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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.

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.

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