This past week I finished meeting with four state legislators to talk about the barriers to equitable identification and services for gifted children. It has been well documented that school districts miss identification of children in minority and poverty populations. In Washington State – among other places – we are trying to look at the barriers to equitably serving our students in order to make needed changes.
The first barrier is teacher and parent referrals for identification for services. Teachers may or may not have any idea of what to look for, because many teacher preparation programs all but skip anything about either the nature of these children or best practices for them. Teachers typically see gifted children as high achieving and willing-to-please types. They don’t recognize gifted in the child who isn’t “well put together.” The frustrated child, the bored child who is causing problems, the hyperactive child, the defiant child, the child whose English vocabulary is limited, the child whose home life doesn’t prepare him for coming to school – these children get missed. Teachers who are “held accountable” for academic progress, and schools who struggle with getting children to meet basic academic requirements are not about to refer their brightest students for services elsewhere. Even when they recognize high achievers, teachers want to keep their jobs, and school principals want their school to look good. Sometimes principals also are evaluated on their school’s test scores. Test scores by school and by district are frequently published in local media. Parents are actually better identifiers of gifted children anyway, the research shows, but schools and neighbors quickly label parents who advocate for their gifted children as being one of “those” parents. Administrator hostility toward these parents is common, and their advice to teachers may be to ignore them! Still, if the parents can and do read the publications about referrals, they may refer their child.
The next step is getting the children who have been referred to the actual assessment location. From New York City to Seattle, Washington assessments for program placement in Giftedland are most frequently done on Saturdays in a remote location, commonly not at the child’s school – and certainly not during a regular school day. For children with parents who work on Saturdays, or don’t have a car, or are hung over, the chances of getting to the testing location are small. The testing location is unfamiliar to the children, and frequently done in a large space with a hundred or more taking the test at the same time, administered by a proctor who is unknown to the children. For children who are young, this can be daunting. Yet children as young as five or six show up for these “cattle calls.”
I was for several years a central administrator in a school district. When I changed these assessments to “in schools and on school days,” most schools did a really good job of working with us to make this change. I did have one school, though, that set up the school secretary to be the proctor. The secretary found out half an hour before testing began and called to find out how to do it! I went in to proctor. I found the children squashed in a room no bigger than a large closet! I’m pretty sure the principal was embarrassed at “getting caught,” in what was clearly sabotage, as she surely should have been.
So let’s say that Manuel and Susie do go through the testing and are admitted to the program. Their new school is across town and, in some districts, their parents need to transport them to school in the mornings and home in the afternoons. Sure, in some neighborhoods parents can arrange carpools. But for children who do not reside in the “right” neighborhood, or whose parents both work, or who have only one car – or no car – these children don’t have access for the appropriate education for which they have been identified.
During the recession in the last decade, my district planned to eliminate transportation to gifted programs. In defense, I compared the number of gifted children in our district who were being served with a neighboring district. This district was similar in size, in demographics, and they used the same measurements and criteria for program services. In fact, they identified very nearly the same number of children each year as we did. The big difference was that they had 30% fewer children receiving services than we did. The difference? They didn’t provide transportation to the classroom. The data proved my point, and when I pointed out the equity issue in transportation alone, my district found a way to keep our transportation.
So here’s what I told legislators:
- We need teachers and administrators who can recognize giftedness in children, understand why they need special services, and know best practices for these services.
- We need universal screening in our school districts to find allthose who need further assessment for potential gifted program placement.
- We need assessments for program placement done in schools during the regular school day.
- We need transportation to program services for those admitted to the programs.
These are the four priorities the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education is working on with our legislators, and I have to say it is exciting to do this good work! Please – wherever you are – feel free to send this message to your own representatives, too.