school gifted programs than their white and Asian counterparts.

In this column, I explore the history, policies and societal pressures that shape gifted education, and more importantly, exclude minority groups. I also interviewed my parents, who have worked as teachers, evaluators and administrators for more than 40 years collectively.

The history of gifted education

While there are many definitions, a “gifted” student is often one who shows above-average critical thinking, contextual processing and deep levels of creativity and curiosity, potentially requiring additional challenges and resources. They can also be coded as impatient, bored or immature in class due to their advanced thinking.

Gifted education can be traced back to ancient thinkers like Plato, who sought to separate learning areas for those of higher intelligence. In the United States, intelligence testing was introduced in 1918 and promoted across the country, though the results at the time were used by eugenicists to promote separation, rather than education. Lewis Terman made way for a foundation of “nationally standardized intelligence” in 1916 that persisted for decades.

Eventually, the National Defense Education Act was designed in 1958, focusing on math, science and technology in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. While dedication to promoting gifted education wavered after the Cold War, a 1972 report by the Commissioner of Education noted that “intellectual and creative talent cannot survive educational neglect and apathy.”

Why are students of color and low-income students left behind?

It’s no secret that educator bias exists — all humans, no matter their backgrounds, hold prejudices as they interact with the world, especially when it comes to categorizing differences. This unconscious bias promotes gaps based on socioeconomic status, gender and race in educational environments, and leads to similar disparities in the workplace.

This can manifest itself in many ways — particularly when it comes to recommendation for academic advancement. Students of color are less likely to be given a “push” toward higher-level classes. Because a lot of placement in gifted and talented programming requires or prefers a teacher’s feedback, this holds a lot of children back from being properly challenged by harder courses.

This failure to identify gifted students is often coded. Educators place an undue weight on psychological distress and social and emotional deficits as a potential result of moving forward in the classroom. They might say a child doesn’t display “the habits” or “stamina” of a stellar student, metrics that are systematically set to a white, middle-class, male standard. So students who have the requisite grades, but behave or act outside the norm, for whatever reason, are presumed to be not capable.

In my case, my parents were repeatedly told that I did not have the mental capacity to participate in high-level math classes, and had to jump through many hoops to get me placed in a high school advanced algebra course when I was in seventh grade. Again, if they did not have the time and knowledge to fight on my behalf, and if I did not take standardized tests well, I would have never moved ahead.

My family also noticed an unmentioned bias during this process — other students at my school were allowed to skip ahead in math classes with fewer obstacles. While I had comparable test scores and grades, evaluators continued to doubt my abilities. Because cases like mine are so individual and have no defined, official criteria, it took my parents a long time to fight the school’s stated low expectations. I’m used to my peers assuming I’m bad at math by now, but the effects of having to jump additional barriers did take a toll on me, although I did come out stronger.

When teachers are set to screen for certain “traits” necessary to promote students in skills like reading or math, they end up missing those who operate outside the standard, leading to unbalanced numbers of students in advanced classes.

For example, while my mother was a second-grade teacher in Evanston, she learned about a “problem child” who was going to be placed in her class, a black girl who caused frequent disruptions during instruction time. However, my mother realized how smart she was, and once she started challenging her academically, the girl’s demeanor completely changed and showcased her talents by the end of the year. Teacher expectations matter — when instructors expect the worst of students, based on stereotypes and internal biases, they treat them accordingly and miss a lot of stellar learners.

Some parents — mine included — have the resources, education and time to advocate for their students in an overwhelmed school system, especially when they notice “gifted” characteristics manifesting at home. But many families don’t have these opportunities, despite caring deeply for their children. This is why the role of a compassionate, attentive teacher is so important. However, because educators are often overworked and understaffed, they don’t have an incentive to personalize their methods.

How government policies widen the gap

Gifted children are often incorrectly seen as having already fully consumed the requisite knowledge, rather than possessing the capability of learning more. These standards are severely skewed toward white, middle-class students who have resources like tutoring and school-independent opportunities more readily available to them. Because academic culture considers students who are financially, ethnically, cognitively and linguistically different to be “deficient,” they are ignored.

Policies like No Child Left Behind, introduced by President Bush in 2002 were meant to bring all students to the same level. Ideally, with a standard curriculum, school districts that were struggling could receive more local and federal support (namely, money) to make sure everyone tested as understanding a baseline amount of information — although this didn’t mean they were truly learning it.

However, this policy not only encouraged teaching to the test, which does not help students retain knowledge, but gave no incentive to pay attention to “bored” children who could handle extra work. Like the 1993 Congressional report “National excellence” put it, as the nation adjusts the standards for acceptable education, it must also “raise the ‘ceiling.’”

NCLB also detracted from “untestable” programs like history or art. School performance progress did not improve — in fact, it worsened across the nation, leading President Obama to offer a majority of states waivers from the bill anyway. The policy failed to equally provide educational opportunity for low-income and minority communities, while incorrectly promoting proficiency over knowledge.

Test bias is also an incredible barrier to higher education. IQ tests, for instance, seen as the national standard for years, scientifically legitimize education discrimination. Those assessments, as well as national standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, rely on a variety of cultural norms that are geared toward stereotypically white, middle- and upper-class experiences. Black, Latinx, Native American and English-learning students are not inherently less intelligent than white and Asian students. They have access to different opportunities, and their learned experience showcases itself in different ways.

While NCLB has since been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the students who were negatively affected by its 14-year-span never got reparations for their education. ESSA offers more power to states to regulate their educational systems to fit specific needs, essentially ending large-scale federal government interference.

Federal and state governments use Common Core as a standard, which means school districts are pressured to teach that baseline information and conform to state frameworks, and are not encouraged to generalize curriculum standards to local needs.

Thus, school districts as different as Hinsdale, a rich, white suburb, and Englewood, a black, low-income neighborhood on the South Side, teach the same material, despite it not being universally culturally relevant to all students, my mother explained. When tests have unrelatable content, an absence of multiple correct answers, or use a specific vocabulary, students who differ in cultural knowledge from the majority test poorly. Even taking the test on a computer versus on paper can affect results to some degree. Thus, gaps in opportunity and cultural difference are redefined as intelligence gaps, even if both districts have similar numbers of high-potential students.

Getting closer, but still a long way to go

The education world is moving toward personalization of classroom experiences and inclusion is a growing priority at higher levels. However, individual teacher biases still remain, especially in a public school system where 44 percent of students are racial or ethnic minorities compared to a mere 17 percent of teachers, according to the Brookings Institution. This manifests itself in a variety of ways — for example, while black children are three times more likely to be referred to gifted services if they have a black teacher, 80 percent of black students aren’t taught by someone of their same race.

It’s not fair that many students who have academic prowess are consistently overlooked because of their identity. They deserve to be appropriately challenged in the classroom like their peers. It pains me to think about how many people are not able to access necessary resources because of this country’s deeply broken education system. Personalized public education, though difficult to attain, should continue to be a goal of the state and federal governments.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.