Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Young, Gifted, Black, and Underrepresented

Journey to Gifted and Talented

My son has always been a typical, precocious little boy. I was a first-time parent, a single parent no less, with an extremely energetic child. The thought of giftedness or lack thereof never entered my mind. I just knew that I had to find activities to keep him busy; whether it was sports, music, computer games, or Thomas and Friends. Something. Anything that would keep him occupied. He was also the kid with the late birthday, so he had a year of Pre-K4 and two years of Pre-K5. By the time he entered Kindergarten, I had tried to have him tested to enter first grade. He tested reasonably high; however, he was considered socially immature. So Kindergarten it was. 

He loved it. I was frustrated.

I was frustrated because the students were given a list of 60 sight words to know by the end of the year, he knew 52 by the end of the first six weeks, and all 60 by the end of the first semester. His teacher acknowledged that he was advanced. However, with 20+ students, it was difficult to differentiate instruction for him. Fortunately, I was a teacher and had access to specific resources to continue to challenge him. Kindergarten was over. Hello, first grade! The students had taken a beginning of the year (BOY) assessment, and his teacher met with me to inform me that according to the BOY assessment, my son read on a beginning second-grade level. Ugh! I just thought, “Here we go again.” If they had let me skip him, he would’ve been in the second grade. And his educational career continued that way until third grade. 

By third grade, he was BORED! Bored with school. Learning was no longer fun.
He told his reading teacher that he knew “all this stuff,” yet he was bringing home graded work in the 20s and 60s. My son had become jaded with the entire school process, and his teacher misconstrued it as defiance. Something had to give. To top it off, this would be his first year taking a standardized test that actually mattered. Oh, and somehow I missed the deadline to apply for the gifted program. So I anxiously awaited the results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test dreading the outcome. Wouldn’t you know it? The results were sent by mail during the summer, and he scored advanced the highest possible level. I guess he did know all that stuff.

Well, fourth grade began where third grade left off. My son was producing lackluster work. He scored low on his Fall benchmark tests (this year he had three). I couldn’t wait for a teacher to submit his name for the gifted and talented exam. I had to advocate for my own child. 

He tested. We waited. He got in!


Fourth grade didn’t end the way that I expected. His test scores were dismal, and it was the first time that he didn’t make the honor roll during a reporting period. 

What happened? 
What happened to the precocious child who entered the school? 
What happened to the boy who was reading several grade levels ahead?

I acknowledge that I was going through several transitions that year which may have impacted his learning, and I also recognize that he bore some responsibility for those results. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder what is it about school that stifles enthusiasm for learning.

Donna Y Ford, PhD., a professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the leading authorities on gifted Black students provides a checklist of risk factors for underachieving gifted black students.

Currently, my son is a fifth grader, and this is his first year in the gifted and talented (G/T) program. He had some trepidation about being pulled from class to attend G/T and a lackadaisical attitude towards the projects in G/T. Initially, his teacher suggested that we consider taking a break from G/T. 

That wasn’t even an option for me. His teacher seemed a bit stunned that I declined the suggestion. However, as an educator and person of color, I’m cognizant of the fact that blacks, particularly black boys are underrepresented in G/T. By being in G/T, my son has an opportunity to take Pre-AP courses next year, enroll in STEM courses, and to participate in the Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP) which will challenge him and enhance his educational trajectory. 

After I declined, she asked my son a question that resonated with me and one that I hadn’t even considered, “Are you embarrassed about being in G/T?”

Was that it?
Had he been downplaying his intelligence?

He emphatically denied being ashamed of being gifted and arrogantly responded that he brags about being in the program to his peers who remain in class.

On the other hand, we did find out that he enjoyed the projects that allowed him to design and create rather than research.

That’s our story thus far. In fact, I believe that my son’s educational experience prior to G/T is not unlike that for many boys and boys of color.

Limited Opportunities

Nationally, children of color make up the majority of public schools’ student body. Despite that, blacks and Latinos are less likely to be in gifted or enroll in advanced courses while their white peers, who make up less of the public school population, are overrepresented in these programs. In Texas, less than 3 percent of black boys are in G/T. Twenty years ago, Celeste Fremon and Stephanie Renfrow wrote an article “Are Schools Failing Black Boys?” Today, their findings of teacher preconceptions, prejudices that lead to lower expectations, and educational climate still ring true. They found that by fourth-grade African-American boys are already falling behind. Unfortunately, these equity gaps continue through high school.

Why Fourth-Grade?

I found this interesting because I wrote a blog regarding the shifts in literacy from early childhood to third grade and reading to learn in fourth-grade. Fourth-grade seems to be the year where teaching shifts and students begin to lose interest. As I stated earlier, this was the year where my son’s grades and test scores were depressing. According to Fremon and Renfrow, what we experienced was completely normal, but detrimental to boys. In fact, fourth-grade and beyond is where classrooms become more static, sit­down and­listen up, lecturing environments rather than the hands-on, kinesthetic environments that children were accustomed to in early elementary. This change is difficult for boys who tend to be markedly more active than girls, especially black boys who are culturally more expressive and energetic. Too often black boys experience schooling that does not value the knowledge they bring to the classroom. Teacher bias may misinterpret boys who behave expressively as disrespectful or misdiagnose them as having learning disabilities which partially accounts for the increased suspensions and special education rates for black boys. 

What About State Test Data?

