Diversity and Gifted Children: Are We Doing Enough?

February 25, 2015

By Alicia A. Ayala

“Many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I feared.”

― Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World

Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court. In her memoir, My Beloved World (10), she tells her story of resilience and determination. Although a naturally precocious child with much promise, she endured many hardships – she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 8, the daughter of an alcoholic father who passed away at age 9, and raised in a single-parent household by an overburdened mother. In her book, she shares her story of self-discovery.

The above quote comes from a passage in which she describes her struggle with writing that resulted from English that was riddled with Spanish constructions. Although she was a bright young woman attending Princeton University, she had to work hard to overcome this limitation by completing grammar exercises and learning 10 vocabulary words every day to compensate for lost opportunities due to lack of exposure and the limitations implicit in a childhood entrenched in poverty. The striking disparity between Sotomayor and her fellow classmates was further realized when she was made privy to the financial figures of the most well-off at Princeton, students with trust funds, whose parents generously endowed Yale, while her mother only made $5,000 a year. Despite the discrepancy in socioeconomic (SES) status and cultural background, she received the highest honors at Princeton and Yale Law School and is now an Associate Justice for the highest judicial body in the United States.

Sonia Sotomayor’s story of tenacity and grit is admirable; it provides hope to children, adolescents, and emerging adults who are currently facing adversity. Her story is one that resonates with many gifted children who have considerable talent but face a myriad of challenges – whether they are cultural, linguistic, SES, and/or environmental.

In 1998, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act was passed and stated that “outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor”(11). Yet, in the report National Excellence, A Case for Developing America’s Talent (11), attention is called to a quiet crisis in the education of gifted students, as there is a disparity in the proportion of students identified and served in gifted programs among talented children from economically disadvantaged homes and/or from culturally or linguistically diverse (CLD) groups.

IEA Academy StudentsTaking into consideration Sotomayor’s story, the purpose of this blog is to explore research that has been conducted on why diverse students and students from lower SES backgrounds are underrepresented in gifted programs and how we can recruit and retain more of them for our gifted programs.

Over the past 20 years, the United States has experienced a significant demographic transformation due to immigration (9). Currently, 23.7% of school-age children in the United States are children of immigrants (6), bringing linguistic and cultural diversity (CLD) to the institutions with which they come in contact. In the context of these rapidly changing communities and educational landscapes, how do we ensure quality education for children of diverse backgrounds, and more specifically, those who are gifted? This question has fascinated researchers, policy makers, and educators, as their success has direct implications on our nation’s future.

Researchers have found that disparities exist in academic achievement based on race and ethnicity, even among the most able students (7). A large number of CLD children reside in schools that are underfunded, lack a rigorous curriculum, have fewer educational resources, and often employ less experienced teachers (1). Gifted children within these schools are particularly at risk because they are often overlooked (2).

Researchers have also posited that the identification of a high ability learner from CLD and lower SES background is significantly impacted by inaccurate perceptions held by teachers and schools. Inequalities in teacher nomination for gifted programs are pervasive among districts and schools nationwide (5,8). Additionally, there is a dependency on validated measures of intelligence and a dearth of dynamic assessments, teacher and parent ratings, portfolios, and nonverbal ability tests (4,8).

Looking solely at income, it has been found that students whose families were in the top income quartile were 5 times more likely to be in gifted programs than students whose parents’ income was in the bottom quartile (2). Longitudinally, studies have shown that students from lower SES backgrounds often graduate from high school on time but are less likely to attend selective colleges than their higher SES peers (14% vs. 21%); less likely to graduate from college (49% vs. 77%); and less likely to receive a graduate degree (29% vs. 47%) (8).

IEA 2014 Yunasa CampersThese findings suggest that there is a need for new strategies in identifying gifted students of diverse cultural, linguistic, and SES backgrounds. However, since gifted education is not federally mandated – leading to differences in definitions, identification, and programming across districts and states – it is difficult to implement these strategies (4).

As I was trained in Applied Psychology, I always appreciate when research is translated into practice or provides implications for effective practices. In all of the articles I read, the majority of them also provided potential solutions to ameliorate identification and retention of diverse students in gifted programs.

High-quality, advanced curriculum must continue to be created and evaluated. Diverse gifted students would benefit from culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate curriculum (5). As many gifted students disengage in classes where they are bored, there is a need for enriching programs and curriculum that evoke a gifted student’s potential. As intelligence testing and teacher referrals were often found to be a source for underrepresentation of diverse students in gifted programs, the field of gifted education needs to examine and consider broader conceptions of intelligence, alternative definitions of giftedness, and inclusive assessment models. Research has also linked the success of CLD and lower SES gifted learners to positive family relationships, where students excelled in school despite economic and social barriers (3). This demonstrates that there needs to be a collective effort to bring about change, one that includes energy from not only schools and parents, but also researchers and policy makers.

Finally, communities and organizations can also provide support and assistance to gifted individuals from diverse backgrounds by offering workshops, enriching classes, and apprenticeship opportunities (8).

While I was able to provide a general overview of diversity and giftedness, only cultural, linguistic, and economic diversity were addressed in this blog. There is, however, a spate of research that addresses giftedness and gender diversity, gifted students with disabilities (2e: twice-exceptional), and geographic diversity. Finally, we cannot neglect the importance of diversity and non-cognitive factors of high achievement. There is much to be learned from research that examines the social and emotional needs of gifted children.

Imagine if Sonia Sotomayor had not been granted financial assistance at Princeton and Yale Law School; America would have been bereft of an important leader. With that in mind, I ask that you take the time to donate to IEA, so that we may continue to serve students who may not have the financial means to benefit from our programs. On behalf of the students and families we serve, thank you for being a part of the IEA community!

IEA 2014 Apprentices

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1. Barton, P. E. (2003). Parsing the achievement gap. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

2. Borland, J. H. (2004). Issues and practices in the identification and education of gifted students from under-represented groups. Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.

3. Castellano, J.A. & Frazier, A.D. (2010). Special populations in gifted education: Understanding our most able students from diverse backgrounds. Waco, TX: National Association for Gifted Children/Prufrock Press.

4. Ford, D. Y., Grantham, T. C., & Whiting, G. W. (2008). Culturally and linguistically diverse students in gifted education: Recruitment and retention issues. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 289-306.

5. Johnsen, S.K. (2014). Assessing Growth of Gifted and Advanced Students. Gifted Child Today, 37(1), 4-5.

6. Mather, M. (2009). Children in immigrant families chart new path. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.

7. Miller, L. S. (2004). Promoting sustained growth in the representation of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans among top students in the United States at all levels of the education system. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

8. Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Clarenbach, J. (2012). Unlocking emergent talent: Supporting high achievement of low-income, high-ability students. Washington, DC: National Association for Gifted Children.

9. Perez, Patricia. (2010). College Choice Process of Latino Undocumented Students: Implications for Recruitment and Retention. Journal of College Admission, 206, 21-25.

10. Sotomayor, S. (2013). My beloved world. New York: Knopf.

11. United States Department of Education. (1993). National Excellence: The Case for Developing America’s Talent. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

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