First Person

Voices: "Gifted and talented" disparities in DPS

Inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, Alexander Ooms says it’s time to examine the real reasons for disparities within Denver’s gifted and talented program.

There was a terrific article a few weeks back in the New York Times about the demographic imbalance in the gifted and talented programs within the public school system in New York City. The school system serves primarily students of color. The gifted and talented programs serve a disproportionate percentage of white students. The only classrooms in many schools that have a majority of white students are those that host gifted and talented programs.

Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.
Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald’s first-grade class at Polaris, a school for gifted kids. <em>EdNews </em>file photo

The piece included a brief and helpful summary of programs:

The idea of gifted education has drifted in and out of vogue in American schools. It was elevated in the 1950s when educators and lawmakers pushed gifted programs in math and science amid fears about communism’s rise. It waned in the 1960s but re-emerged with a White House task force on giftedness and the signing of several federal bills in the 1970s that recognized gifted children’s needs.

Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement.

“There have been claims that gifted education resegregates the public schools,” James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, said in the article.

Reading the article, I wondered if Denver looks any different. It’s not too hard to get a quick read on the data – the Colorado Department of Education lists four categories of gifted and talented: language arts, math, both language and math and other (these categories are exclusive). For simplicity, I combined all four into a single category of gifted and talented, and ran the numbers for Denver.

First some quick context. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that about 6 percent of the total population is academically gifted. Now note first that the 6 percent estimate is for a national population, which is significantly different than an urban school district like DPS, where roughly 72 percent of students qualify for free and reduced meals – a basic indication of poverty.

Gifted and talented data in Denver

So what did the DPS gifted population look like in 2012 (data from CDE’s Data Lab)? Out of a total population of 43,638 kids in grades 3-10:

  • Fully 19.1 percent meet some sort of gifted and talented classification. This is three times greater than the 6 percent national estimate of gifted kids and in a more challenging demographic population.
  • By income: 13 percent of low-income kids in Denver are labeled gifted and talented, while 35 percent of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch are in talented and gifted programs. In other words, more than one in every three kids not in poverty in DPS is classified as gifted and talented.
  • By race: Looking at just black, Hispanic and white students (93 percent of the sample), the gifted and talented classification includes 10 percent of all black students, 14 percent of of all Hispanic students and 40 percent of all white students. White students are thus four times as likely as black students to be classified as gifted and talented, and almost three times as likely as Hispanic students to be classified as gifted and talented.
  • By both race and income: For low-income students, approximate* gifted and talented percentages are 9 percent of black kids, 13 percent of Hispanic kids and 21 percent of white kids. For students who do not receive meal assistance, approximate gifted and talented percentages are 15 percent of black kids, 25 percent of Hispanic kids and 45 percent of white kids. Low-income white kids are roughly twice as likely as low-income children of color to be classified as gifted and talented.

This is somewhat rough data, and clearly there is a lot more that should be done in a complete analysis. It would be interesting to look at the kids classified as highly gifted and talented compared to simply “regular” gifted and talented – but frankly I think the division into high and low gifted and talented populations is itself compelling evidence of a system that segregates kids from the general population for reasons beyond sheer intellectual promise.

It’s my guess that these numbers are directionally correct, and moreover that aggregating the data across the district probably lessens an even sharper discrepancy at many specific schools. I’ve written before about the segregation in selective admissions schools, but I think the disparity within gifted and talented programs is far more pronounced.

With nearly one in five of all DPS students somehow classified as gifted and talented it seems pretty obvious that other criteria are at play. Unfortunately it probably also means that the roughly 6 percent of kids who are truly gifted and talented – the true focus of gifted and talented programs – are probably not being served as well as they should be.

But the gifted and talented system is imbalanced. Currently, just short of half of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch meet some gifted and talented classification. And almost unbelievably, there is a higher percentage of low-income white kids (21 percent) who are labeled gifted and talented than the percentage of non low-income black kids (15 percent), so there is more going on here than just a correlation between poverty and gifted and talented admissions.

Gifted programs serving white middle class families

The Times story notes that the evidence seems to suggest that many gifted and talented programs, whatever their intentions, are now both geared toward and predominantly serving white middle-class families, and that this is an institutional and deeply-rooted issue within the public school system in many cities. It’s easy to read this claim about other places, but this story seems as much a part of the Denver landscape as anywhere else.

Many people may ascribe all sorts of malicious tendencies here – it’s not clear to me that this is true. But I do believe that, particularly over time, most benefits accrue to people who have resources to advocate for them, and these tend to reinforce themselves. This trend can become far worse in a large centralized system that is hard to change.

But whatever the origin or rationale, these numbers tell me that there needs to be a far deeper discussion about the purpose and process for gifted and talented programs in Denver. That dialogue will make lots of people uncomfortable – but hopefully less so than a hard look at the mirror in the data above, which is deeply unsettling.

Author notes: *At this level of specificity, there are some gifted and talented categories where the number of students is less than 16, and thus not recorded in CDE data, so the percentages may be slightly underrepresented. These categories are: black free and reduced price lunch, white free and reduced price lunch and black students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price lunch. And, I use math N (number of subjects in the sample) count data. There are occasional differences between the N counts for math, reading and writing, but these are unlikely to make any changes in the percentages.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.