A 2016 Vanderbilt University report found that black students continued to be assigned to gifted programs half as often as their white peers with identical levels of math and reading scores.
“It is startling that two elementary school students, one black and the other white, with identical math and reading achievement, will have substantially different probabilities of assignment to gifted services,” said lead author Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “This is especially troubling since previous studies have linked participation in gifted programs to improved academic performance, improvements in student motivation and engagement, less overall stress and other positive outcomes.”
Fremon and Renfrow determined that this type of bias destroys black boys interest in school which can lead to adverse consequences such as cultural insensitivity, lowered expectations, unduly harsh discipline, and the systematic placement of African American boys into remedial or special education classes. Their research is particularly relevant today considering the discussions of culturally relevant pedagogy, restorative practices, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the overrepresentation of children of color in special education.

So how do we ensure that this population has an opportunity to take more rigorous courses?

Expand Opportunities

As a Crowley ISD Board Trustee, I was beyond excited to learn that our district would conduct a universal screening of all kindergarteners in January for the gifted program. 

I contacted Dr. McFarland, our superintendent, to express my enthusiasm and question whether this testing during kindergarten was new. Usually, parents or classroom teachers make recommendations for children to get tested. Fortunately, conducting a universal screener eliminates implicit bias, and will most likely diversify the program by selecting more students of color and children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. By utilizing a universal screener, schools are more likely to identify students who would have otherwise gone undiscovered and steer them towards reaching their fullest potential.

What Happens If My Child Isn’t Selected?

I’m a firm believer in parents being their child’s first teacher and advocate. All hope is not lost if a child does not master the gifted test

  1. Test bias exists
  2. Students can retest
  3. You don’t have to be G/T to take advanced courses

Parental involvement doesn’t necessarily mean serving on the PTA, other committees, being a school volunteer, or attending school functions. Yes, that would be nice; however, it’s not feasible for many working parents. What we as parents can do is provide multiple opportunities for learning at home:

  1. Talking – Talk to your child and ask questions to get them thinking
  2. Reading – Reading is contagious, and it’s the foundation for all learning. Establish a family reading time where you can snuggle under a blanket and read a good book together.
  3. Teaching – Teach them what you know whether it’s cooking, baking, building, playing an instrument. Share your knowledge. In turn, let them teach you what they’re learning in school even if you don’t understand it.
  4. Praising – Acknowledge when your child does something exceptionally well and let them know it. Success breeds success.
  5. Be Curious – Biggie Smalls had this line: “Ask what your interests are, who you be with, things to make you smile…” Be curious about your child. What are their interests? Listen to their stories about Pokemon and Yugioh even if you don’t comprehend. You’ll make them smile and they'll be more apt to tell you about their experiences.

Dr. Ford lists what black parents of high achieving students do differently:
  • Assertive in their parent involvement efforts
  • Kept abreast of their children's school progress
  • Optimistic and tended to perceive themselves as having effective coping mechanisms and strategies
  • Set high and realistic expectations for their children
  • Held positive achievement orientations and supported tenets of the achievement ideology
  • Set clear, explicit achievement-oriented norms
  • Established clear, specific role boundaries
  • Deliberately engaged in experiences and behaviors designed to promote achievement
  • Had positive parent-child relations characterized by nurturance, support, respect, trust, and open communication.

The Power of the Parent

Establishing a relationship with your child’s teacher early on has benefits. Inform your child's teacher about their learning style and the type of student who will be entering their classroom. As a parent and teacher, it’s essential to maintain open communication with your child’s teacher and be an active partner in your child’s education. I contacted my son’s teachers when I received his benchmark scores. I didn’t wait to see if they’d reach out to me. Since they knew that I cared, they communicated with me more often. I still speak with his past teachers although he no longer has them. I love email! It’s much easier for me to communicate as a parent and teacher rather than stopping to take or make a phone call. However, there are times when it’s necessary to pick up the phone. Monitor homework, grades, attend parent-teacher conferences, and just advocate for your child to receive the education that they deserve.

Oh, and know that attending tutorials is not only for failing kids. Seek tutoring to give your child an extra edge.

What Can Schools/Districts Do?

Keep parents informed. Schools must provide parents with multiple opportunities to learn about the criteria for G/T testing or enrolling in advanced courses. We have to send notes home, post on our campus and district websites, hold meetings, send phone calls, and allow parents and students to tour or observe G/T and Advanced Placement classrooms, etc.

Additionally, to improve outcomes for all students including black boys all teachers should attend culturally responsive professional development, review curriculum to ensure that it’s relevant to the students in the classroom, and reevaluate guidelines for referring students to special education and gifted.

In conclusion, the disparities in G/T only serve to heighten the opportunity and achievement gaps we are seeking to close. Therefore, it will require a collective effort to increase minority representation in gifted. We as a community must come to terms with who is encouraged and supported to receive a gifted education and those who are not. The participation of black boys in gifted is extremely vital to global innovation and a more equitable society. 


Ford, D. Y., & Thomas, A. (1997). Underachievement among Gifted Minority Students: Problems and Promises. ERIC Digest E544.

Fremon, C., & Hamilton, S. R. (1997). Are Schools Failing Black Boys?. Parenting, 116, 32.

Teachers, Race And Gifted Access | Ideas In Action ... (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vanderbilt.edu/ideas-in-action/2016/08/teachers-race-and-gifted-acce

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