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Does achievement have a color?

A Black teacher leans over a desk to help a Black student with a lesson in a Montessori classroom.
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VPM News Focal Point
Over the long arc of American history, there have been there have been sizeable gaps in the way Black and white Americans experience life. How does this impact education today?

The man known as “the father of gifted education” is Lewis Terman. In 1916, the Stanford professor published his Stanford-Binet intelligence test and made the notion of IQ, or intelligence quotient, a mainstream concept. Terman launched the longest-running study of giftedness, which began in the 1920s and spanned nearly 100 years. By 1928, he had identified 1,528 highly intelligent children from several areas in California. Most were middle class. Fifty-six percent were boys. Only six of the total group were Asian, and one was Native American. Two were Black.

The relative disparity in representation of people of color is not surprising when considering the era and Terman’s beliefs. This was during America’s foray into eugenics — the movement predicated on the belief that some groups of people were innately inferior and should be discouraged from reproducing. Before the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany eugenicists worldwide, including in America, held that people of European descent were part of a superior race.

Terman was an ardent believer in eugenics, and his Stanford-Binet scale was used for many years as a litmus test that led to the forced sterilization of thousands of Americans who were considered mentally unfit.

More than a century since the arrival of the Stanford-Binet, it is still used by most American schools as one of the measures that determines whether a student is intellectually exceptional and in need of gifted services. Granted, the test has seen numerous revisions, and questions that were deemed to be culturally biased have been removed over time. Although people of color fare far better today than they did in Terman’s day when it comes to representation in gifted programs, there are still major disparities in referrals, identification and participation in gifted programs in American schools.

In Henrico County, for example, the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation in 2010 for alleged inequities in its gifted programs. At the time, nearly 40% of Henrico’s public school students were Black but only about 10% of those participating in gifted programming were Black. In the eastern part of the county, with higher concentrations of Black students, identified students were in the single digits; in the more affluent western part of the county, identified students numbered 100 or more each year.

Prior to the federal investigation, Henrico had already begun making changes to bring greater equity to gifted referral, identification and participation. And since then, Jenna Conlee has been on the team as the gifted education specialist addressing gifted equity issues more directly.

“We're providing a lot of training in Henrico,” Conlee said. “In fact, just this past summer, we did something like 30 trainings, and I will say a lot of that was geared toward talent development and looking for underserved students, and different student populations.”

Underrepresentation of children of color in gifted programs is a widespread, national concern that has existed for decades. The focus of debate and a good amount of research has been on whether the small numbers of children of color in these programs for the most capable students is because of flaws in the selection process or in a dearth of students who meet the criteria. Studies have demonstrated potential biases among teachers, as well as a need for professional development on how to recognize giftedness in students. Hence, training could be a pivotal component of creating more equity in recognizing and serving these students.

“We've used a new tool for our teacher perception inventory, we know that, you know, we want teachers to see students in the context of the classroom,” said Conlee. “Sometimes gifted traits present in different ways – culturally, in different groups. And so and looking at an instrument that really does address, you know, how we spot students from all backgrounds.”

According to data provided by Henrico Public Schools, referrals and identification of children of color have increased significantly with the changes they’ve implemented, but the division is still not at a point where its gifted programs reflect the same ratios as their overall school enrollment.

A 2019 report by Purdue University’s Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute suggests that, nationally, as many as three of every four gifted Black children (74%) never get identified as gifted and receive the services to which they are legally entitled. The report notes disparities for other racial and ethnic minorities, as well, notably Latino students (66%) and those of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander background (72%).

Giftedness is not a measure of academic achievement or accomplishment but is related to innate abilities and the needs of students to receive instruction that takes into account their special gifts, talents and creative inclinations. The Purdue report gives guidance on a number of problems that likely contribute to the inequities. Namely:

“1. using tests for identification that yield disparate results or were not normed on the populations to which they are being applied, and applying national normative cut-off scores as the most important (or only) pathway to identification;

2.requiring multiple measures rather than using multiple pathways for identification;

3.failing to account for and mitigate differences in opportunity to learn;

4.requiring teacher referral as the first step to identification;

5.failing to diversify the teaching force and to employ/graduate culturally competent teachers; and

6.continuing to allow gifted education to be used as a tool of economic and/or racial segregation”

Corey Harris is one who cites cultural incompetence of an early teacher as the reason he might have missed being identified as a gifted student. And he credits his mother and stepfather, both of whom were educators, for always advocating for his educational needs.

