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America's gifted education programs have a race problem. Can it be fixed?

White children and those from wealthy families are more likely to be identified as "gifted" — despite decades of effort to make these programs more equal.
Gifted education has played a role in maintaining segregation in American public schools.
Gifted education has played a role in maintaining segregation in American public schools.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

This article about gifted education was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This is part 1 of the series “Gifted Education’s Race Problem.”

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On a crisp day in early March, two elementary school gifted and talented classes worked on activities in two schools, 3 miles and a world apart.

In airy PS 64 Frederick Law Olmsted, in affluent, white north Buffalo, 22 would-be Arctic explorers wrestled with how to build a shelter if their team leader had frostbite and snow blindness. Unusually for Buffalo’s public schools — where 20 percent of students are white and 46 percent are Black — about half of the fourth grade class was white.

In PS 61 Arthur O. Eve, on the city’s majority-Black East Side, 13 first graders, all of them Black, Latino or Asian American, folded paper airplanes in their basement classroom as part of an aerodynamics and problem-solving lesson. Unlike at Olmsted, the highest-scoring elementary school in the city, students at Eve scored around the dismal city average in math and English in 2019, when fewer than a quarter of students passed state tests.

The gifted program at Eve opened two years ago as a way to increase access to Buffalo’s disproportionately white, in-demand gifted and talented programs. Buffalo educators hoped Eve’s new program would give more children — particularly children of color — a chance at enrichment and advanced learning.

Yet two years in, Eve’s gifted classes are under-enrolled, while Olmsted always runs out of room — last year, more than 400 children applied for 65 gifted spots. And even though the district made it easier to apply for gifted classes, Olmsted gifted classrooms still don’t look like the rest of the district. White families flock to Olmsted, and eschew the new program at Eve, while families of color have come up against barriers, including an IQ test children take as young as 4, that experts say keep gifted education out of reach for kids who need it.

Image: At Arthur O. Eve #61 on Buffalo's east side, Sarah Malczewski's first grade gifted class prepares to launch the paper airplanes they designed to fly as far as possible.
At PS 61 Arthur O. Eve on Buffalo's East Side, Sarah Malczewski's first grade gifted class prepares to launch the paper airplanes they designed to fly as far as possible.Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Buffalo's struggle to create an integrated, equitable gifted program demonstrates a longtime challenge that has recently gained attention: Gifted education in America has a race problem.

Nearly 60 percent of students in gifted education are white, according to the most recent federal data, compared to 50 percent of public school enrollment overall. Black students, in contrast, made up 9 percent of students in gifted education, although they were 15 percent of the overall student population.

Many factors contribute to this disparity. Gifted education has racism in its roots: Lewis Terman, the psychologist who in the 1910s popularized the concept of “IQ” that became the foundation of gifted testing, was a eugenicist. And admissions for gifted programs tend to favor children with wealthy, educated parents, who are more likely to be white.

Though it took several decades for gifted education experts to raise concerns, they have been trying to diminish segregation for a generation. If it were easy, it would be done by now.

In a three-part series, The Hechinger Report and NBC News examined the ways that gifted education has maintained segregation in American schools; how some districts are trying to diversify gifted classes or get rid of them altogether; and how scientific progress in gene testing could boost — and complicate — efforts to make gifted programs fairer.

School administrators often see gifted education as a frill. Nationally, 3.3 million public school students were identified as gifted in 2015-16, about 6 percent of the total school population, according to the federal Department of Education. The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced many districts to cut budgets, pushes gifted education even farther down the priority list. However, addressing its continuing racial inequality could not be more urgent, education advocates say, especially after the summer’s civil rights protests.

It’s not just Buffalo. Purdue University’s Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute found in 2019 that inequity is the norm. Wealthy schools identify more children as gifted than do poor ones. Black, Latino and Indigenous students are often left out.

South Dakota and Alaska, for instance, have a combined 46,000 Native children, fewer than 300 of whom, 0.6 percent, were considered gifted in 2015-16. Black and Latino children fill 65 percent of New York City classrooms but just 22 percent of gifted seats.

