Whenever a school district decides to set up a gifted program, it faces a dilemma: what should the inclusion criteria be? In some districts it's very straightforward (NYC is based on test scores). If people simply viewed gifted education as an educational intervention for children who need it, that would be fine. The problem is that the idea persists, in many districts, that gifted education is a reward. It's a "most likely to succeed" designation, or a pat on the back for something kids have done (rather than just having a different, quicker learning style). As such, some people don't like using test scores, because a straightforward measurement may not result in a program that reflects the gender and ethnic make-up of the district. And rewards, we believe, should be bestowed equally.
That seems to be the thinking behind the new inclusion criteria for a program I read about in the Oakland Tribune. In the New Haven district, school officials were concerned that too many white and Asian students were being identified as gifted (alternately, one could say that they were concerned that too few black and Latino children were identified as gifted, but these are really flip sides of the same coin). So they put the program on hold and revamped the process. Now, the percent of white students in the program has fallen from 15 percent to 10 percent, reflecting their total fourth-grade population of 9 percent. As the article notes, "Chinese students, who make up 7 percent of the population, used to be 23 percent of the GATE program. Now that number is 9 percent. The number of Vietnamese GATE students has dropped from 9 percent to 4 percent -- equal to their percentage of the total population."
"The results are remarkable," Chief Academic Officer Wendy Gudalewicz told the Oakland Tribune. "The students that we identified as gifted and talented in this district represent the ethnic makeup of our student body."
How did this magic happen? "The new process uses two ways to identify GATE students -- through academic achievement and using a checklist system to find students who are gifted and talented in other ways, such as creativity and leadership," according to the article. "The academic pathway gives students a numerical score based on their performance in reading and math and, for fourth-graders, language. Officials then identify the top 5 percent districtwide within each racial and ethnic subgroup in each of the academic areas, reviewing the results for proportional gender representation. The other pathway to the program is through a nomination process to identify students with unique learning styles, creative ability, leadership skills or artistic ability. These students must be nominated by two adults, at least one of whom must be employed at the student's school."
In other words, the school district is setting out to make sure the proportions look right, and (shockingly) has achieved that.
The whole thing is a bit farcical. I have no doubt that someone can be a gifted leader -- but this is the problem with making gifted programs a reward, or a pull-out with special classes, or field trips, or what have you. All kids can benefit from enriched classes. What academically gifted children need is accelerated academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. It's not about being fun, or being recognized for being a good, creative kid. It's about giving someone the opportunity to do work that is hard enough that they really, truly could fail. I keep hoping that, over time, the world of gifted education will start moving that way. But then I read articles like this and realize how far we still have to go.