How one school district is balancing excellence and equity—and another isn’t
There are two common strategies for narrowing excellence gaps. One shows real promise. The other is a masking of the problem masquerading as a solution.
One of the most enduring and important challenges in advanced education (a.k.a. “gifted” education) is how to balance excellence and equity—how, in other words, to have quality programs that maximize the educational outcomes of high achievers, but also better identify and serve low-income, Black, Hispanic, and Native American children.
Accomplishing this is now a major focus of the advanced learning field, and from these efforts have emerged two common strategies. One, wherein leaders work to enroll more marginalized children in available offerings while also improving program quality and breadth, shows real promise. The other, in which school systems eliminate advanced learning opportunities, doesn’t. The latter, in fact, is an imposter—a masking of the problem masquerading as a solution—that rejects excellence and increases inequity by harming many of the underserved children it purports to help.
Aptly illustrating this dichotomy are two recent news stories about public school districts struggling with insufficient diversity in their advanced education programs. The good example, profiled in Education Week, hails from Manassas, Virginia, a city of about 40,000 that’s part of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The bad example, reported on by the Wall Street Journal, comes from Culver City, California, in Los Angeles County, which also has a population around 40,000.
In recent years, both districts faced significant racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in their advanced-learner offerings. In Manassas, for instance, Hispanic students and students from low-income families comprised just 22 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of those in the gifted program, despite making up 67 and 65 percent of overall enrollments. In Culver City, Hispanic and Black students made up 13 and 14 percent, respectively, of high schoolers enrolled in twelfth-grade Advanced Placement English, compared with 37 and 15 percent of the total student body.
Because of statistics like these, district leaders “replaced the [freshman and sophomore] honors classes at Culver City High School with uniform courses that officials say will ensure students of all races receive an equal, rigorous education,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The seeds of change were planted at a board meeting last year where teachers presented enrollment data and members saw “anonymous quotes from students not enrolled in honors classes saying they felt less motivated or successful. One described students feeling ‘unable to break out of the molds that they established when they were eleven.’” Culver City leaders say “the goal is to teach everyone with an equal level of rigor, one that encourages them to enroll in advanced classes in their final years of high school.”
It’s easy to empathize with the district. Racial and ethnic gaps in these academic programs is a big problem, but narrowing them is difficult if the goal is for more marginalized children to enroll and succeed in them. The gaps start at an early age, and many of their causes, such as the deleterious effects of poverty and racism, are outside schools’ control. As Culver City Schools Superintendent Quoc Tran told the Journal, “it was very jarring when teachers looked at their AP enrollment and realized Black and Brown kids were not there. They felt obligated to do something.” The easiest response was to eliminate the ninth and tenth grade honors classes altogether, and that’s what they did. The effects were immediate and seemed to directly combat some of the dynamics that lead to misbalance.
But it was the wrong response. “I just don’t see how removing something from some kids all of a sudden helps other kids learn faster,” says Scott Peters, a senior research scientist at NWEA. The Journal adds:
Critics say attempting to teach everyone at an elevated level isn’t realistic and that teachers, even with the best intentions, may end up simplifying instruction. Instead, some educators and parents argue schools should find more ways to diversify honors courses and encourage students to enroll who aren’t self-selecting, including proactively reaching out to students, using an opt-out system, or looking to teacher recommendations.
Quite right. And that’s exactly what’s happened in Manassas, Virginia, thanks to efforts led by Anthony Vargas, the district’s supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs since 2019. When Vargas stepped into the role, he was struck by the glaring racial and ethnic gaps in in the programs, much like the leaders in Culver City. But instead of dismantling the offerings, he “embarked on a massive and multistage undertaking to diversify the program, involving extensive research on equitable practices on how to select students, the kinds of enrichment to provide, implementing evidence-based practices districtwide, and gaining the trust and cooperation of the school community, including the school board,” reports Education Week.
Among many changes were eliminating the reliance on test scores alone to select students, showing teachers how to better identify potential, adding more educators to the program and training them, expanding offerings beyond a single elementary school, strengthening instructional programming, creating a continuum of services wherein students can receive enrichment in a single or multiple subjects, and casting a wider and more flexible net. “Most of the work revolved around identifying barriers to [gifted and talented] access and breaking them down,” Vargas told Education Week. “There must be some flexibility to ensure we are making appropriate decisions, especially considering that historically excluded students have testing biases stacked against them.”
Today, advanced education in Manassas is thriving and representation gaps have narrowed. In 2019, 240 children were enrolled in the programs and, as noted above, Hispanic and low-income students comprised just 22 percent and 26 percent of them, respectively, despite making up 67 and 65 percent of the district population. This year, enrollment has grown to 334 students, of which 41 percent are Hispanic and a similar percentage come from low-income families.
This transformation represents lives changed. The Education Week profile offers the case of a sixth grader named Grayson. Before Manassas did the hard work to improve advanced education, he was denied admission to the program because his test scores fell slightly below the strict cut-off. But after the changes were implemented, teachers took a closer look at his abilities and realized he would benefit. “My son has blossomed since then,” said his mother Keisa Reid. “He’s turned out to be a rockstar in the program,” added Vargas.