The Hechinger Report’s analysis of U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data suggested the problem is acute in some cities that also have high levels of racial segregation by neighborhood. In Cincinnati, for instance, Black students made up 63 percent of the student body but just 16 percent of the small gifted program, according to 2015 data from the Office for Civil Rights.

In Buffalo, administrators say they know that their district’s gifted education racial imbalance is a problem: The Office for Civil Rights investigated the district six years ago. In response, the district made it easier to apply for Olmsted’s gifted program, created the new program at Eve and began the process of infusing every classroom from pre-K through fourth grade with enriched lessons.

But is it possible to make gifted education representative? Does letting more kids in fix the underlying inequities? Can we even agree on what “giftedness” is at all?

How to define ‘gifted’

Despite a century of research, definitions of giftedness are fuzzy. People disagree over whether it should be measured in absolute or relative terms; whether there is a limit to the proportion of humanity that is gifted; whether giftedness can be cultivated; whether it must be backed up by achievement; and whether it should include athletic abilities.

Terman set the stage by writing in the 1910s that giftedness was very high intelligence, which he defined as the top 1 percent of scorers on his IQ exam, researcher Jennifer L. Jolly wrote in 2005. Psychologists later poked holes in that definition. They said that giftedness could also be creativity, and found that a high IQ score did not necessarily correspond with leadership, professional accomplishment or even success in school. There are gifted dropouts.

The National Association for Gifted Children defines its target group as kids whose “ability is significantly above the norm for their age.” Maria Valenti-Barone, a gifted and talented teacher at Olmsted, said that giftedness is “the potential to do great things in society.”

Related: Up to 3.6 million students should be labeled gifted, but aren’t

Psychologist Joseph Renzulli, probably the most influential person in gifted education today, views giftedness as dynamic, not as a fixed quality you either have or don’t. He proposed a Venn diagram: Giftedness is where creativity, above-average ability and commitment to completing a task meet. He speaks not of gifted people but of gifted behaviors that can be developed and that show up “in certain people, at certain times, under certain circumstances.” Renzulli’s summer workshops for educators have trained more than 35,000 teachers over 40 years, including numerous Olmsted staff.

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Nowadays, many states build off the federal government’s kitchen-sink definition: Gifted and talented students are those who “give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

But in practice, districts often still identify gifted children through IQ and other cognitive ability tests.

Gary Orfield, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, believes schools define giftedness too narrowly. “Every child has gifts,” he said. “All kids do have special talents. But we only measure a very few.”

A clear definition of giftedness is elitist while a broad definition is useless. But however Buffalo was defining giftedness, advocates for Black children knew that something must be wrong because their city couldn’t possibly have so few gifted Black kids.

A ‘patently unfair’ program

Surrounded by portraits of creative thinkers such as Muppets creator Jim Henson, the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and the anthropologist Jane Goodall, four students in an Olmsted #64 fourth grade gifted class debated an early step of the Arctic shelter challenge: phrasing the problem so that they could come up with a solution.“This is hard,” one muttered, bending over her paper.

“Black hat,” Valenti-Barone instructed them, “add a few more details.”

By that, the students knew, their teacher meant one of the psychologist Dr. Edward de Bono’s six “thinking hats,” specifically the one that called on thinkers to assess their ideas and look for potential flaws.

Image: Edward de Bono's six "thinking hats" are a staple in gifted education. They teach kids (and adults) to systematically look at a challenge from several different perspectives.
Edward de Bono's six "thinking hats" are a staple in gifted education. They teach kids (and adults) to systematically look at a challenge from several different perspectives.Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Olmsted’s program is based on Renzulli's three-tiered whole-school enrichment model. The entire school learns about critical thinking and creativity, and gifted kids take most of their classes with their peers, except for the special gifted class, taught by Valenti-Barone, which meets every other day.

While gifted education generally took off in the U.S. after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, it arrived in Buffalo only after a 1976 federal court ordered the highly segregated city to integrate its schools. Rather than force integration like in Boston, the district came up with an array of magnet programs to encourage white families to enroll their children in predominantly Black public schools. That included a gifted track housed at a largely Black campus near the city’s Delaware Park, the school that would later be renamed Olmsted.

