The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gifted programs can slight minorities and don’t accelerate kids. So why have them?

A high school classroom on the first day of classes last month. (Emily Elconin/Bloomberg News)
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A remarkable dissection of gifted education in Ohio that was just released reveals disturbing gaps in long-term learning for Black and impoverished students who were in the top 20 percent on third-grade tests.

Before I describe the report, I want to explain how I first learned four decades ago how deeply flawed our gifted programs were. One day a student who had been officially designated as gifted by the Los Angeles Unified School District walked into the classroom of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher at a mostly low-income high school who then later became famous for being portrayed in the film “Stand and Deliver.”

School was over, but as usual the 50 desks in his large room were full of students from every grade helping one another with homework. The gifted student was not in any of Escalante’s classes but thought that he could help her with a math problem. “I’m gifted,” she informed him.

“Congratulations,” he said. “I am going to have a student who is NOT gifted come up to the board and show you how to solve this,” which he did.

Escalante told me that he thought the gifted designation for students was a deceptive waste of time for schools because it did not actually guarantee accelerated instruction. In 1987, he and a teacher he trained produced 27 percent of all Mexican American students in the United States who passed the college-level Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam. Only about 10 percent of them were designated gifted. Moreover, very few of the gifted but low-income children got the energetic teaching they deserved.

The new report released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “Ohio’s Lost Einsteins: The inequitable outcomes of early high achievers,” indicates that situation has not changed. The research done by Michigan State University economist Scott Imberman shows that students in the top 20 percent of those tested while third-graders were much less likely to be identified as gifted, stay among the highest achievers, take the ACT college admission test and attend college if they were Black or low-income students.

How are our public school gifted programs doing? It’s hard to say.

“Thousands of early high-achieving children — including smart kids of poor and working-class parents from places like Cincinnati, Dayton, or Mansfield, Ohio — are going adrift as they make their way through middle and high school,” Fordham Institute president Michael J. Petrilli and Ohio research director, Aaron Churchill said in a foreword to the report.

“This not only limits these kids’ opportunities to move up the social ladder, but also threatens the nation’s economic competitiveness and derails our aspirations for a more just society where children from all backgrounds can become inventors, doctors, and business leaders,” the officials said.

The Fordham Institute, now based in Washington, has extensively studied Ohio schools because it was first established in that state. Fordham officials hope more participation in gifted programs will help low-income and Black students. I don’t share their optimism. A recent study titled “Do Students in Gifted Programs Perform Better?” by scholars Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding concluded that “we do not have rigorous national estimates of the relationship between receiving gifted services at the elementary level and student academic and nonacademic outcomes.”

Children are usually enrolled in gifted programs based on tests they take in second or third grade. In many states, only the students thought by their teachers or their parents to be gifted are given the exams. After Imberman gathered his data, Ohio extended testing to all third-graders, an unusual move. But the state does not require schools to offer gifted services.

Imberman said that among students who had been in the top 20 percent on third-grade tests in Ohio, only 34 percent of economically disadvantaged students and 30 percent of Black students were formally identified as gifted by eighth grade. More than half of the other students in the top 20 percent on third-grade tests were identified as gifted by eighth grade.

Imberman said that only 47 percent of low-income students and 41 percent of Black students in the top 20 percent of those tested in third grade later took ACT tests for college, compared with 71 percent of non-impoverished students in that group. Only 35 percent of low-income students and 26 percent of Black students in that group went to four-year colleges.

What I’ve learned about raising children who are gifted and Black

I have seen no data on how high-scoring third-graders do on achievement rates or college participation in later years if allowed to skip grades or join accelerated programs, of which there are very few until high school.

Most gifted programs provide enrichment, not acceleration. Most appear to give gifted students special instruction for a few hours each month. Some students may skip grades, but gifted programs rarely seek that outcome. Some parents have their children moved to higher grades by providing them accelerated instruction from tutors or at home.

Escalante’s alternative to the gifted label he so distrusted was to open his Advanced Placement calculus classes to all students and make it difficult for them to drop out. A growing number of high schools, though nowhere near a majority, have now been taking that approach.

Whatever money is spent on gifted education might be better used to take students to a higher level, rather than just teach them some interesting lessons and make them and their parents feel special.