The Seattle School Board is taking steps to dismantle a gifted and talented program at one of its middle schools to make room for a more racially inclusive curriculum. Gifted and talented, or G&T, programs are directed at children whose outstanding abilities and potential for accomplishment will not otherwise be challenged and developed.
But, too often, gifted and talented programs create separate tracks that end up creating segregated systems within schools. For instance, Seattle Public Schools began offering advanced courses in the 1980s through its “Individual Progress Program” to prevent white families from leaving the district. According to school district documents, the separate track of courses, which was limited to “extremely gifted” (read white) students, appealed to white families. These courses evolved in the 2000s into what’s known now as the “highly capable cohort” program (HCC).
However, the racial composition of the highly capable cohort looks like the original conception. Black students comprise about 15 percent of the district’s overall enrollment but represent only about 1.6 percent of students in the highly capable cohort program. The program is offered in several of the district’s schools.
These racial disparities prompted the Seattle Public Schools superintendent, Denise Juneau, to call the program’s legacy “unacceptable and embarrassing.” She has sought to abolish the program altogether and replace it with a more integrated model. But the school board, in response to opposition by livid parents, failed to pass the resolution to phase out the program last year. So this year Juneau put forth a new proposal that would phase out a highly capable cohort program at just one school in the district, Washington Middle.
The Seattle board approved a million-dollar partnership between Washington Middle School and the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation (TAF), which will manage the school, overseeing major functions like hiring and implementing a project-based learning curriculum that uses real world problems to teach students academic disciplines. Washington Middle’s current gifted program will be phased out. The district selected Washington Middle because of its close proximity to Seattle Central College, building a bridge to a postsecondary institution, according to KUOW 94.9 FM reporting.
I certainly applaud any effort to integrate schools. However, getting rid of a G&T program at one school in a district isn’t a systemic effort to end segregation. To the contrary, it can be seen as a statement that black and brown students aren’t worthy of an enriched curriculum.
Washington Middle is a diverse school. White students represent 37 percent of the school population, and black students comprise 23 percent, while they are 14 percent of the district overall. Students who identify as Asian are also overrepresented at Washington, at 17 percent of the student body; Asians represent 13 percent of all students systemwide. Hispanic students are underrepresented at Washington Middle, but just barely: They comprise 10 percent of Washington’s school enrollment, compared to 13 percent of enrollment districtwide. Native American students make up only 0.4 percent of the district, but 0.2 percent of the Washington Middle student body.
I could understand the district’s decision if Seattle Public Schools shut down one of the seven HCC programs at a less diverse campus, but not this decision: If there was a place to demonstrate that HCC can serve a diverse population, it was Washington Middle. Instead, less diverse schools continue to maintain a program that was founded to protect white school choice, and that continues to exclude black and brown children.
Here’s a novel idea: Have students determine their own readiness for advanced coursework instead of determining readiness by a flawed test.
Or, the Seattle district could abandon the label gifted and talented, as the Washington, D.C., Public Schools did years ago. “DCPS believes in developing student’s abilities through learning opportunities, rather than labeling a student and placing them on a restrictive track,” states the district’s website. “We believe that it is more important to invest in the design, implementation, and growth of specific instructional programs to meet the needs of high-ability learners, rather than in conducting a screening program that limits who can participate in advanced learning opportunities.”
Here’s another novel idea: Have teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of every child.
Two-thirds to three-quarters of black children who should be considered gifted aren’t identified, according to Marcia Gentry, a professor at Purdue University and director of its Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute. Black and Latino students represented 26 percent of students enrolled in gifted and talented education programs across the country, but made up 40 percent of total enrollment in schools offering gifted and talented programs, according to a 2014 report by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education.
The same 2014 report found that a “quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.” These courses are requirements for postsecondary institutions with selective admissions. The report also found that less than half of Native Indian and Alaska Native high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses that will prepare them for college.
Separate but equal may have been officially outlawed by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education, but the spirit of that racist policy lives on through “gifted” programs and other mechanisms that ostensibly place students in separate tracks based on skills, but in reality separate students by race and income. In Brown v Board, the Court ordered that states end segregation with “all deliberate speed.” But the limited busing programs that followed placed the burden of integrating white schools on black families.
We have yet to desegregate all schools since the Court’s decision because deliberate speed really meant when white people are ready. The courses that black and brown students are offered — or not — are proof that white people are still dragging their feet on integrating schools and educational equity.
To be clear, tracking in general isn’t inherently bad. We should have different curricular options to meet students’ differing academic levels and career interests, including offering college prep courses provided to those deemed worthy of academic investment. However, racism has corrupted tracking by limiting the ability of black and brown students to be deemed worthy, making it less about sorting students based on academic and career aptitude and more about affirming established racial hierarchies.
School districts have used talented and gifted programs to mask their inaction to integrate schools fully. To shut down one program within a district falls short of addressing the systemic nature of the problem. It’s a version of ending segregation with “all deliberate speed.”
Education leaders must deal with segregation at a district and state level. Meaning, the district should open up the courses in the HCC program and consider all students gifted as they are, or phase it out for the sake of all students.
We simply can’t piecemeal fairness and call it a step toward justice.
This story about the highly capable program was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.