Buffalo’s magnet programs, including Olmsted, integrated schools without Boston’s violence. White and middle-class students attracted to the magnets stayed in the school system, and mixed with Black and low-income students in the same schools. Test scores for all students went up across the board. “They were a national model,” the UCLA’s Orfield said.

To create racial balance, the district conducted outreach, expanded the attendance zone for the seats reserved for nongifted neighborhood kids and had a “prep program” for students who showed potential for giftedness but fell short of the admissions requirements, retired Olmsted middle school principal Michael Gruber said.

But Buffalo’s golden age of integration ebbed quickly. Federal court supervision of the city’s desegregation plan ended in 1995, and a white family whose child did not get into the academically selective middle-high school City Honors sued the district in 1997, alleging “reverse discrimination.” The district ceased efforts to balance race in gifted admissions, according to a report that UCLA’s Civil Rights Project produced for the district in 2015.

Image: Rather than have students jump ahead into the task of designing and building a shelter, Olmsted #64's gifted and talented teacher Maria Valenti-Barone had them stop and frame the problem.
Olmsted #64's gifted and talented teacher Maria Valenti-Barone asked students to frame the problem of surviving in the Arctic. Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Without the outreach and prep program, the Olmsted gifted program began to grow whiter — from 55 percent Black and 30 percent white in 2004 to 32 percent Black and 46 percent white in 2013, according to federal data. People began raising concerns that the admissions process was onerous: Parents had to take their 4-year-olds to the school on a Saturday for a one-on-one IQ test with a psychologist. “I was stunned,” said Sally Krisel, a former president of the National Association for Gifted Children, who visited Buffalo in the late 1990s to advise on how to identify gifted students. “Low-income families, they are working on Saturday.”

The preschoolers also took math and reading readiness tests, and parents had to fill out “inventories” rating their children’s academic prowess, creativity and ability to stay on task. At one time, several people said, the district required a recommendation from a preschool teacher. The preschools that served lots of kids who went to Olmsted knew the sort of thing to write.

Many of the parents who applied to Olmsted didn’t even necessarily want gifted services, said Kate Steilen, an education doctoral student and blogger who interviewed the families for a research project. They knew not all their children were especially brilliant — they just wanted to get into the best elementary school in the city.

Related: Gifted classes may not help talented students move ahead faster

In 2014, a group of Buffalo parents filed a racial discrimination complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. They named Olmsted and several other magnet programs. The federal government found that the district discriminated against Black children, citing data that included Olmsted #64’s admissions numbers: Close to 1 in 5 white applicants were offered a spot at the school, compared to 1 in 10 Black applicants.

The district acknowledged the shortcomings. “Smart parents were using the system to their advantage,” Will Keresztes, the acting superintendent during the investigation, said. The academic screening tools “were patently unfair.” The district hired Orfield’s UCLA group to recommend changes.

Rather than find a better way to slice the pie, UCLA recommended making the pie bigger. Olmsted should stop cordoning off one-third of its elementary seats for nongifted neighborhood students. And Buffalo should create “a new high standards elementary school,” they wrote, with 10 percent of seats reserved for “students who have not been adequately prepared but show signs of strong potential.”

Buffalo Public Schools adopted many, though not all, of the recommendations. It streamlined the gifted admissions process, dropping the academic readiness tests and recommendations, but keeping the individually administered IQ test. And while the district did not duplicate Olmsted, it did expand Olmsted’s gifted program to a very different school.

Growing Buffalo’s gifted programs

At Eve #61, first grader Kaiden walked across the classroom in early March, looking for a buddy with whom to make paper airplanes. It was the second year of the gifted program at Eve. The school used to be racially integrated, but white families left after the federal court order ended. Educators have developed an arts-infused curriculum with full-time dance, theater, art, and violin teachers. The halls are dingy but lined with students’ Inuit sculptures and dreamcatchers.

Sarah Malczewski, who teaches gifted kids like Kaiden for a portion of each day, created her own curriculum for Eve, but she taught a lot of the same techniques as the Olmsted program, including the de Bono hats and other methods to think outside the box.

