Closing the Gifted Gap
Issue Insights

Closing the Gifted Gap

Educational Books

All kids should have access to great schools—but realizing this vision means taking a hard look at the policies that perpetuate inequity.

Take education for gifted students. A report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that participation in gifted programs varies dramatically by income and race. Students in schools with a high-concentration of affluent families are more than twice as likely to participate in advanced learning programs. Regardless of income, black and Hispanic students are less likely to participate than their peers.

In Washington state, elementary and middle schools are less likely to have a gifted program than the national average (52% in Washington versus 68% nationally)—and they have similar gaps in participation by income and race. One study of Seattle schools found that white students were nearly 18 times more likely to enroll in an advanced learning program than black students.

The result? Advanced learning programs can perpetuate the achievement gap, since students identified as gifted in elementary and middle school are much better prepared to succeed in Advanced Placement courses in high school and apply to competitive colleges.

Fortunately, we know that academic potential isn’t prescribed by family background, and there are solutions that can close the gifted gap. The Fordham Institute report highlights three key changes:

  1. Screen all kids for gifted services, instead of relying on recommendations from teachers and parents.
  2. Use local norms, rather than district-wide standards—e.g., identify all high-achieving students by school instead of relying on a single threshold on an achievement test.
  3. Confront unconscious bias and provide training that helps teachers recognize giftedness among underrepresented students.

Districts across the country have shown that these policies work:

  • In Miami, administrators began investing in new ways to identify gifted students a decade ago, adopting additional screening measures and different criteria for students from low-income families. Today, thousands more students participate in the district’s advanced learning program and the participant demographics more closely reflect the overall student population.
  • In the Northshore School District outside Seattle, the gifted program historically included just a few dozen students of color and English language learners. Then the district began screening all students and identified nearly 500 students of color and non-native English speakers as gifted.

These changes can be expensive, but they shouldn’t be controversial. When schools diversify enrollment in gifted programs, they expand opportunity and help deliver on the promise of an equitable education for all.