Harris is an accomplished musician, author, world traveler, Ph.D. candidate and instructor at the University of Virginia. He is also a recipient of the prized MacArthur Fellows award ... also known as the “McArthur genius grant,” for which he was selected in 2007. The award process is anonymous, so he still doesn’t know who nominated or selected him, but he is one of just over 1,000 recipients in the 40-year history of the grant.

In his first grade classroom on the outskirts of Denver, his gifts were apparently not as evident to the teacher. “I went to a suburban school where I was one of very few Black children,” he said. “And so very early on, the teacher wanted – without even assessing me, or speaking with me – she was saying that I would be put in the section for the children who were slower, I guess you should say.

“After the teacher had already pegged me as being someone in need of like this remedial help, it turned out that I was the only student who could read in the whole class.”

Across the grounds from where Harris studies and teaches, Tonya Moon has been at work for decades studying issues related to inequities in gifted education and looking at the persistent black/white achievement gap from a research perspective.

“I try not to do a lot of condemnation of teachers, because they have a hard job,” Moon said. “But the reality of it is, is that teachers are humans, and that they actually can have low expectations for kids. intentional or unintentional. Most often, it is unintentional. But those things do play into then what happens in classrooms.”

Moon said that the same implicit biases that exist in society as a whole will necessarily appear in school settings. But she said in recent years, schools have worked intentionally to improve equitable access to opportunities in the way Henrico has begun with its gifted program.

Gifted programs or those for highly able students are not the only places in education where gaps exist, and bias may be at least partially to blame. For decades, standardized tests of academic achievement — the tests that quantify how much and how well students are learning in the school setting — show Black children performing far below their white peers. The same is true for most other children of color. On the measure known as The Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP), Black students consistently score lower than white students. In 2022, math scores, for example, dropped by 13 points from 2020, while white student scores dropped only 5 points. This widened the gap from 25 points to 33.

When it comes to the history of achievement, overall, among Black students, LaShawn Payton believes her experiences typify what many Black children encounter. Payton, like Harris, said low expectations were a hinderance in her early schooling. She was educated in the Washington, D.C., public school system in the 1990s, and she recalls that most of her teachers were white. Her story is consistent with studies that show teachers, mostly white women, tend to expect less from students with more ethnic names.

“LaShawn, the first time you see that name,” she said, “you already probably have a perception of who I am, you probably already made up in your mind that she's not going to learn anything, she's not going to be capable of anything. Sometimes those things were said to me as a child growing up in the education system.”

Payton attributes her history as a low-achieving, high-problem student to a school system that was both culturally and individually unresponsive to who she was and what she needed. But this fuels what she does today. She is founder and head of Heaven’s Best Montessori in Fairfax County, where she aims to give early learners an excellent start in their academic lives.

“I literally lived across from the school that I went to, and my first experience was awful,” she said. Payton remembers being overwhelmed by the number of children in the classroom. “I mean children were eating paste-It. It was a world that I never experienced, and I cried. And the teacher put me in a coat room for crying and left me there by myself. And so as an adult, that's a traumatic experience, I still think about that.”

Cedric Jennings, another educator, also matriculated from Washington, D.C., public schools. Twenty-five years ago, Jennings was the subject of Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind’s book, “A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League.” The book followed Jennings as a student struggling with achievement issues at Washington’s Ballou High School in an impoverished area of the city.

Now a graduate of Brown, a Ph.D. candidate at the Ohio State University and an adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College, Jennings shares that he had to compartmentalize some of the trauma he experienced as a youth. He describes his mother as a “supermom” — a federal employee and devout Christian who was always looking for enrichment opportunities for her son, helping him to stay focused on achievement.

“Evictions. Even to this day I think about that,” he said. “That was pretty embarrassing, walking home from school with your friends who lived in the neighborhood and they see all your stuff out on the street. That was challenging ... and then not knowing ... where are we going to stay tonight or what are we going to eat tonight? And having to go back to school and see the friends who saw my things out on the street. That was challenging.”

