Racial gaps remain in gifted programs, AJC analysis finds

One morning this spring, Stanley Udekigbo and 20 other fifth graders at Lilburn Elementary School were acting out Shakespeare plays, typically taught in high school. They wrestled with the dark violence of “Macbeth” and giggled at the bawdy romantic confusion of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“If I wasn’t in this class I would slack off,” Stanley said with a broad grin. “It’s harder in here but that’s fun. It’s kind of like a brain teaser.”

Stanley is black, so his participation in this gifted program means he defied the odds.

Despite aggressive efforts to erase the gap between the races, white students in Georgia are roughly three times more likely than their black counterparts to be enrolled in gifted programs — and roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to be in those classrooms than minority students, including Hispanics and Asians.

That’s according to an analysis of 2012-13 school year education data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The state has made significant progress. Twenty years ago, the AJC examined gifted participation and found white students were five times more likely than minorities to be enrolled in gifted programs.

Poverty undoubtedly plays a role. But experts say the persistent racial disparity — coming six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools — is troubling. Gifted students benefit from smaller class sizes, more challenging work, specially-trained teachers and a more motivated, high-achieving peer group. The failure to close the gap has meant unequal access to an elite public education, seen as a path to top colleges and high paying jobs.

“It is a tenacious and pernicious issue,” said Mary Ruth Coleman, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina, who has studied gifted programs for decades. Racial disproportion is commonplace in the United States, she said. But more than perhaps any other state, Georgia committed to shaking off the vestiges of segregation. The state implemented new tests in the 1990s designed to remove barriers to minority participation in gifted classes.

Still, data prior to the 2013-14 school year show that blacks are not alone in trailing white students.

The AJC found that Hispanic students are about as likely to be enrolled in gifted programs as black students. Asian students, who comprise a tiny minority of all enrollment, received the gifted label in proportions slightly higher than whites.

Georgia is seen as a leader in gifted education even as it has trailed much of the nation in overall test scores. It’s one of only four states that provides full funding for every child who qualifies to participate in gifted classes. (Some districts chip in additional local funds as well).

Last year, the state budgeted $367 million to subsidize gifted programs, up from $245 million four years earlier — a 50 percent increase during the recession. Over the same period, the general education budget remained roughly flat.

Yet the AJC’s analysis shows that Georgia’s schoolchildren are not benefiting equally from the state’s investment.

Poverty, bias or pushy parents?

Poverty is at least partly to blame. Experts say poor parents are less likely to read to their children or to own a computer with Internet service. Many poor kids have never visited a zoo or a music class. Some have never stepped outside their neighborhoods.

Overall in 2012-13, about 60 percent of students in Georgia were eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, a common measure of poverty in schools. Yet those students comprised only about 27 percent of the total enrollment in gifted programs, according to the state’s records.

But poverty isn’t the only explanation. Statistician Matthew McBee discovered this when he analyzed state gifted enrollment data for his 2010 dissertation at the University of Georgia. He crunched the numbers on more than 300,000 students, and found after filtering for poverty that race was still a “huge” predictor for who would — or would not — get the gifted label.

“Any poor kid has a lower chance of getting in, whether they’re black, white, Hispanic or Asian. That’s just a fact. But if that kid is poor and black, that gives him another penalty,” said McBee, now an assistant professor of psychology at East Tennessee State University.

Robert Thorpe, a retired principal of Druid Hills Middle School in DeKalb County, attributes some of the disproportion to pushy parents.

“Caucasian parents push harder to get their kids into the gifted programs,” the veteran educator said. The white parents he interacted with tended to be more savvy than black parents about working the system, he said.

Some researchers blame class and cultural bias in the selection process. Georgia uses a mix of standardized tests and more subjective ratings by teachers to identify gifted children.

Donna Ford, a leading researcher of racial disproportion in gifted programs, said any subjective measure like a teacher rating is suspect.

“The number one reason is teacher bias,” said Ford, a Vanderbilt professor who wrote a book last year about low minority participation in gifted programs. “I’m talking about prejudice and discrimination.”

A former student of Ford’s, Michelle Trotman Scott, is now a parent in Cobb County, and has waged a personal battle against what she sees as racial bias.

Trotman Scott said her daughter was twice denied entry to the gifted program based upon subjective teacher evaluations, starting in third grade. She scored high on an achievement test that year, but received low marks from her teacher, a white woman, for creativity and motivation.

The next year, she won a school-wide fiction contest and recognition for her piano playing. Her friends were in the gifted program and she wanted in, too, and she was maintaining high grades. So by evaluation time in fifth grade she was hopeful. The school gave her the testing results. At home, she opened the envelope, and cried. She was again denied. Her teacher, a white man, had marked her too low for creativity and motivation.

“Of the three children who were tested, she was the only black child, and the only child who did not get in,” Trotman Scott said.

Cobb educators would not comment specifically about this case, citing student privacy. But the district did say that teachers receive training to look for indicators of creativity and motivation and that students whose scores are close to qualifying are given an additional assessment.

“The comprehensive training that our teachers receive removes some of the subjectivity from the equation,” district spokesman Jay Dillon wrote in an e-mail to the AJC. “But the bottom line is that we trust our teachers to teach and provide final grades for students and we trust them to be the experts in this area as well.”

Dillon said the teacher evaluation component of the gifted evaluation process “in many, if not most, cases” works in a child’s favor.

That is precisely why Georgia added subjective measures to its gifted evaluation process: to provide an additional path for students, especially minority students, who might be bright but perform poorly on standardized tests.

