America’s gifted education programs have a race problem. Can it be fixed?

This article about gifted education was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This is part 1 of the series “Gifted Education’s Race Problem.”

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On a crisp day in early March, two elementary school gifted and talented classes worked on activities in two schools, 3 miles and a world apart.

In airy PS 64 Frederick Law Olmsted, in affluent, white north Buffalo, 22 would-be Arctic explorers wrestled with how to build a shelter if their team leader had frostbite and snow blindness. Unusually for Buffalo’s public schools — where 20 percent of students are white and 46 percent are Black — about half of the fourth grade class was white.

In PS 61 Arthur O. Eve, on the city’s majority-Black East Side, 13 first graders, all of them Black, Latino or Asian American, folded paper airplanes in their basement classroom as part of an aerodynamics and problem-solving lesson. Unlike at Olmsted, the highest-scoring elementary school in the city, students at Eve scored around the dismal city average in math and English in 2019, when fewer than a quarter of students passed state tests.

The gifted program at Eve opened two years ago as a way to increase access to Buffalo’s disproportionately white, in-demand gifted and talented programs. Buffalo educators hoped Eve’s new program would give more children — particularly children of color — a chance at enrichment and advanced learning.

Yet two years in, Eve’s gifted classes are under-enrolled, while Olmsted always runs out of room — last year, more than 400 children applied for 65 gifted spots. And even though the district made it easier to apply for gifted classes, Olmsted gifted classrooms still don’t look like the rest of the district. White families flock to Olmsted, and eschew the new program at Eve, while families of color have come up against barriers, including an IQ test children take as young as 4, that experts say keep gifted education out of reach for kids who need it.

At PS 61 Arthur O. Eve on Buffalo’s East Side, Sarah Malczewski’s first grade gifted class prepares to launch the paper airplanes they designed to fly as far as possible.Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Buffalo’s struggle to create an integrated, equitable gifted program demonstrates a longtime challenge that has recently gained attention: Gifted education in America has a race problem.

Nearly 60 percent of students in gifted education are white, according to the most recent federal data, compared to 50 percent of public school enrollment overall. Black students, in contrast, made up 9 percent of students in gifted education, although they were 15 percent of the overall student population.

Many factors contribute to this disparity. Gifted education has racism in its roots: Lewis Terman, the psychologist who in the 1910s popularized the concept of “IQ” that became the foundation of gifted testing, was a eugenicist. And admissions for gifted programs tend to favor children with

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