For high-achieving students, gifted education programs can have great benefits — more challenging coursework, smaller class sizes, and individualized attention. But not all students have equal access to gifted programs at school.
It turns out black students were about half as likely as white students to be placed in gifted programs, according to a national study released last month by researchers at Vanderbilt University. This might be due to the process of identifying which students are gifted, whether it's through testing, a subjective panel, or teacher referrals, which are where the discrepancy really sticks out.
The study also found that black teachers were three times more likely to recommend black students for gifted services than nonblack teachers.
But it's not simply a matter of black teachers being sympathetic. A 2015 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that when a school district screened all its students for giftedness (rather than relying on teacher referrals), there was a 180 percent increase in the number of disadvantaged students who qualified.
So the problem may be with the process — and nationally, it's an inconsistent one. So how do you define a "gifted" child, and is one system more equitable than others?
The US Department of Education says gifted students show strong intellect, creativity, artistic capability, leadership skills, or strength in specific academic fields. Those guidelines say kids like this need "services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities."
Even with a federal definition, though, most states and local districts have their own definitions of giftedness and a different process for assessing it. Some places focus primarily on IQ and other standardized tests, while others include interview-style assessments.
Schools in the Cobb County School District in Marietta, Georgia, for example, assess mental ability, achievement, creativity, and motivation. In Pittsburgh, school officials gather a report on each nominated student and a team reviews it.
Why does this nationwide inconsistency matter? For one, a student might qualify as gifted in one state or district but not in another. So students who change schools might have to endure the long assessment process again in a new district.
Second, the reliance on teacher referrals can allow teachers to determine what behaviors in their students align with the definition of giftedness, which can become a hindrance to minority students.
A teacher could interpret one child's high energy as enthusiasm but another child's energy as a disruption, said Joy Lawson Davis of Virginia Union University.
"Sometimes there’s this implicit bias," Davis said, "even when teachers say, 'I treat all my students the same. I’m colorblind,' which is also a form of discrimination."
The new study did not go deep enough to identify why nonblack teachers named certain students gifted. One of the study's researchers, Jason A. Grissom, noted that cultural differences are important when teachers recommend children for these programs.
While each state has its own standard, there is one consistency in why this racial gap exists: More than 80 percent of teachers are white, according to school and staffing surveys by the National Center for Education Statistics. As shown by the Vanderbilt research and other studies, this has clear implications for black and minority students.
Donna Ford of Vanderbilt agrees that culture plays a role in both teacher referrals and assessments.
"In all of my publications I have said that giftedness looks different across cultures," she said. "That means that what these predominantly white teachers are looking for may look different than [for] a person from another culture."
She calls this a "cultural mismatch," which can cause teachers to have lower expectations for minority students or misinterpret their behavior.
As an example, Ford said a common indicator of giftedness —independence — might not manifest in black students, who tend to have tight-knit and interdependent family structures.
Ford said tackling this racial disparity will require change on multiple levels, but prioritizing the issue is an important place to start.