Rethinking What Gifted Education Means,
and Whom It Should Serve
Before reading this Highlight, imagine to yourself what a “gifted” student looks like in the classroom. Like most people, I bet you imagined a child who often participates in class, who excels at processing and mastering the curriculum, and who consistently achieves perfect or nearly perfect scores on assignments and exams. Now imagine what this student looks like. Unfortunately, stereotypes about a student’s racial or ethnic identity too often guide how we expect them to perform or act in the classroom. Individuals of certain races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses are more or less expected to be “gifted,” while others tend to get overlooked and are not even considered to have such characteristics. After looking into community and school enrollment data, one county in the suburbs of our nation’s capital is looking to dampen the effects of stereotypes in education and to make gifted education programs more equitable for its students.
Two years ago, the district schoolboard in Montgomery County, Maryland, began working to revolutionize how it classifies and educates gifted students. To this effect, the county has implemented a number of changes to their Magnet Program in order to begin resolving the problem of underrepresentation of black, Hispanic, and low-income students in gifted education programs. Now serving over 1,000 of the nearly 160,000 students in Montgomery County, this program is providing a potential model for operating selective education programs around the country. However, some of these changes have sparked anxiety and criticism from parents. So, what are these changes, how are they being implemented, and how are they affecting these students in Maryland?
After an independent consulting group reviewed past enrollment data, clear trends of institutionalized inequity were identified. Previous policy dictated that parents had to apply for their children to attend the Centers, which limited enrollment to only those children of parents who knew about the applications and who had the ability and resources to submit them. This year, however, every single third grader in the county–some 12,000 students–was automatically considered for enrollment. The district also previously allowed private evaluations that classify students as gifted, Cognitive Abilities Tests, and teacher evaluations to be submitted with applications. Due to reports that some parents were getting access to these outside evaluations by paying unscrupulous professionals thousands of dollars, and to research that suggests that teacher evaluations can be influenced by a student’s race and/or socioeconomic status, these items are now being given little weight in the admission process.
This institutionalized inequity not only targeted students of low socioeconomic backgrounds, but it also targeted students of racial minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic students. When these programs were initiated in the 1970s and 1980s, there was an unspoken objective to keep White students in public schools by funneling them into these gifted programs. As a result, although the schools were racially integrated, their classrooms remained segregated. After this was identified by the recent review, the county transformed their standards of whom these programs should be serving. Rather than focusing on recorded achievement alone, these programs are now seeking high-performing students whom are “outliers” in their local schools. Specifically, students with fewer than 20 peers with similar gifted abilities in their local school are given priority for selection, as the county hopes to help students overcome racial and geographical barriers that may be in play. Furthermore, evaluators are now blind to demographic indicators like the students’ names, race, and language status when reviewing the candidate pool; instead, they are only privy to indicators of gender and the family’s socioeconomic status.
The system’s superintendent sees these changes as a “broader integration strategy” that will hopefully make these programs more reflective of the county’s demographic profile. And as the superintendent foresaw, these changes did just that. According to the current enrollment data, more seats were added to the program, which resulted in more students from every demographic group were granted admission into the 13 programs across the county. The percentage of Black and Hispanic students, who comprise nearly half of the student population in the county, rose from 23 percent in 2016 to 31 percent this year. Also, the percentage of students from low-income families nearly doubled from 2016 to 20 percent this year.
Although the schoolboard is celebrating this increase in equity for students, these reforms have also garnered criticisms from certain parents who fear these changes will hurt their children in the future. The overall demographic composition of the Centers changed to become more reflective of the county’s population; however, parents argue that too few new seats were added for these programs, despite the applicant pool being significantly higher than previous years. Furthermore, the percentage of Asian students within the Centers decreased by 8 points (although the number of Asian students actually increased). As a result, some Asian students were deselected from further participating in the program and were forced to revert to their public schools’ customary classes and curricula.
These changes have left some parents, mostly Asian and White parents that live in affluent areas within the county, nervous. They are worried that this will be a common trend going forward, that the spots of students whom were traditionally chosen for these programs would be given to others (although the percentage of White students admitted to the program this year increased by 3 point). These parents worry that the level of instruction in these programs will decline because they fear that lower-performing students will be accepted into them; furthermore, they worry that the customary curriculum of the public schools will hinder their child’s growth and success. Some parents have warned that if more challenging curriculum is not implemented, they may choose to enroll their children in private school.
Although some parents have been made anxious, the schoolboard remains hopeful that these reforms will be fruitful. District officials do not deny that deselecting students from the magnet programs has been “the hardest change” of these reforms; however, the district assures that new accelerated classes reserved for high-preforming students will be implemented, hoping to remediate these parents’ worries. The district is also celebrating the reform’s effect of identifying more of the “underachieving gifted students.” One teacher from the district echoed this sentiment, saying “It’s good for the community to see that the gifted students are not just the typical students that you think of when you think of the gifted and talented. Anybody from diverse backgrounds can be gifted.”
With all of this in mind, there seems to be many different angles that can be taken when evaluating these changes. The district believe that it is better serving its students by revolutionizing how student’s abilities are evaluated, while some parents see this as a detriment to their children’s learning. Thus, I leave you with these thoughts to consider going forward. Given our country’s documented issues with the achievement gap and the prioritization of students based on race and socioeconomic status, do you see these changes as warranted and/or appropriate? Would you want to send your child to, or teach in, a district that implanted changes such as these? What was your reaction to the change in demographic proportions of the programs’ students, given that percentages of demographics dropped but the overall numbers increased? Also, what was your reaction to the criticisms that have been provided?
November is National American Indian Heritage Month
- This month-long celebration continues sentiments raised during last month’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day in honoring our Native brothers and sisters. During this month, we recognize the significant contributions that Native people have provided, from the establishment of this country through today, Origins of this observation date back to 1915 here in (Lawrence) Kansas, when the annual Congress of the American Indian Association met and approved of the launch of the holiday. A year before in 1914, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback to each state seeking approval from state governments across the Union. State by state eventually began designating a holiday dedicated to Native American people, followed by President George H.W. Bush formalizing the month-long observance federally in 1990.
November 12–16 is American Education Week
- Christened by the National Education Association (NEA), this week provides an opportunity to celebrate public education and all of the wonderful educators, staff, and supporters who contribute to quality education. This week of honor originated following World War I, after nearly 25 percent of draftees were designated as illiterate. Following, the NEA met with the American Legion to implement means of public support for public education. The first American Education Week subsequently took place in 1921, eventually gaining support from the U.S. Office of Education, the PTA, and other organizations. Since then, the NEA has worked year after year to foster this reverence for public education. This year, special observances are being made on each of the days, including observances for parents, education support professional, educators, and substitute educators.
References for this MoOnth's Highlights:
- “Rethinking What Gifted Education Means, and Whom It Should Serve,” Dana Goldstein, via The New York Times
- "About National Native American Heritage Month”
- “American Education Week: November 12-16, 2018"