The 13 students in Kaiden’s gifted class, which meets daily, had started the project the day before, so they colored in their paper airplanes’ wings, practiced their tosses — and searched for even better designs. “My parents made me make five paper airplanes at home so I would win this,” Sharmin, browsing videos on an iPad with classmate Mariah, said.

“Lookit lookit lookit! Five hundred feet!” Mariah exclaimed to Sharmin, after finding a promising video. Kaiden sat down next to them and Mariah pushed the iPad closer so he could see. One boy accidentally bonked his classmate with a plane and apologized.

Image: Howard Thompson III writes in the Eve #61 gifted and talented class. His father hoped to move him to the more-established gifted program at Olmsted #64.
Howard Thompson III writes in the Eve #61 gifted and talented class. Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Finally, they lined up in the hallway for the official competition. Jumping up and down quietly in lieu of disruptive whooping, they were so excited to pitch the planes that they barely noticed how far they traveled. Malczewski praised not their airplanes but their attitudes, the way they kept working despite frustrations. “I was very happy with the way you guys handled it,” she said. That “is called ‘persistence.’ ”

“Kaiden is — he’s something different!” his mom, Shakeirra McDuffie, who is African American, said a couple weeks later, laughing. He used to wear costumes everywhere; he wouldn’t listen to the pediatrician until the doctor addressed him as “Batman.” For Christmas last year, he asked for a drone and a science kit. His preschool teacher told McDuffie, “You have to try to get him in a program” for advanced students, to ensure he was challenged.

McDuffie was living down the street from Olmsted at the time and applied to the school’s neighborhood program, not the gifted class, but Kaiden didn’t get in. So she chose Eve, hearing it was a good school, not knowing it was launching a gifted program.

Related: Bright black students taught by black teachers are more likely to get into gifted-and-talented classrooms

Malczewski had only three formally gifted kids in kindergarten, two in first grade and four in second in the 2019-20 school year. So Eve has opted to include children such as Kaiden who seemed like they would benefit, not just those who passed the one-on-one IQ test.

Principal Parette Walker, at one time the principal of Olmsted #64, said parents just didn’t know about Eve yet. “It’s a new program. So we have to advertise it,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll get the enrollment.”

Several parents, however, suggested another reason for the gifted enrollment shortfall at Eve: White parents didn’t want to send their kids to a majority-Black school. It wasn’t the gifted education they were interested in, but the high-performing, majority-white Olmsted.

Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization co-chair Rachel Fix Dominguez, who is white, said she’d talked to white, middle-class parents who had turned down a spot in the gifted program at Eve. “They don’t know anyone whose kid has gone to 61, so they’re not going to be the vanguard,” she said. “I don’t think there are explicit ill intentions, but I think people go with what they’re comfortable with.”

That’s not unique to Buffalo. Harvard University researchers found that while white parents supported racially integrated schools in principle, they were uncomfortable with having their children be the minority and less likely to enroll their children in schools with large numbers of Black students.

Howard Thompson II, a Black substitute teacher at Eve whose son passed the gifted test and is in Malczewski’s class, put it plainly: “Racism will always play a factor in most people’s decision-making,” he said.

If the point is to give more Black children in Buffalo the chance to attend gifted programs, maybe Eve’s lack of white students is for the best. “They say some people’s loss is another person’s gain,” Thompson said. When white parents shy away, “more people of color will have the opportunity.”

Challenges in reaching equity

There are many ways to go wrong when identifying gifted children, Ohio State professor Donna Ford said, ways that result in fewer disadvantaged children and more wealthy and white children passing the bar.

For instance: Using achievement tests, which better measure a child’s schooling and home resources than their potential. Measuring disadvantaged kids against a national norm instead of against other kids like them. Testing too young — a 4-year-old can have a bad day, and the results don’t necessarily hold over time. And testing only students whose teachers or parents are aware of the program and request it; few teachers get trained in gifted education, so their recommendations are often based on stereotypes (studies find that Black students are more likely to get into gifted programs if they have teachers of the same race).

Discrimination in gifted education is “intentional and it’s unintentional,” Ford said. But “if you are aware of reasonable alternatives and don’t use them, then it’s intentional.”

