An Educator’s View: Getting More Diverse Kids into Gifted-&-Talented Programs Is Only Half the Story. Schools Must Help Them Stay — and Succeed

Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

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Gifted and talented education has long come under scrutiny for perpetuating inequities, particularly between wealthy white children and other underrepresented groups. Recently, calls for changes range from eliminating the programs altogether to implementing various proposals to increase diversity. Yet many proposed strategies focus solely on increasing the numbers of racially, ethnically, linguistically or economically diverse students being referred for evaluation and identification as gifted and talented.

This is a Band-Aid approach that does nothing to set diverse students up for success or create viable long-term, equity-driven gifted education. It is not enough to get underrepresented students into the pipeline; gifted programs must strive to retain them, so they don’t struggle or drop out. The ultimate goal must be an increase in the number of diverse learners who thrive in a rigorous, accelerated learning environment.

The causes of underrepresentation of marginalized students in accessing gifted education are generally understood. But they manifest differently once students enroll and are confronted with, among other factors, cultural and identity disconnects and a lack of cultural representation within the gifted curriculum.

These are all problems that can and should be addressed as part of comprehensive reform that starts with modifying the curriculum and approach to teaching in ways that are culturally relevant. This capitalizes on the strengths each child brings to the classroom. There are lesson plans and gifted program standards that can help educators develop rigorous lessons for diverse gifted learners, specifically Black and Hispanic students, and create culturally responsive curricula that are equity-focused and provide student outcomes and evidence-based practices.

Secondly, diverse gifted learners need social-emotional support. Successful gifted learners who are developing their personal and cultural identities often attribute their academic success to their relationships with a mentor — especially one who has a cultural connection with them, someone who is like them to get advice from and lean on. A mentor provides needed support and encouragement, enabling these students to develop resiliency and a belief in their abilities — key factors in their long-term success.

Joy Davis and Deb Douglas focus on the importance of fostering these relationships in their new book, Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students. Successful partnerships with a mentor enable students to develop the skills needed to advocate for their own learning. “Rather than waiting for systemic change to occur, these students can use self-advocacy to adapt the system from within, creating their own paths to individualized educational programs that match their unique strengths and propel them forward,” the authors write.

 Finally, districts need to support the gifted educators, as teachers are the key to the solution. Providing targeted professional learning for classroom and gifted teachers on what giftedness looks like across cultures, effective instructional strategies and ways to foster gifted learners social-emotional growth are all essential. Currently, in many states, teachers receive limited professional learning focused on working with gifted students, a topic that is missing from many teacher preparation programs. A practical and cost-effective way to increase equity in gifted programs is to focus on providing teachers with professional learning that teaches about how giftedness presents across cultures, best practices for fostering gifted learners and how to meaningfully engage with families and community partners. This type of professional support for teachers can produce a positive change in the numbers of marginalized students succeeding in gifted education.

This is a tremendous undertaking, and some districts, like New York City, have suggested that the best way to end the inequities in gifted education is to eliminate it altogether. But that does a disservice to the best and brightest students. It is possible to create equity-driven gifted education that sets all students up for success and has initiatives in place that keep them in the program. In Richardson, Texas, for example, the district revamped its gifted program with focus on retention.

Students are introduced to critical-thinking strategies and challenged to explore concepts with depth and complexity both before and after they are identified for participation. Developing these skills not only enables more children from underserved populations to score well on program entry tests, but it provides opportunities for the district’s advanced learning specialists to work with these students beforehand. This is a key piece of the puzzle, as the specialists are trained to recognize characteristics of giftedness across cultures and to foster those strengths. Richardson also increased the number of advanced learning specialists in its schools and changed the structure of its gifted program to provide services matched to students’ individual academic needs rather than a one-size-fits-all pull-out approach. In addition, the district has a stated goal of addressing attrition as students enter secondary school.

It’s clear that gifted education programs need to change to better serve students from historically underrepresented groups. This includes amending retention strategies to meet students’ social-emotional needs and providing teachers with the support and resources to effectively accelerate diverse learners.

Katie D. Lewis is an associate professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania. She is co-author, with Angela M. Novak, of Empowering Gifted Educators as Change Agents: A Playbook Equity-Driven Professional Learning (forthcoming, April 2022)

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