You Aren’t Going to Get There Paddling that Old Boat: Why we cannot and will not adequately meet diversity goals in gifted education with the same old system
By Kathleen Casper
There are some problems that we need to address and it is critical that we find new answers. Specifically we have a problem with gifted education programs in our states not doing enough of what we need them to do to identify and serve all gifted children.
Here are some of the issues that we need to deal with as quickly and thoroughly as possible:
- We use IQ tests that were historically used to highlight the “superiority” of Caucasians, in order to determine giftedness in many states. This started in the early 1900’s and the arguments continue even into the 21st Century.
- The “new and improved” IQ tests are often verbally based and still rely on the kids understanding a common cultural experience (more based on what middle class students have access to, than lower income students). They are written by, and most of the time the answers are interpreted by, Caucasians that may or may not understand giftedness or multicultural differences.
- Even many doctors and mental health practitioners are under-educated about giftedness and related multicultural issues so students are often misdiagnosed and mislabeled, thereby causing those students to miss out on gifted support services.
- Stereotypes abound that further reduce the chances of diverse students even being referred for testing in gifted programs. “All students are gifted.” “Gifted children are high performers.” “Gifted children will be just fine without extra support.” “Gifted programs are just acceleration and access to more projects and information and should be for all kids.” “Gifted is something we should all strive for our kids to be.” “If a child is not well behaved, he or she can’t possibly be gifted.”
- With statistics showing that non-Caucasian students have a higher probability of being identified as having special education needs, being disciplined in school, being expelled, dropping out, going to jail, etc., children of color with gifted characteristics expressed in ways that mimic ADHD or underperformance are not only less likely to be identified for gifted programs, but are more likely to slip through the cracks and have more severe consequences than their Caucasian peers.
- We pull kids out of their neighborhoods, classes, and communities in order to serve them “better” in gifted “programs,” while isolating them from their racial/ethnic peers with labels that historically have had negative connotations for their communities.
- We entrust our gifted students to teachers who often do not have any, or just a few hours (if they are lucky) of training in gifted education, diversity, culturally aware teaching, or other related issues.
- We have not adequately funded gifted education in general and gifted students get less funding per capita than other special education programs in most states. Students in low income areas often have much less local access to these services than in higher income areas.
- Gifted education is so misunderstood and so many educators and policy makers lack knowledge about what it is, that programs are often created only for high achievers, who often are children of higher income parents who push for their children to have access to the “elite” classes, rather than at-risk students with gifted characteristics and needs.
There are some districts trying to improve their diversity statistics. Some, because of legal issues (see McFadden vs. Board of Education for Illinois School District U-46) and some because they truly want to make positive changes to better identify and support diverse students. But they are not going to make the gains they hope for, without serious changes to their approach to the problem.
Changing test score requirements only hurts diversity in the long run. Using biased tests and then acting as if diverse and low income students should be given access “even though their scores are lower” is not an acceptable message. This is another way we put students into “second class citizen” status. Only by changing identification to include less biased measurements, such as nonverbal tests, local norms, and portfolios showing gifted characteristics, will we give all kids a fair shot, a legacy of recognition for their achievements, and access to instruction and other resources for the areas where they need extra support, rather than a reputation for needing lower standards on unfair tests.
Offering testing to only those who are referred is not working. All students should be constantly and repeatedly evaluated for gifted characteristics and needs. Handing out more forms for referrals, hanging up more posters in schools, reaching out to the community for referrals, and other marketing tactics is not going to increase identification if education does not precede those efforts. People need to really understand what gifted looks like — what it is, and what it is not. Teachers are in a much better position to screen kids equally because they see them each day and have large samples of other students to compare behaviors with. But teachers must have much more education on what gifted is in order to adequately refer or screen anyone.
Referring kids to gifted programs that are not truly meeting the needs of gifted kids is useless anyway. So another problem that must be fixed if we are to see true equity in the gifted education system, is ensuring gifted programs are based on supporting gifted kids. Right now most gifted programs tout their goals of supporting gifted kids, but when you look closer you will see that they are based on providing access to faster paced instruction and more in-depth learning, but their social emotional components are severely lacking. These are often programs for high-achievers, rather than gifted kids. They have requirements that often include extra homework, more responsibilities such as projects, and grading methods similar or maybe even more harsh than general education classes. To truly support gifted children, teachers need to first love and respect gifted children. Next, they must have flexible scheduling, differentiated learning opportunities, and a focus on social emotional skill building just as most other special education programs have for children with special needs.
Gifted children are asynchronous and need more support with their emotional responses and their peer interactions. They need projects that focus on figuring out their own learning patterns and challenges, and that are built from personal education plans. They should have small class sizes and they should not isolate kids from others, but rather build bridges between programs and encourage outreach into the communities and with people of all ages, abilities, and interests. Gifted programs should not automatically lead to higher level courses, but be a base of security and encouragement for gifted students of all abilities. Parents should not hunger for elite status from their children’s inclusion in gifted programs, but rather there should be an understanding that their child is different and has different needs, and seek a program that offer the right match of support that they need. Gifted programming is a special education resource, not a bonus of any sort, or an honors program. Achievement, rule-following, and giftedness should be seen as the three different things they are, they sometimes overlap, but often do not. Gifted children who express themselves by being loud, who don’t always use perfect English, who misbehave, or do not follow academic expectations should never be left out of opportunities for the social emotional support and access to teachers who are trained in gifted education issues/methods.
