Desegregating Gifted Education: A Need Unmet

Article excerpt

Few educators would disagree that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision represents the most significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling on equal educational opportunity. Indeed, as Russo, Ford, and Harris (1993) maintain, it is the very cornerstone of all subsequent legal developments ensuring the rights of disenfranchised groups in the past 40 years. In the absence of any specific controlling Supreme Court precedent or mandatory federal legislation entitlements, however, one can only extrapolate the implications of Brown for gifted education. Abundant data suggest that gifted programs are the most segregated educational programs in this nation, and that concerted efforts must be made to ensure that minority students, economically disadvantaged students, underachievers, and other nontraditional students receive the education to which they are entitled.

Recent years have seen increased attention and efforts devoted to identifying and placing minority students in gifted education programs. This response reflects an insistence in the professional and scholarly literature that minority children, particularly African American children, are severely underrepresented in gifted programs (Alamprese & Erlanger, 1988; Ford & Harris, 1991; Richert, 1987; U.S. Department of Education, 1993), but overrepresented or overenrolled in special education programs for the learning disabled, behaviorally disordered, and mentally retarded (Chinn & Selma, 1987; Kunjufu, 1993; Patton, 1992).

The most far-reaching legislation affecting gifted education thus far has been the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Act of 1988, the passage of which marked the culmination of the efforts of many dedicated gifted education proponents. The Javits Act provides both financial assistance to state and local educational agencies charged with developing and maintaining gifted programs, and it gives highest priority to the identification of gifted racial minority, economically disadvantaged, limited-English-proficient, and disabled students. Despite the altruistic prescience of this legislation, a disconcerting underrepresentation of nontraditional students persists in gifted programs. For example, in 1993, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) noted that African American males were disproportionately placed in special education programs, more so than any other racial or ethnic group. Earlier, Alamprese and Erlanger (1988) reported that African American males were three times more liable than White American males to be placed in classes for the mentally retarded, and one-half less likely to appear in gifted programs. Taking a national perspective, they also reported that whereas approximately 16% of the U.S. school population was African American, African Americans comprised only 8% of gifted programs.

Several reasons help explain the dearth of African Americans in public school programs for the gifted. Among these are: abstract and disparate definitions of giftedness, inequitable practices of identifying gifted students, educators' lack of understanding about cultural differences in learning styles and achievement aspirations, inadequate preparation of teachers to recognize giftedness among students from diverse cultural backgrounds, the lack of encouragement given to African American parents to become involved in the processes related to identification and selection of students for gifted education, definitions of underachievement that are particularly disparaging to African American students, and a paucity of funding and funding sources for efforts aimed at making the gifted education population look more like America.

This article begins by focusing on the issues surrounding the underrepresentation of African American students in gifted education programs, positing various explanations for this phenomenon. It further suggests ways to address the problem--that is, how to "desegregate" gifted programs and otherwise redress inequities in this area of education. …