Though no one has found a way to identify kids with extraordinary potential that doesn’t map closely onto the privileges of birth, tactics districts are already trying include screening all children, not just those whose parents request it; admitting promising students to gifted programs even if they miss the testing cutoff; and expanding the number of gifted seats.

That last strategy is what UCLA recommended for Buffalo. About 250 of Buffalo’s more than 30,000 students are in a gifted program. If Buffalo hewed to the national average, it would have about 2,000 gifted kids. But despite the high demand for Olmsted, administrators said that they didn’t need to significantly expand gifted education, beyond adding the program at Eve, because Buffalo has plenty of other academically stimulating options, including STEM and Montessori programs.

Instead, Buffalo got a $1 million grant in 2018 from the Kellogg Foundation to help teachers incorporate bits of gifted education into all pre-K to fourth grade classrooms, an effort that is still being rolled out. (The Kellogg Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.) The goal is to offer enrichment to all students, whether or not they’ve formally tested as “gifted.”

This is in line with a new theory that envisions gifted classes as a service, like special education: an array of personalized support for a child with learning needs outside the norm. Gifted students stay in their home schools and get extra activities or support — perhaps through extra components to an assignment, or by attending fifth grade math as third graders.

Orfield supports serving students where they are. “Offering opportunities and challenges is what a school should do. Whether it’s necessary to segregate kids to do that is another matter,” he said.

But all that enrichment can get expensive. The federal government does not supplement local funding for gifted programs as it does for special education. As of 2015–16, only four states, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Oklahoma, both mandated gifted education and fully funded the service, according to a report from Purdue University’s college of education.

New York is one of 20 states that don’t require that districts offer gifted education at all, or provide money for it. And Buffalo’s schools had no shortage of costly demands, even before the coronavirus created a budget crisis for the district. Attendees at a variety of parent group meetings in March voiced worries about safety, classrooms without books and 4-year-olds throwing desks.

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash “probably believes philosophically that there should be a gifted and talented program in every school,” said Sam Radford, an African American parent and past president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “The question is where the money would come from.”

The district did not answer questions about how much the gifted program costs.

Anne Botticelli, the district’s chief academic officer, said she hopes to be able to offer what she called “enrichment,” though not gifted and talented services, to more students in the future. “We know that we have gems in all of our schools,” she said.

‘Open up your doors’

Buffalo administrators say they want to improve social and racial justice, especially in the area of discipline. They have an office dedicated to racial equity, hold regular professional development on racial diversity for teachers and infused The New York Times’ 1619 Project into the middle and high school curriculum. They were open to talking about their stumbles.

However, the district’s efforts in gifted education have not moved the needle. For fall 2020, the parents of 403 children applied to Olmsted’s elementary gifted program and 39 to Eve’s, according to data the district provided. One quarter of the white students and the multiracial students were assigned seats. Only 11 percent of the Black and 10 percent of the Hispanic children got in.

Last year, parents asked the federal Office for Civil Rights to reopen the 2014 investigation. After they held a press conference, the New York state attorney general’s office sent Cash a letter, saying it had opened a separate “inquiry” and requesting information about racially disparate school discipline and admissions.

Nathaniel Kuzma, the Buffalo district’s general counsel, wrote in response that the district would cooperate, but added that it “has become a national proof point for district transformation around issues of equity, justice, the mindset of high expectations for all children, and in forthright dialogue about race and discrimination.” The state attorney general’s investigation is still active; the office declined to comment.

Should Buffalo shutter gifted education because of its racial inequity? McDuffie and Thompson, African American parents of students at Eve, thought the opposite: that the district should expand. “Don’t shut it down,” said McDuffie, Kaiden’s mom. “Open up your doors and be wider.”

Thompson’s son, Howard III, was offered a gifted seat at Olmsted for third grade, his father said. But he and his wife decided to keep him at Eve. Howard III knew the school and had built good relationships with teachers and friends. The gifted program would expand and improve; anyway, “parental involvement plays a far more pivotal role in a child’s growth and development,” Thompson said. If anything in the classroom falls short, he will provide it. He and his wife want their child to “enjoy being a kid first, and then a wonderful student, second.”

And then attend highly selective City Honors for the rest of his school career, he said.

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