What follows will undoubtedly anger some, perhaps many of you. It concerns what I have no qualms about calling the institutional racism and elitism of so-called “gifted” education. These programs exist in school districts across the country, and they exist for one compelling political reason: To mollify middle- and upper-middle class parents (mostly white) who would otherwise flee to private schools or to the suburbs.
These are parents who believe their children are superior to other children and therefore need to be in a separate program, insulated from the hoi polloi. They have the resources (time and money) to pressure school boards to create a special program for their children. And, as is often the case, the school boards that say yea or nay to budgets are made up of like-privileged people.
This is not about pointing fingers and calling individuals racist. It’s about the racism and elitism perpetuated by the institution itself: schools.
Whether this racism is intended or incidental is irrelevant. The outcome is the same: One group of children (privileged and mostly white) gets their special program while the rest of the children (too often poor and of color) are sent to the back of the budget bus.
Want more? Look at the demographics of these programs: They are overwhelmingly white. And why are they overwhelmingly white? Because “gifted” programs are tautologically defined by the very people who benefit from them, white middle- and upper-middle-class families. Our children, they say, have strong reading, writing and math skills, they are analytical, and they are good inductive learners. They are of more than average intelligence. We will get the school board to create a program for our children, and we’ll call it a program for “gifted” students. What makes for a gifted child? A gifted child has strong reading, writing and math skills, is analytical and a good inductive learner. Bingo.
I’m sorry, but no school board, no group of parents has the right to label one homogeneous group of children “gifted” based on the criteria established by the parents of those children and then consign the rest of the students to programs for the “not gifted.” That’s what happens.
The message is clear: Intelligence is the only “gift” that counts; other children do not have gifts that are equally valuable so they don’t get a special program. This is elitist, racist thinking, perpetuated by the institutional racism in our school systems.
Let me counter this mono-cultural approach to giftedness and be as clear as I can: All children are gifted. All. But different children are gifted in different ways. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences has been around long enough that most people have at least a passing familiarity with it. Why aren’t children who are strong in the areas he has identified also labeled as “gifted” and placed in special programs that will enhance and amplify their skills? It’s because we, the majority culture, choose not to value those gifts. Linguistic intelligence? Musical intelligence? Logical-mathematical intelligence? Yes, they’re gifts, but they’re not the right kind of gifts. Besides, if we recognize these attributes as gifts and create special programs for children possessing them, then our children, the “truly gifted,” will no longer be “special.”
I spent three years working as a mentor teacher to first-year teachers in the Seattle Public Schools district. One of my new teachers was teaching a fourth-grade class in a large team room in an inner-city school where I had taught some years before. When I was there, it was being used as a team room (its intended purpose): two teachers with one class of 45-50 students, collaborating.
Now, however, there were two segregated fourth-grade classes in the “team” room. One was a “gifted” class taught by a white teacher. There were 23 white and Asian students, and three Black students. The other class was a “not-gifted” class (what else can you call it?) taught by a Black teacher. Her class consisted of 23 not-gifted Black students and two not-gifted white students. These two classes shared the large, open team room, and every day they were well aware of each other’s presence. What might be going through the minds of the “gifted” students as they looked across the room? They’re not as smart as we are. We’re better than they are. Incipient racism.
And the students of color? What might they be thinking? Why are they called gifted and we aren’t? Or worse, I wish I were gifted. What a terrible message to be sending to both groups! And it really doesn’t matter if the “gifted” and “not gifted” are housed together or not; doing so simply makes it more blatant. They all know anyway. They know who the “gifted” are and who the “not gifted” are. This is institutional racism at its worst.
Not only do we continue to provide special educational advantages to the already-advantaged, we continue to deny ourselves the benefits to be reaped by recognizing the talents and abilities and, yes, gifts possessed by all children, regardless of race, regardless of family income, regardless of immigration status, regardless of anything.
All children are gifted!
This issue of “giftedness” has long been debated and is currently under discussion by the Seattle school board and the superintendent. Let’s see what happens.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.