Racial and ethnic gaps in advanced education exist in school districts across the country, and leaders must decide how to address them. It’s tempting to take the quick and dirty route like Culver City and eliminate the programs that lack representation. The results are immediate and features like “equal instruction for all” can sound noble. But it’s a mirage. Too many students, including those from marginalized backgrounds, won’t be challenged and won’t reach their full potential. Children like Grayson are more likely to wilt than blossom. Widespread blossoming only happens when leaders like those in Manassas, Virginia, do the hard work and devote ample resources to transforming advanced education. More leaders should follow its example.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“Before I could effectively communicate with the stakeholders the new GT plan I had in mind, I had to dive deep into our district’s current programming, share the disparities in our demographics [between GT students and the district’s overall student population], show what the research is saying, and seek out other school districts with similar demographics to see how they are tackling the many challenges of creating a more equitable GT program.”
—Anthony Vargas, the supervisor of gifted and talented and advanced programs in Virginia’s Manassas City public schools, quoted in “A formula for creating more equitable gifted and talented programs,” Education Week, Elizabeth Heubeck, February 6, 2023
THREE STUDIES TO STUDY
“Individual, collective, and contextual aspects in the identification of giftedness,” by Robert J Sternberg, Gifted Education International, OnlineFirst, February 11, 2023
“Giftedness is typically thought of as an individual characteristic. But the development and labeling of an individual as ‘gifted’ is always a collective process and takes place embedded within local, sociocultural, and temporal contexts. The view of giftedness as individual is deceptive and results in faulty practice, such as the bestowal of huge advantages in development and labeling upon children whose parents have more substantial financial and other resources. This article applies a pentagonal implicit theory of giftedness to the analysis of individual, collective, and contextual factors in development and labeling and concludes that giftedness should never be viewed merely as an individual characteristic. Doing so not only distorts reality but creates procedures that tend to pass identification and development of ‘giftedness’ inequitably through successive generations of families by virtue of the families’ resources.”
“Developing scientific, transformational, eloquent, artistic, mathematical, mechanical, emotional, relational, and social talents through problem solving: A conceptual, practical, evidence-based analysis,” by C June Maker, Randy Pease, and Robert H Zimmerman, Gifted Education International, OnlineFirst, February 6, 2023
“Building on the definition of steamers (a tasty hot milk-infused drink), we defined STEAMMERS as ‘a blend of diverse talents, going beyond domain-specific to domain-integrated abilities. Like steamers, they have a rich and colorful “flavor”!’ They are passionate about solving problems they and others face by honoring and blending diverse perspectives and disciplines. Gifted children and young people have the potential to become STEAMMERS, making outstanding contributions to themselves, their communities, and their world. The underlying principle is to design learning experiences beyond traditional conceptions of STEM, STEAM, and other similar combinations of disciplines in ways that uncover, ignite, cultivate, and extend these potentials. Using Real Engagement in Active Problem Solving (REAPS), an evidence-based teaching model, enables educators to recognize, cultivate, and extend the talents of the STEAMMERS we need for our future. Here, we present our new concept, describe practices, and give evidence showing how it accomplishes these purposes.”
“Educator Perceptions Following Changes in Gifted Education Policy: Implications for Serving Gifted Students,” by Jaret Hodges, Rachel U. Mun, Javetta Jones Roberson, and Charles “Tedd” Flemister, Gifted Child Quarterly, Volume 65, Issue 4, October 2021
“Policy changes are an ever-present part of education. In 2019, legislators upended over two decades of gifted education policy in Texas with the removal of direct funding for gifted education. In its wake, the removal of funding shook educator morale and created uncertainty as to the future of gifted education in the state. In this article, we report on a survey administered to gifted education educators in Texas. A descriptive framework in conjunction with Bayesian analysis and multiple imputations is used to analyze the survey results. Our findings provide evidence that though educator sentiment is largely negative toward the changes to gifted education in Texas, educator outlooks on the future of gifted education in the state are relatively high.”
WRITING WORTH READING
“Virginia reviewing AP African American studies class rejected by Florida,” WRIC, Dean Mirshahi, February 21, 2023
“The war on merit turns into systemic injustice,” National Review, Asra Q. Nomani, February 21, 2023
“U.S. probe into racial bias in Henrico Schools [in Virginia] prompts overhaul of gifted program,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Anna Bryson and Sean McGoey, February 20, 2023
“4 states to review AP African American studies class amid Florida’s ban,” Axios, Sareen Habeshian, February 18, 2023
“To increase equity, school districts eliminate honors classes,” Wall Street Journal, By Sara Randazzo, February 17, 2023
“Proposal would expand Running Start to sophomores,” Washington State Journal, Alexandria Osborne, February 13, 2023
“DeSantis says maybe Florida can do without College Board, AP classes and SAT test,” Miami Herald, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Ana Ceballos, February 13, 2023
“He completed high school at age 9. Next up? Maybe rocket science.” Washington Post, Praveena Somasundaram, February 8, 2023
“The report of gifted education’s death is greatly exaggerated,” Education Week, James R. Delisle, February 8, 2023
“Success! Cobb teacher named Georgia’s Gifted Program Teacher of the Year,” Cobb County School District, February 8, 2023
“A leader who’s busting down barriers to gifted education,” Education Week, Elizabeth Heubeck, February 6, 2023
“A formula for creating more equitable gifted and talented programs,” Education Week, Elizabeth Heubeck, February 6, 2023