Are “Gifted” Classes a Discriminatory Gift Themselves?

Education Ideas and Issues

gifted_kidsNew Orleans   The financial crisis gripping the state government of Louisiana due to the oil pricing collapse and the ideological bondage of former Governor Bobby Jindal to the worst of Republican “no tax/ small government” philosophy, has forced an interesting conflict over the funding of special gifted programs in New Orleans schools. The few lucky schools that received the premium funding are now facing reductions that would equalize the support for the gifted with other special education programs desperately needing the money for the severely impaired. Don’t stop reading just because that seems more than fair on the face of it. Several of the schools are suing at the supposed injustice of the new equalization formula which is widely supported by what would seem to be almost everyone including both district superintendents, the charter school association, and virtually all of the school principals, but two of the more favored schools through the old formula are suing with the implicit support of the other two school beneficiaries.

You might ask why these “gifted” schools and programs are so often on both edges of the sword, lavishly favored by state legislators historically, and roundly isolated from their peers as blindly entitled and by critics as flatly discriminatory.

An interesting piece by Professor Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan in The New York Times detailed an program developed by the school district in Broward County, Florida which directly addressed the problem of why gifted programs were always so skewed racially to favor white and Asian students even when the population of the districts was overwhelmingly African-American. Broward introduced “a universal screening program, requiring that all second graders take a short nonverbal test, with high scorers referred for I.Q. testing.” Professor Dynarski reports that the number of Hispanic and African-American children tabbed as gifted tripled. The numbers were still surprisingly low it seems to me, 6% for Hispanics and 3% for African-Americans, but progress is progress.

And, what was the previous system in Broward that this referral process replaced? It was the same system that exists virtually everywhere: recommendations from parents and teachers. Parents of course are inveterate cheerleaders and rightly so, but that’s if they even know there is such a program, and it has benefits, which the vast majority of black and Hispanic parents may not realize. Sadly, Broward ran out of money for the district-wide screening system, and the numbers predictably fell to what they had been previously. When they tried to reboot with a modified program the results have not been as outstanding. 8% of whites qualify for gifted which is now twice the rate for Hispanics and four times the rates for African-Americans. There are also loopholes allowing parents to independently pay for I.Q. tests to qualify their children at $1000 a pop.

The role of parents as elite, entitled, and invariably white is a sore rubbing raw this discontent in many public school districts largely abandoned by just that demographic as they helicopter in and out of the districts to cherry pick special programs while others without a choice are forced, regular or special, to simply take what’s on offer. The circle closes where it starts. More funding is triggered by clearer and more active voices in legislators’ ears that primes disproportionate cash into gifted programs, and the programs are resisted in the trenches for the same reasons of entitlement, elitism, and discrimination hovering around such schools.

The irony, other researchers have found, is that since gifted programs use the same teachers and curriculum as the rest of the district, there is little difference in educational achievement for the gifted, but because the numbers are so low overall, the rest of the students who populate the classes to fill the room with the gifted, make huge progress in both performance and self-esteem.

Makes you want to weep doesn’t it?