North Carolina shortchanges students who are poor, black and gifted, report says

Lowe’s Grove Middle School teacher Jenny Duvall works with eighth-grader Julius Borunda as part of a Durham program to provide more challenging classes to low-income students with high potential.
Lowe’s Grove Middle School teacher Jenny Duvall works with eighth-grader Julius Borunda as part of a Durham program to provide more challenging classes to low-income students with high potential.

The “gifted gap” that shortchanges black and Hispanic students across America is especially intense in North Carolina, a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows.

The institute, an education reform think tank with offices in Ohio and Washington, D.C., reviewed national data on gifted programs in high-poverty schools, which are generally filled with black and brown students. The “Gifted Gap” report found that while most high-poverty schools offer programs for gifted students, they tend to be sparsely populated.

It documented that African-American and Hispanic students are underrepresented in gifted programs in all states and all types of schools, but even more so in schools where most students come from impoverished homes. North Carolina is among 22 states where fewer than 5 percent of black and Hispanic students are in gifted programs, compared with almost 10 percent of all North Carolina students.

In North Carolina schools with poverty levels of 75 percent or higher, only 3.1 percent of black and Hispanic students and 5.1 percent of all students were in gifted programs. That was among the nation’s lowest levels.

“This new Fordham study shows some of the ways we lose potential Einsteins: specifically, the education system’s inability (or unwillingness) to do what it takes to develop the potential of hundreds of thousands of capable young people who hail from modest backgrounds,” says a forward by Fordham research executive Amber Northern and president emeritus Chester Finn Jr.

“As a result of their lower gifted-and-talented participation rates, many black and Hispanic students will be less prepared to succeed in challenging high school coursework, and, in turn, less likely to enroll in the most demanding universities and career-preparation programs,” the forward continues.

The study reinforces the findings of Counted Out, a 2017 investigative series by The Charlotte Observer and the (Raleigh) News & Observer that examined seven years of state data, focusing on low-income students with high scores on state math exams. That data showed low-income students were less likely than non-poor students with similar scores to get access to gifted programs and advanced classes. Racial gaps in gifted placement were noted there, too.

No district in North Carolina has more poor, black and Hispanic students than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where 78 of 177 schools have poverty levels of 75 percent or higher. And their chances of building prosperous adult lives pose an essential challenge in a city that has spent the last several years wrestling with dismal statistics on the slim chances for children born poor in Charlotte to advance to higher income levels.

Wake County, North Carolina’s largest district, has lower poverty levels than CMS and fewer schools with extreme concentrations of poverty. But almost 51,000 Wake students qualify for federal lunch subsidies to low-income families.

The Fordham report recommends using universal screening practices to identify gifted students. The complicated, multi-step processes that many districts – including CMS – use in hopes of identifying more minority and poor students can actually backfire, the report says.

“While teacher nominations are a good mechanism for identifying students who may benefit from gifted programming but do not meet the testing cutoff, relying primarily on parent and teacher nominations, as happens in many schools, is prone to bias, favoritism, and abuse,” the report says. The report also recommends identifying as gifted the top achievers at each school, rather than districtwide. Many high-poverty schools, in CMS and nationwide, have large numbers of students who test below grade level and only a handful with scores high enough to be classified as gifted.

In CMS, schools with small numbers of gifted students generally include other high-performing students in classes and activities taught by a gifted specialist. But those schools may only qualify for a part-time gifted specialist, while schools with larger numbers of gifted students get one or more full-time teachers.

When the CMS board holds a planning retreat with Superintendent Clayton Wilcox Feb. 9 and 10, one of the main items will be equity – that is, the task of ensuring that all schools provide full opportunities for all types of students. Wilcox and several board members have cited opportunities for high-performing students in high-poverty schools as one of the challenges.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms