Access to gifted education is a social justice issue

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Rudy Crew

The world is getting more flooded by issues of disproportionality whether in education, politics, or opportunities to vote. A myriad of examples exist in the form of policies that pit people against each other rather than cause the steady increase in overall opportunities which comes with raising the bar for everyone.

In education, creating the proverbial level playing field that enables minority and low-income students to be identified and served in gifted education programs is critical. There are lots of children, children of color, children whose first language is not English, children living in poverty, who do not get access to gifted programs for all kinds of reasons. Either they never learn about these programs or they are not looked at as kids who ultimately could benefit from them. Many of these children have undeveloped abilities that may never be realized.

As M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, recently said, this really is a “social justice issue…children living in poverty, and from racial and ethnic and language minorities, are not getting a fair shake at getting access to gifted services.”

A study by the National Center for Research on Gifted Education found that even when these disadvantaged students were performing at the same level as their more well-off peers, they were still 250 percent less likely to be identified for and served in a gifted program. How is this possible? When I was chancellor of New York City schools, I implemented a plan for universal screening that relied on multiple indicators, not just a single IQ test, and recommended children be tested more than once. This gave young gifted minority and poor students who usually go unnoticed, early access to challenging material allowing them to progress as they should.

Much more work remains. In New York City, only 27 percent of black or Hispanic students are identified for gifted programs, and in the specialized high schools, that number drops to 10 percent.

These two issues—early identification and specialized high schools—are cousins, and there are concrete solutions that could bring equity to the city’s gifted education programs. Yet, when we start talking about giving an opportunity to those who heretofore have not had that chance, others will argue without evidence that a watered-down gifted program will unfold.

We must look for and cultivate gifts and talents across multiple domains. For example, using the arts in all its forms as a strategy for validating the abilities and culturally relevant assets already existing in many communities that are underserved. The rhythm, rhymes, and patterns of language evidenced in jazz, hip hop, social media, art, and design are begging to be included in the teaching of disciplines of higher mathematics, language, and the sciences.

There is a shared desire for change, and we must bring all stakeholders to the table, keeping parents at the center of the conversation. They are the ultimate consumers of education, and they are the strongest advocates for their children. We need to help them become partners with their children’s schools and connect them with the resources they need to truly understand how the system works.

Schools alone cannot solve the issue of inequality, but with the right combination of passion, commitment, and sound policies, we can build a runway that will give many children the opportunity to aim high, dream big, and excel.

Rudy Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College and is a former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.