Krista Christensen

Read Write Teach Love

On White “Gifted-ness”

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My 8-year-old son is in what the state of North Carolina calls the “Academically and Intellectually Gifted” program. Just tonight, the school district asked me to complete a survey in which I replied to the following open-ended question about my son’s education:

“What do you like least about our school?”

Below is my response:

Unintentional (or intentional?) racial and socioeconomic segregation within the gifted program. Alter the manner and/or measurements by which students are allowed into the gifted program to allow students of color who show promise this extra attention (even if they don’t perfectly meet standardized scores) and thereby move us all closer to a more equitable society and world. My gifted student would be a better person if more people of color were in his gifted program (even if they “slowed things down a bit,” whatever that means) and those students of color and/or living in poverty deserve that opportunity, since much of the reason students of color and/or students living in poverty don’t perform well on standardized tests has to do with cultural, sociological, or nutritional elements beyond their control. Being rigid in the measurement system that allows students a label of “gifted” only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and/or institutional racism.

In fact, The Institute for Educational Advancement has cited “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.” The Atlantic recently posted that “the odds of getting assigned to such programs are 66 percent lower for black students and 47 percent lower for Latino students than they are for their white counterparts.” And Scientific American showed, over four years ago, that gifted programs “typically enroll outsized numbers of European American and Asian American students hailing from relatively well-off homes. Members of other ethnic groups, meanwhile, tend to be underrepresented, as judged by the percentage of these students in a school district relative to that in its gifted program.” As as Hechinger Report notes, “Even between children with the same math and reading scores, a white student was twice as likely as a black student to get assigned to a gifted-and-talented program.”

It is this racist discrepancy in enrollment which so irks me.

Of the 31 listed staff on my son’s elementary school website, not one is a self-disclosing person of color. What this means is that I looked at all of the staff’s personal websites; some I know just from being a parent there. There are seven instructors who might not be white, because I don’t know who they are and they don’t have a picture posted. The rest: white. All of them. The principal too, and the two front office staff. Of course there are all the educational assistants, who don’t get their own webpages and so whose races I cannot determine. What I can determine is this:  the teachers in my son’s school are 77 percent white, 23 percent undetermined (likely white, based on my experience of various festivals and school programming).

Public School Review, by contrast, lists that 27 percent of the school attendees are students of color. My son reports that of the 8-10 people that are in his pull-out Academically and Intellectually Gifted class that meets once a week to work on god-knows-what… some special-kid shit like advanced fractions or something… zero are people of color.


In a community where more than a quarter of his school attendance is comprised of people of color, not one, NOT ONE, from his third grade made it in to this class. Of course, some students might identify at two races and/or be white-presenting (to him–an 8 year old) but the fact remains that HIS experience of his class is one of white kids being pulled out to learn special, advanced stuff. His truth, his experience, is one in which 27 percent of his Regular Ed classroom (17 kids x 27 percent = four or five kids) are black or POC but NONE of his Advanced class is.

What does that teach him about the world?

It teaches him that smart kids are white, of course.

Alternatively, it teaches him that the white kids are smart.

I hate both these options.

In spite of all the advocacy and explicit teaching that I do at home about race and racism (which is probably not enough but goddamnit, it’s some), what my son sees, day in and out is his regular classroom, is a system full of people of different abilities and different backgrounds, and then, every so often, he goes to a specifically labeled smart classroom with all-white peers where they can do advanced learning.

This is a fucked up worldview to pass on to my son–an impressionable, extra-conscious and super-just individual. A boy who cries when confronted by the injustices of the world. A boy oozing compassion.

What is he learning from all this “advanced” work?

And as a parent, I ask myself, is it all worth the trade-off? Is his being “academically challenged” more important than his appreciation that all people from all backgrounds should work toward a greater good? Is his being “academically challenged” more important than a struggling but obviously intelligent child of color being omitted from the Gifted program because they didn’t perform well on a battery of tests? Or because their white teacher judges how they don’t sit nicely in their seat?

I know I’m generalizing here. I’m a teacher myself, and I know not all teachers are like that. I know not all students of color struggle to stay in their seats. I know white children struggle to stay in their seats. (Don’t get me started on recess). I know not all Gifted classrooms are 100% white. But generalizing is often how we access ugly, fixable truths. Like America is a racist country, despite having lots of anti-racist citizenry. Like America is a sexist country, despite having a large proportion of feminists.

I guess my question, as a parent, is this: Is what my white son learns in an mostly- or all-white Gifted program worth more than learning patience and respect for all people working in a regular-ed classroom?

The ultimate question though–the more real and important one–is this: what will it take for school districts to identify children of color and make room for them [READ: for a proportional, and not token, amount of them] in Gifted programs?

Even if it means adjusting the acceptance rate just for them (I know, this smacks of Affirmative Action… and I mean it to). Even if it means letting them test several more times than the other students. Even if it means that the school is trying, very hard, to correct the effects of institutional racism by explicitly reaching out to people of color and helping them–really helping them–to understand what it takes to fill that notion of “gifted.” A notion developed by a society mostly intending to keep them out.

Listen: my son shouldn’t have to sacrifice his gifted education, and neither should a child of color who acts out in class from boredom and doesn’t garner a teacher-override recommendation because the teacher is white, and accustomed to expecting too little, or has too high an expectation of stillness and quiet. Together, these children are the generation that are going to dismantle the racist cisheteropatriarchy, and we need all hands on deck for that shit.

Further reading on diversity in gifted programs here and here and in above links.


Author: Krista

Krista Christensen was the Denali National Park Writer-in-Residence for Winter 2018. Her essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and named Notable in the 2018 edition of Best American Essays. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Potomac Review, Booth, River Teeth, Harpur Palate, and more. She got an MFA a few years back, and calls Interior Alaska home for now, where she teaches high school and college English.

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