Gifted programs have historically been populated by Caucasian students so Black, Hispanic, and Native American students have not had the same exposure to this type of program in most districts. There is an underlying belief that gifted programs are for “white people” or “those who act white.” The practice of removing kids from neighborhood schools in order to access gifted programs has perpetuated this problem. The message that you must leave your community to attend a special program is not helpful to supporting cultural pride or peer networks. And when programs continue to be populated by mostly Caucasians, when a child of color enters the classroom and does not have others that “look like them,” it emphasizes the historical reputation of gifted kids being different than themselves. The Chicago lawsuit (McFadden vs. Board of Education for Illinois School District U-46) where students of Hispanic descent were put in separate classes is proof of districts perpetuating the belief that students must be of a certain type of race or meet a set of common cultural attributes, before they have access to gifted education services. This also perpetuates the wrong goals of isolating “elite” performers rather than supporting all kids who have gifted characteristics and needs.
It is also problematic when gifted classes look like regular classes but just have more work or they move faster. Not all gifted students are interested in every subject, nor are they all ready to accelerate or dive deeply into all areas. Even when they are interested in a subject area, their attention span may be very short. They may be on to the next obsession soon after declaring their undying love for the last one. They may not be able to sustain the ongoing stresses related to demanding curriculum. They may be missing critical skills because they didn’t pay attention during a particular lesson or they refused to do that homework. Or they may not have the skills they need to struggle through the rough spots yet.
It is the job of all gifted educators to work first on building those skills and understand each child’s unique needs and abilities, and to build up their social-emotional skills, before adding to their anxiety. Gifted programs should be more like unschooling, providing a rich and stimulating environment and exposing them to multiple areas of information, helping them find entry points so that they can learn while exploring, and then digest the data and use it in creative ways, all while teaching them to work together and to work through their asynchronies, perfectionism, and other gifted characteristics they may have. They can and should be able to show competence, but standardized test prep is not going to use their high intellect efficiently.
Administrators who support gifted programs should also recognize the differences between gifted programs and general education, and evaluate teachers on the ways they support the student’s individual education plan goals, rather than how they check off boxes on a set evaluation tool used for all teachers. Gifted education is for those with special needs. It is not elite. It is not giving them advantages. It is giving them what they need, just as all students should have their needs met in school.
In order to improve gifted education and better support our diverse students, we must first redesign our programs and nurture them with training, funding, and proper resources. We need to infuse education with information about what gifted is. We need to partner with counselors and mental and physical health care providers. We need to reach many more gifted people, many who may not even know they are gifted, and advocate much more strongly for our gifted kids. And we need to change education so it is not built to be standardized, but can truly celebrate the different talents and abilities of all of our students.
We have a long way to go. The sea of misunderstanding and errors is deep and there are vast areas of rough waters and barriers ahead of us, but we can no longer continue patching up the old boat. It is time to redesign this boat so that it will not only cross those seas, but be able to float once it gets there. It’s time to sail a new ship and to be brave enough to demand the right vessel that can take our kids as far as they can go .
1. Casper, K., The Ultimate Plan to Help Gifted Education (and Improve Education for All Kids in the Process), http://oneworldgifted.weebly.com/blog/-the-ultimate-plan-to-help-gifted-education-and-improve-education-for-all-kids-in-the-process-by-kathleen-casper
2. Crawford, A., The poor neglected gifted child, http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/03/15/the-poor-neglected-gifted-child/rJpv8G4oeawWBBvXVtZyFM/story.html
3. Davis, L., Dropping Out, Imprisoned or Killed: Disparities in Outcomes Faced by Young African American Men, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/too-important-to-fail/dropping-out-imprisoned-or-killed-disparities-in-outcomes-faced-by-young-african-american-men/
4. Fisher, T., Medical Misdiagnosis in the Gifted, http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2013/09/medical_misdiagnosis_in_the_gi.html
5. Ford, D.Y. Desegregating Gifted Education:Lessons to Learn from Illinois School district court case, http://wearegifted2.blogspot.com/2013/09/desegregating-gifted-educationlessons.html
6. Milmo, C., Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/fury-at-dna-pioneers-theory-africans-are-less-intelligent-than-westerners-394898.html
7. Naglieri, J.A. and Ford, D.Y., Addressing Underrepresentation of Gifted Minority Children Using the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) http://gcq.sagepub.com/content/47/2/155.abstract
8. National Association for Gifted Children, Myths about Gifted Students, http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/myths-about-gifted-students
L. Kathleen Casper, Esq., is the vice president and conference chair for WAETAG and a member of the SENG Board of Directors. She is a Florida and Washington State educator and the former K-12 Highly Capable Program Facilitator for the Tacoma School District in Tacoma, Washington. She currently works as a part-time family law attorney with a practice focusing on children and families and is a gifted education consultant for OneWorld Gifted Consulting. She is a homeschool advocate and tutor, a freelance writer of articles in national and international magazines, a speaker on gifted education and parenting issues, and also a SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator. She recently worked for several years at Ridgecrest Center for Gifted Studies in Largo, Florida. She enjoyed participating in gifted programs as a child and has four gifted children of her own. She is passionate about children’s issues and an advocate for those in the foster care system. Ms. Casper has received many awards for her teaching including the 2012 KCTS Golden Apple Award, Washington State Civics Educator of the Year finalist, and two Florida Governor’s Awards. She is active in her community as a volunteer in legal, governmental, and educational organizations, and is a national and international trainer for administrators, parents, and teachers on issues including keeping gifted children engaged and supported at home and in the classroom.