Five years ago, the lack of diversification in the gifted and talented program in Minnesota’s Mankato Area Public Schools illustrated a nationwide problem. African-American, Native American, Latino and low-income students remained severely underrepresented relative to their numbers in the district’s population.
In response, administrators overhauled the way they identified high-potential learners, drawing on research into the shortcomings of traditional methodologies.
Their efforts have borne fruit: Today, Mankato’s gifted and talented enrollment is more than 11 percent black, Latino and Native American, up from less than 3 percent in 2013-14. The proportion of low-income students has risen from 15.2 to 22.5 percent.
“Our system was built to get exactly what we were getting,” says Heather Mueller, director of teaching and learning for the 8,700-student district. “So what we had to do was build the system differently.”
Across the country, school districts increase the diversification of gifted and talented programs by adopting research-based strategies. These include:
- screening all students, not just those recommended by teachers or parents
- choosing tests that don’t favor middle-class English speakers
- relying on local norms, rather than national ones, to determine who qualifies for enhanced services
- widening the circle of adults scouting for student talent
The diversification work reflected moral and a practical imperatives, educators say.
“We can’t afford to overlook talent,” says Del Siegle, a professor of gifted education at the University of Connecticut, where he also directs the National Center for Research on Gifted Education. “The only way our country is going to reach its potential is if all the children have an opportunity to reach theirs.”
Smarter screening increases gifted and talented diversification
The traditional process for identifying gifted and talented students looks the same in many districts. Parents or teachers recommend children for testing, and if they score high enough, they qualify for advanced instruction. But research shows gatekeeper recommendations can limit diversification by enshrining race- and class-based bias.
Read more: Gifted and talented program numbers fail to add up
It’s far more effective to screen every student. “If you were to change nothing about your identification criteria, but you were to put all of your eligible students through it—instead of only those who were nominated—you would have a big effect on underrepresentation,” says Scott J. Peters, associate professor of educational foundations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Still, even universal screening needs careful calibration, educators say. Timing is crucial. Screening in September can penalize low-income students who are especially susceptible to summer learning loss, says Donna Y. Ford, professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
When Baltimore City Public Schools (79,000 students) screened second-graders, 5.6 percent tested as gifted. When the district screened kindergartners, 10 percent qualified.
“The brain research indicates that [for] kids of poverty, in particular, the longer you wait to identify and provide services, those neural pathways begin to atrophy,” says Dennis D. Jutras, Baltimore’s coordinator of gifted and advanced learning. “What their potential was, is going to be diminished.”
‘Brains are malleable’
Testing instruments must also be chosen carefully. This helps educators detect potential in students who don’t speak English or whose out-of-school learning opportunities have lagged. Experts advocate using multiple measures. The Mankato district, for instance, relies on three years of achievement-test data. It also uses structured teacher observations and a cognitive-abilities test of verbal, quantitative and nonverbal skills.
To help underrepresented students to excel on gifted screeners, some districts prime the pump by offering enriched instruction before the screening. In the Chicago suburb of Elgin, School District U-46 (39,000 students) offers weekly instruction on thinking skills to second- and third-graders in 22 low-income schools.
The program aims to prepare students for the universal screening for giftedness that takes place in third grade. “Brains are malleable, and students are certainly wired to learn,” says April Wells, the district’s gifted coordinator. “We just need to get them before they start falling out of those excellence gaps.”
Districts committed to diversifying gifted programs can use local—rather than national—norms to determine who needs extra academic challenges.
Districts don’t have to offer gifted services only to students who score above some percentile on a nationally normed test. Educators can offer programs to the top-scoring 5 percent of students in each school building, regardless of national ranking.
Because de facto racial segregation remains widespread, such geographic diversification often results in a far more diversity. If every district in the country relied on local norms, enrollment in gifted reading programs would rise by 238 percent for African-American students and 157 percent for Latinos, says Peters, the Wisconsin professor.
Local norming can create political headaches, however, as parents hear of divergent cutoff scores at low-income and affluent schools. To avoid the problem, administrators can offer gifted programming to any student who meets either a local or a national norm. This guarantees that a larger percentage of students at high-achieving schools will make the cut. Or administrators can remind parents of the socioeconomic inequities that differential cutoff scores aim to address.
Read more: Maintaining diversification of gifted and talented programs
In Paradise Valley USD, which enrolls 31,000 students in parts of Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, Dina Brulles, the director of gifted education, has a ready answer for affluent parents who complain that gifted programs at low-income schools are open to students with lower test scores than similar programs at wealthier schools.
She tells them they’re free to transfer their children to those low-income schools. “How many parents do you think, take me up on that?” Brulles asks.
Everyone scouts gifted and talented
Diversifying gifted and talented programs also means expanding the number of adults looking out for high-potential learners.
School psychologists, special education teachers, bilingual instructors, band directors—all can become talent scouts. “We just try to take a really broad perspective and make sure that we’re reaching everybody in the school community who has interactions with students, so that if somebody sees a strength, we can try to follow that through,” Brulles says.
Minnesota’s Austin Public Schools (5,200 students) targets parents and guardians for special outreach. Cultural liaisons in each elementary school urge families to let high-scoring students participate in gifted pullout programs. “It’s a lot of face-to-face contact,” says John Alberts, executive director of educational services. “A letter home in a backpack isn’t necessarily going to do it.”
Identifying a diverse group and then providing needed programming can increase testing, staffing and PD costs, educators say. But “it’s much less expensive than people think it is,” says Jutras, the Baltimore administrator.
Required state tests, rather than costly new ones, can double as initial screeners to determine which students need further specialized testing. Federal Title I funds for needy schools can be used to support gifted programming. “It’s allocating and reallocating your existing funds to make sure that you are directing them toward the needs of all students, as opposed to leaving one group out,” says Brulles, the Arizona administrator.
Whatever the cost, “we balance that against the cost of missing students,” says Alberts, of Minnesota’s Austin School District. “If we do it in the traditional way, we’re not going to have that human capital that we need to succeed as a nation.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.