The future of New York City’s gifted education program is in question. As the issue becomes more politically polarizing in communities across the country, the flawed notion that getting rid of gifted programs equals a solution to inequity is gaining traction. Removing these programs doesn’t make the underlying reasons for inequity simply go away. Shutting down gifted education so that no one benefits from the opportunities it affords does nothing to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities. And dismantling programs due to an unwillingness to address systemic failures that further marginalize students of color and students from economically distressed areas also doesn’t advance equity.
Gifted education programs have historically been associated with white privilege, and numerous studies have pointed to racial and socioeconomic disparities. In fact, a recent study found that students from high socio-economic status backgrounds (top fifth) were seven times more likely to receive gifted services than those from low socio-economic backgrounds (bottom fifth). This is true at every level of education, including students admitted to academically prestigious colleges and universities. Recognizing the systemic nature of these challenges, the field of gifted education has been committed for the past several decades to closing opportunity gaps through gifted programs that do more to include students of color and students in high-poverty areas. In fact, federally funded Javits grants for gifted-student programs have been awarded with this priority since the early 2000s. We were recipients of such a grant, a $2 million U.S. Department of Education project, Promoting PLACE in Rural Schools, designed to support gifted education in rural districts situated in areas of extreme poverty.
We learned in that work that despite the commitment and hard work of advocates and educators whom we called our champions for rural gifted education, there were often structural conditions that created barriers to identifying students to receive gifted services and made efforts to provide gifted rural students with enriched and challenging curricula a persistently difficult task.
In our work, however, we found that focused efforts to broaden educators’ conceptions of giftedness, to disrupt myths about rural gifted students, to identify place-conscious identification methods, and to leverage an appropriate place-based curriculum could ameliorate the issues that contribute to inequity in identification and gifted programming in rural schools and for students experiencing poverty.
Investing in Rural Talent
We started with introducing educators to the basic philosophy that talent development is critical in rural communities like their own. For one, belief in the school’s responsibility to encourage development of all forms of talent is a way to make a deep investment in bright young minds. We believe investing in talent development is an investment in a community’s viability. It also upends the dominant and pervasively negative narrative about rural people and places. We can disrupt myths about rural students when we dispel the notion of fixed intelligence and the accompanying beliefs about self that emanate from negative stereotypes. In particular, we encouraged educators to do away with the belief that levels of intelligence in the rural population are lower than those of suburban or urban populations, and therefore that students from those communities are less likely to succeed academically or in other areas of talent. For rural districts wanting to make this investment, here are four strategies to get started.
Use a Universal Screening Process
All students must be given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents through equality in screening and assessment. Too often schools use a referral process that relies on teacher or parent recommendation as the primary means of identifying students for further screening as gifted. Teacher nomination is fraught with bias that stems from erroneous beliefs about giftedness and the lack of knowledge about how giftedness may manifest across differing groups of students. In our study, when all students were given the same screening test and teachers were trained to recognize rural gifts before completing rating scales for each of their students, more students were identified than when using the limited procedures previously in place in their schools.
Provide Rural-Focused Professional Development
We found in our work that providing professional development about the ways rural giftedness can manifest is a key piece in identifying students using teacher rating scales. In our work, we provided examples of rural students who might express their gifts in ways that were seen outside of traditional academic spaces such as skill in hunting, fishing, creating Halloween costumes, participating in church activities and local fairs, and even playing at recess. We then provided time for teachers to discuss similar manifestations of giftedness in their own communities.
Let Go of Rigid “Cut Off” Scores and National Comparisons
The need for gifted services is connected to the position that students hold relative to others in their own school. The students who need gifted services are those who need curriculum and instruction beyond what is offered in their classrooms. Rural educators who want to identify and develop talent should use local norms when interpreting data from universal screeners. We need to acknowledge that students in schools with high levels of poverty are often not provided the same opportunity to learn as those in more affluent settings. It is well documented that this lack of opportunity to learn can explain gaps in achievement levels. Students should be compared only with those who have had similar opportunities to learn—not those with greater privilege in schooling or experience.
Use a Place-Based, Content-Focused Curriculum
Finally, the engagement of students is correlated with the degree to which they are able to see themselves, their community, and their environment in what they study. By incorporating poems and stories about local people and places into a structured language arts curriculum provided to teachers, students in rural communities were able to out-perform control group students who studied the same topics without the benefit of a structured place-based curriculum.
With persistent equity challenges in the representation of historically minoritized and economically-challenged students, it is understandable why educational leaders, policymakers, parents, and other stakeholders are tempted to place blame on the programming itself. However, no such argument was made when reckoning with the underrepresentation of diverse students in STEM education. When girls were found to be underrepresented in STEM fields, for example, researchers and educators looked at gender bias and other variables affecting girls’ inclusion, interest, engagement, and outcome in STEM: STEM itself wasn’t weaponized or abandoned. Perhaps gifted education has been responsible for perpetuating some degree of privilege and Whiteness, and we mean here not to devalue the importance of critiquing these programs. But closing gifted education programs is not a win for equity, it is a loss for the ways such programs could benefit underrepresented and marginalized students. Creating equity in these programs means addressing and removing the historic, systemic, racist, and structural barriers preventing access to the programs, not demonizing the opportunities an accelerated program offers to students—bright rural students who deserve to be seen for their potential.
Amy Price Azano is an associate professor of rural education and adolescent literacy in Virginia Tech’s School of Education. Carolyn M. Callahan is the Commonwealth Professor of Education Emerita at the University of Virginia.