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Ideas & Stuff: Why kids in poverty are rarely seen as "gifted"

Sharon Pruitt

I came across a study today that looked at how a group of very gifted children became "innovators and leaders" as adults. The study, from Vanderbilt University, identified 320 gifted children at the age of 13 using an SAT test. The cutoff score meant that all of the 320 students in the sample represented the top 1 in 10,000 for achievement on that test.

The study's authors followed the kids for 30 years, and (surprise, surprise) the children ended up achieving great things. Most earned at least a Masters degree in college. Forty-four percent earned a PhD. Many held patents. A few wrote novels. Two became vice presidents at Fortune 500 companies. One ended up advising the president.

What do these results tell us? The study's authors say the results show conclusively that gifted kids make for gifted adults. From the study's conclusion: 

Young adolescents with profound talent in mathematical and verbal reasoning hold extraordinary potential for enriching society by contributing creative products and competing in global economies.

But, as you might have guessed, I don't think the lessons from this study are quite so simple. 

By selecting children at the age of 13, and by using SAT scores as the indicator of giftedness, the study baked in a huge bias toward children of a certain social standing. The study itself doesn't talk about class differences among the identified gifted children, but the group was 78 percent white and 79 percent male. 

This is not just a gifted group, but a privileged group. By the age of 13, we might reasonably guess that these kids had already benefited from huge social advantages. Was it the social advantages that gave them the ability to be "innovators and leaders" as adults, or was it their innate skill? I don't think we can say. 

All this got me thinking about how we identify giftedness, and how we encourage and cultivate certain types of giftedness more than others - specifically, that we place a premium on the types of giftedness most often displayed by middle-and upper-class children. 

Turns out, finding new ways to identify gifted children in poverty is a rich area of research. 

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) has a dedicated page on its website on "Identifying and Nurturing the Gifted Poor." 

I'm about to quote heavily from the page, but the entire thing is worth reading. 

The first thing you should know (and, really, if you follow State of Opportunity, you should have already known it) is that poor and minority students are dramatically underrepresented in most gifted programs today. The NAGC says there's a reason for this: 

Such inequities exist because most school districts identify gifted students by using standardized test scores, teacher recommendations, and student grades to establish cutoff scores. This process often screens out underachieving, learning-disabled, culturally different, and-most consistently-students from poverty backgrounds. This usually occurs because students who come from poverty backgrounds have not had the same opportunities as middle class students, and the identification processes do not factor in environmental differences ... Most schools are middle-class systems that operate from middle-class values. By treating all students in these schools equally, equity actually is compromised. For when traditional methods are used to identify gifted students, such as standardized instruments and performance samples, the outcome is predictable: a large majority of gifted students will come from the middle class. But because environmental impact is not considered, what is really identified is opportunity, not giftedness.

The NAGC page then goes on to say that students who come from poverty are more likely to show skills that typical school teachers and administrators don't even recognize as skills. 

Students from poverty have many gifts and talents that rarely manifest themselves in recognizable and traditionally valued behaviors. For example, they may be very expressive and creative with language, but because they use short phrases, poor syntax, and limited vocabulary, their expressions are usually not acknowledged as indicators of potential talent. Also, though the student from poverty may know a great deal about such things as sports, entertainers, and gangs, this information is not considered to be valuable knowledge. Conversely, middle-class students who know the names of all the space shuttles and every dinosaur, and can effectively articulate their ideas, are generally viewed as being very bright-and gifted. Often, poverty and an unstable home environment are closely associated with problem-solving skills. The student who knows how to manipulate family members to avoid triggering anger and physical violence certainly exhibits such skills. So does the student who can spontaneously make up a creative story to avoid being punished. But because situations like these are associated with negative behavior, most teachers would not recognize them as problem-solving skills.

And it's not just a matter of confusing gifted behavior with negative behavior among children in poverty. Others write that one big reason children in poverty aren't seen as gifted is because no one expects these children to be gifted. 

From the proceedings of a national conference on educating gifted children in poverty, Vanderbilt's Donna Ford (who we've spoken to previously on SOO) points out that, not only are children in poverty less likely to have access to advanced learning opportunities, but, even when they do have access, they're less likely to enroll:

What factors contribute to these unacceptable conditions of under-representation in gifted education classes, AP, and other rigorous classes? Influences and motivations for all kinds of children's behavior, including study habits and personal academic development, come not only from their peers, but also from their parents, teachers, and others with whom they come into close contact (Johnson, 2000, p. 2). Hence, in addition to lack of resources and less access to rigorous learning experiences, expectations - from educators, families, peers and students - themselves lie at the heart of under-representation. Stated another way, a form of deficit thinking (Ford et al., 2002) about children in poverty blinds educators from seeing strengths - gifts and talents - in these students.

Ford advocates for a "no excuses" approach to educating children in poverty. She argues that if you can't change a child's family and economic background, at least you can change the expectations for what the child can achieve. 

And, maybe the first step in changing those expectations is realizing that there's more than one way for a student to be gifted. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.