Jennings also remembers appreciating the hot meals and the heat in winter when he was in school, because at home, he said, they went for periods without heat or food. Jennings’ experience is what many consider the heart of the achievement gap issue. Moon said people who see the Black-white achievement gap as a racial issue only are missing the bigger picture.

“Kids who come from enriched environments ... having access to quality health care and nutrition, rich family learning experiences, those kids oftentimes come to school, either as an early reader or already as a reader. And kids who don't have access to those things oftentimes don't come to school as an early reader or a reader,” said Moon. “And so, at the outset, kids start behind and that that mostly is not a Black-white issue. It's really an income issue.”

More than 12% of children in the United States are living below the poverty line. What that really means is about 7% of white children and nearly 18% of Black children live in poverty. For children of Hispanic descent, the number is even higher.

Black and brown children are about three times more likely to be poor than white children. A recent study by Harvard researchers found that traumatic events connected with poverty can adversely impact the brain development of children. This is another strike against poverty as a contributing cause of an observable achievement gap. And according to the study’s authors, the differences are not genetic but are race-related to the extent that systemic racism might be subjecting some to more poverty than others experience.

Jennings said his role as a professor has taught him that even though a disproportionate number of Black people experience the sting of poverty, poverty impacts others, as well.

“There are some white folks who experience it, too, and they end up in my classes, as well. So it's just an interesting dynamic – engaging those students and helping them to really navigate the environment. I deal from compassion. ideal out of the experience of what I would have wanted people to say to me when I first got to that environment.”

As the girl who was sent to cry in a closet at the beginning of her school career, who became an adolescent who cut school, made trouble, got expelled, Payton said that it’s the compassion, cultural understanding and access to resources that will help close the achievement gap... And improve outcomes for all children. There is research to support her viewpoint. One University of Virginia study finds that the Montessori approach, which Payton offers at her school, appears to help shrink the gap as these learners continue with their education.

Payton said she is not surprised by this finding, based on what she’s seen Montessori do for children. By setting high expectations that are supported appropriately, she said, children can learn their alphabet and begin to read and develop a sense of numbers at an early age.

“When it comes to Montessori,” she said, “they don't need to ask for pencils, paper, crayons, everything is right there. They don't need to ask the teacher for snacks. It's right there in the environment. If I'm hungry, I can go get a snack. And then I can go back and focus on my work."

Payton said that what is key is compassionately and respectfully following the lead of the child and allowing them to make choices about their learning from the very beginning the opposite of what she said she experienced as a youngster.

“My son, he chooses to read. I don't tell him he has to read. He chooses to do it,” she said. “And he goes and gets a book every day and reads a book. And I'm like, of course, as a parent, that's what you want them to do. But he's choosing to do these things.”

Payton is convinced that by changing the approach, by funding high-quality early childhood education and offering more support for lower-income communities, all children will be better able to achieve from the time they start primary school.

Harris agrees, emphasizing that there is nothing innately inferior about the intellectual abilities of children of color.

“It's assumed that there's nothing wrong with the system,” he said. “And it's only the children who need to get in line. But actually, I submit that there's really something wrong with the system. If you look at the history and history of education in America, it's not working for everybody.”

Harris said that what is needed is for the educational system to do a better job of meeting learners where they are rather than expecting the learners to conform to the existing educational system, which he said is not designed to help all children achieve.

The need for better economic health for all American children and families, the need for high expectations, free from implicit bias and supported by a responsive and well-funded early childhood education — these are some of the suggestions based on research and the experience of these achievers. The research suggests the achievement gap is not the result of a genetic or innate flaw in the students — but more about the environment that shapes them before they arrive at the school doors... And after.

Payton is straightforward in her summation of how to address the achievement gap.

“We can talk about statistics, we can talk about all the research, we could talk about all these things,” she said. “We talked about it for many years is still in existence... The fact is we need people who are willing to put down the pens and pencils and get out here and do the work. We can bridge that gap.”


Angie Miles holds a master's degree in education with special emphases on gifted education and literacy. She is founder and manager of an education non-profit apart from VPM and serves at times as an education consultant for parents, professionals and schools. Those roles have no bearing on this report except to inform her understanding of education issues as a whole.

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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