In 1994, when the AJC examined gifted identification rates, the measure used to identify children was a kind of IQ test. The state later added three new categories — achievement, motivation and creativity.

Georgia was “way ahead of almost all other states in developing a more flexible approach” for admission to gifted programs, said Joseph Renzulli, a well-known researcher who has long pushed for a broader conception of what it means to be “gifted.” He is known for the “rating scales” he developed so teachers could assess their students for motivation and creativity. Georgia added those and other measures to its gifted-identification protocols.

“We don’t build a statue in the town square with someone’s GPA on it,” said Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. “We put a statue in the town square for someone who built something, who created something.”

Sally Krisel, who lobbied for the new evaluations and then oversaw gifted programs at the state Department of Education, said the new methods of identifying gifted children led to more diversity than in the 1990s.

“What we saw when we looked around the classrooms were a sea of white faces,” she said. “Changing the tests has resulted in many more blacks and Hispanics taking part. Can we do better? Yes. But there has been progress.”

Still, that progress has come faster to some places than others. In DeKalb in the 2012-13 school year, about seven in 10 students were black, but less than half of gifted students were. Whites, on the other hand, represented just over a tenth of enrollment but made up more than a third of the gifted program. About 44 percent of the district’s white students were considered gifted.

DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond knows there is a problem. He became aware of the disparity soon after he was hired last year and has been studying it. He attributes the disproportion to high poverty among blacks. Research has shown that children of privilege have heard words millions more times than poor children by kindergarten.

“That influences everything,” he said.

Gifted or bust

Some parents feel a sense of urgency about getting their kids into the gifted program, especially before their children reach middle school.

Elementary schools are smaller and tend to reflect the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods. But that intimate connection is often broken in middle schools, which tend to be larger and take students from a broader geography and from sometimes drastically different neighborhoods.

“I know lots of people who say, ‘If my kid’s not on the gifted team by middle school, I’m not going over there,’” said Delina Malinoff, a DeKalb parent with a gifted child. “People feel like if their kids are not in the highest level of classes, they’ll somehow be looked over when it comes time to go to college.”

Nicholas Vastakis, a rising 7th grader in DeKalb, got into the gifted program early in elementary school.

The 12-year-old at Henderson Middle School was on “Team 6D” this spring. Like the rest of the roughly 500 gifted students there the year before, he and his teammates took core classes together, mixing with children outside the gifted program only in physical education, health and other ancillary classes.

Nicholas excels at math and is already thinking about becoming an engineer. His parents talk to him a lot about the importance of school and its implications for college and career, and about the value of the gifted program. He knows that if his grades drop below a B, he can get kicked out.

He still recalls the morning years ago when his mother drove him to school the day of a gifted test. He was in his booster seat in the back.

“You know,” he recalls her saying, “this test affects whether you get into the gifted program, and that could affect the jobs you get in the future. So try your hardest.”

For some parents, the peer network within the gifted program is important. Rebecca Leffler, a mother in Fulton County, said she was satisfied with the teaching in general education but said one of her daughters suffered socially in it. Several years ago, when she pulled her daughters from private school and enrolled them at High Point Elementary near her home, she assumed they’d immediately test into the gifted program. She discovered, though, that testing wouldn’t occur until spring, which meant her daughters couldn’t get into the gifted program until the next year.

The school has a large minority population, and one of her daughters felt isolated, Leffler said. Whites comprised less than a third of the school’s enrollment in the 2012-13 school year, and there were only four other white girls in her class. “It was rough on us as parents to watch her go through that,” Leffler said. “There were nights when she didn’t think she had any friends.”

Leffler returned one of her girls to private school, where she had performed better. The other daughter, the one who felt isolated, got into the gifted program, where there were more white children. “That has been huge,” Leffler said. “That is why I think fourth grade and fifth grade have been better socially.”

A long history

The Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case declared race-based segregation in schools unconstitutional. The court ordered states to desegregate but didn’t give a deadline. A year later, in the face of massive public resistance, the court issued a follow-up order with an ambiguous timeline: federal courts were to implement desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”

In 1958, when Georgians were still openly resisting integration, state lawmakers passed a resolution that recognized gifted students as a special needs population. The state became the first “to provide funding and systematic support for its most capable students,” says a 2006 governor’s task force report on gifted education.

Georgia schools ultimately desegregated and, since 1994, the gifted program has become less disproportionate. But parity remains elusive.

Thurmond, the DeKalb superintendent, said he hopes the imbalance in his school district is less the result of racial bias in teacher ratings than of poor test scores stemming from poverty. “You’ve got a better chance of changing that than of changing skin color,” he said. Even so, he said that endemic poverty among blacks is rooted in a history that stretches back before the nation’s founding and that desegregation didn’t arrive at many schools until the 1970s.

“It’s going to take more than four decades to change 400 years of history,” he said.

Some black parents, such as Richard Taylor, are unwilling to wait. He transferred his son out of the neighborhood elementary school when he learned it didn’t admit kindergartners to the gifted program. His boy got in at the next school, though. He knew to push because of what happened to his older daughter after several years of testing. Back then, he had trusted the DeKalb school system.

“She had the grades and the test scores and didn’t get in,” he said. “I had to to call and complain.” An official told him to refer her for testing again, and she got in.

Unsatisfied with the local high school, Taylor transferred her north, to Dunwoody High, which has a wealthier, and whiter, enrollment. Once there, she encountered unexpected resistance. A white teacher didn’t think she was ready for gifted-level physics. Taylor insisted that she be enrolled, and she got an “A.”

“You have to know what your child can do,” he said, “because sometimes the teachers might push the other way.”

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