On a recent Monday morning, third graders at Gilmore Lane Elementary School off of Poplar Level Road sit in a colorful rug during their morning meeting.
Lindsay Dotterweich is their teacher. She’s also the Gifted and Talented lead at Gilmore.
“I’m not just looking for those kids that have the top test scores or are making the straight As,” she said.
Dotterweich says giftedness may include a student not easily giving up on a task or a student who’s able to lead a game on the playground.
“When we can find those characteristics we can kind of find ways to tap into those talents that may not just come out on a test,” she said.
But despite this approach, there are still clear racial disparities among students enrolled in JCPS’ Gifted and Talented program.
Historically, most of the kids in the district’s gifted programs are white. According to 2016-2017 data, of the approximately 14,000 students in the district’s Gifted and Talented programs, more than sixty percent are white. That’s despite the fact that white students make up about 45 percent of the district’s population. Asian students are also slightly overrepresented: while they make up four percent of the district’s students, they’re seven percent of JCPS’ Gifted and Talented enrollees. Students who identify as more than one race made up about four percent of JCPS enrollment and are also four percent of those in gifted and talented programs.
But that leaves the district’s black and Latino students underrepresented. While about 36 percent of JCPS students are black, these students only make up about 21 percent of those enrolled in gifted programs. Latinos make up ten percent of the district; they’re only five percent of JCPS’ gifted program population.
Julia Link Roberts, a professor of gifted studies at Western Kentucky University, said this disparity can have a lasting effect for JCPS’ black and brown students.
“All of us know that opportunity begets opportunity,” Roberts said. “And that’s why we want to make sure opportunities are there for children who are ready for them.”
A Local And National Problem
This underrepresentation of black and Latino students in gifted programs isn’t just a problem for JCPS: it’s reflected nationally too. And Rene Islas of the National Association of Gifted Children said there are also factors other than race that can disadvantage students.
“Students who are living in poverty, who are from a racial and ethnic minority and are English Language Learners are 250 percent less likely than their peers who are performing at the same level as them to be identified and served in gifted programs,” he said.
That’s despite the fact that these are children that show the same levels of aptitude on standardized assessments.
Islas said some of the reasons for the disparity is bias on standardized tests. But another is a teacher’s bias.
Although many schools in JCPS test all second or third graders for giftedness, this isn’t a universal policy yet. And in other schools, students are selected to take the test based on a teacher recommendation.
More than 80 percent of teachers in the district are white. And studies have shown that due to unconscious bias, teachers and principals are more likely to identify students of their own race as “gifted.”
But Islas said the problem goes beyond teachers.
“It’s a historical issue, it’s one that is built into who teaches, and where we teach and how they’re trained,” he said. “There’s enough blame to go around.”
How Do You Identify Gifted Students?
In Kentucky, one strength is that the Commonwealth has a law stipulating that there are different types of giftedness, including kids who excel academically, creatively or in the performing arts.
But even with this law, Roberts of WKU said gifted students are underserved.
“The focus in schools has been to reach proficiency,” she said. “Proficiency is grade-level learning.”
And while that’s a noble goal, it’s a low expectation.
“We have not expected children to achieve at advanced levels,” Roberts said. “That’s pretty much what the message is in schools; that that’s the target you need to go for.”
Roberts said one way to ensure all students have a chance to be identified as “gifted” is by testing everyone — whether they’re recommended by their teachers or not.
JCPS Chief Equity Officer John Marshall said in a district like this one where students of color make up about half of the enrollment, there need to be ways other than testing to identify gifts. And teachers need to be better prepared to work with these students.
“The next step, I think, is to work on certifying and training our teachers on gifted and talented teaching,” he said.
In a 2017 statewide survey of educators, 43 percent of teachers said they needed professional development to teach gifted and talented students more effectively.
“But the other part is to inform the community and families on gifted and talented and the opportunities that are allowed to students regardless of school,” Marshall said.
And while a JCPS spokeswoman said plans are being developed to implement these ideas and improve equity in the district’s gifted and talented enrollment, there’s no timeline yet.
Islas, of the National Association of Gifted Children, said this problem goes well beyond JCPS.
“Nationally, we’re losing out on the opportunity to develop the brightest minds and the best leaders who will lead our country in the future and our society in the future,” Islas says.
He said not identifying these children now, and challenging them academically, could leave both gifted students — and the country — behind.