Black students are more likely to be identified as “gifted” when they attend schools with higher proportions of black teachers, according to a new study, and Latino students are more likely to be called gifted when they go to schools with more Latino teachers.

The study doesn’t get at why there is such a correlation, but it adds another layer to a long-simmering debate about why black and Latino children are less likely to be called “gifted” than their white and Asian peers.

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The connection between teachers’ race and students’ likelihood of being called gifted “should give us pause,” said Jason A. Grissom, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the study’s lead author. “That does speak to something that fundamentally doesn’t feel right.”

“Really, a kid’s probability of being assigned to gifted services should not be a function of the characteristics of the teachers in the school,” Grissom said.

Black and Latino students are underrepresented in gifted programs. Graphic courtesy Jason A. Grissom.
Black and Latino students are underrepresented in gifted programs. From recent AERA paper by Jason A. Grissom, Luis A. Rodriguez and Emily C. Kern.

He and his colleagues presented their research over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago.

They examined data from more than 2,000 schools in the 2003-4 and 2011-12 school years, and they determined that on average, 6 percent of all students in a school are identified for gifted programs. Nearly 8 percent of white students are called gifted, compared with just 3-4 percent of black and Latino students, according to their work.

But a 10 percent increase in black teachers was associated with a 3.2 percent increase in the proportion of black students identified as gifted. Nearly the same pattern held true for Latino teachers and students.

Teachers often play a key role in identifying which students in their classrooms are highly intelligent and should be tested for admission to gifted programs.

In a separate study using different data, Grissom found that black students are more likely to be identified as gifted when they have a black teacher, whatever the racial composition of the rest of the staff. Students with very similar — and very high — test scores are assigned to gifted programs at different rates depending on race, he found; the disparities were less stark for students of color with teachers of the same race.

Observers seeking to explain the discrepancies in gifted representation are quick to raise questions about teachers’ biases or lack of cultural understanding, Grissom said. But he said there could be many other factors, including students who exhibit stronger performance when their teachers are the same race.

“It could be that two different teachers are actually seeing different capacities in a kid because that kid is behaving differently,” Grissom said.

Gifted assignment is far from the only aspect of education in which race appears to matter. Research has shown lower suspension rates for black students in schools with higher proportions of black teachers, for example. Minority students are less likely to be assigned to special education when there are more minority teachers. And students tend to achieve at higher levels when they have teachers of the same race.

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Demographic change means it is all the more important to better understand these patterns, Grissom said. Minority students now compose the majority of students in public schools, but more than 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are white.

Teacher and Principal Diversity and the Representation of Students of Color in Gifted Programs