Three ways schools can close the opportunity gap for gifted students of color

Oct 10, 2016

When a student is identified as gifted, they are often given access to resources to help them flourish. Things like accelerated classes, individualized learning plans, and academically rigorous instruction.

But critics of gifted and talented programs argue that they reinforce race and class opportunity gaps. That may be because students of color are underrepresented in gifted programs relative to white students.

Black and Latino students represent 42% of student enrollment in schools offering gifted and talented education programs, yet make up just 28% of the students enrolled in these programs.

The odds of a black student getting into a gifted and talented program are 66% lower than they are for a white student. And Latino students’ odds are 47% lower compared to white students, according to Think Progress.

That means many gifted students of color are missing out on the tools and support they need to be successful. And that can have long-term adverse effects. David Lubinski is a professor at Vanderbilt University. He told The Huffington Post:

What happens is that gifted children who aren’t challenged don’t develop optimally. They’re gifted, so it's inconspicuous because they’re well above average, but they’re just not optimal.

How can schools better support and challenge gifted students of color? Here are three policy recommendations from Cherry Mullaguru at the Center for American Progress:

1. Improve access to selective and academically rigorous programs.

By ending teacher and parent nominations, for example, districts and schools can remove referral bias as a factor that currently drives black and Hispanic student underrepresentation. Universal screening, which involves assessing every student in a given grade or class for giftedness, can also help eliminate the issue of referral bias. The use of nonverbal tests can help better identify gifted English language learners. A comprehensive solution must also include creating gifted programs in places where they do not currently exist: schools with high populations of black and Hispanic students, especially those in urban areas.

2. Promote innovative alternative methods of instruction.

One such model is personalized learning, which has shown promising results for improving student outcomes. Personalized learning is an academic system that enhances student learning through individually tailored instruction, educational experiences that move students toward college and career readiness, and teacher ownership of pedagogy. Personalized learning better meets the needs of students because it is designed to fit the learning preferences and specific interests of each student. In this regard, personalized instruction makes learning a much more exciting, engaging, and meaningful experience for all students, including students of color.

3. End the use of excessive discipline measures against students of color

One step that schools should take is to discourage suspensions and expulsions for more subjective infractions such as willful defiance. Schools should invest in counselors and training for administrators and teachers on how to best implement discipline. Restorative justice programs can also reduce misbehavior. In such programs, a student who vandalized a classroom, for example, may work with the janitor to repair the damage. Moreover, schools may use prizes and other rewards to incentivize good behavior. While these solutions would likely require extra funding, they are promising means to promote a healthy, safe, and positive environment in school while avoiding disproportionately punishing students of color.

You've probably noticed by now that here at State of Opportunity we talk a lot achievement and opportunity gaps between white students and students of color. Gaps in test scores, high school and college completion, and even employment later in life. You can add this gap to the growing list.

We should be doing all we can to narrow or eliminate these gaps, and give all kids an equal chance at success. As Mullaguru writes:

Too often, gifted and talented programs are at risk of becoming a new site of racial segregation in schools. Instead, schools should improve supports for bright and talented students of color. By doing so, schools can ensure that they are fulfilling their true purpose: to provide a high-quality and equitable education for all students.

You can read Mullaguru's full list of recommendations here.