Education of Gifted Students: A Civil Rights Issue?

By Gallagher, James J. | Phi Delta Kappan, January 1995 | Go to article overview
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Education of Gifted Students: A Civil Rights Issue?


Gallagher, James J., Phi Delta Kappan


There are many students with high native abilities that remain uncrystallized because of a lack of opportunity, practice, and motivation. It is the responsibility of families, schools, and society to create a more favorable atmosphere for the full development of all students -- including those with outstanding talents.

THE TOPIC of civil rights has shaped many educational discussions and decisions during the past three decades. In the context of education, civil rights means the guarantee of equal opportunity and justice for all and the actions taken against those barriers that stand in the way of such equality.

How does the issue of civil rights bear on an area of special education such as the education of gifted students? There have been various suggestions that programs for gifted students may serve as a haven for upper-middle-class white students and thus may qualify as a new and more subtle form of racial and ethnic discrimination. Such concerns emerge from one indisputable fact: the differential representation of the sexes and of racial and ethnic groups in classes for gifted students.(1) In advanced mathematics classes, we find more boys than girls.(2) In programs for gifted students at the elementary and middle school levels, there is a relative shortage of black and Hispanic students (less than half their proportion in the general population) and a relative surplus of Asian students (more than twice their proportion in the general population).(3) Some critics have advanced these findings as indicators that there must be unfair practices abroad that are intentionally reducing the opportunities for certain groups of students to participate in programs for gifted children.

But, we must ask, what model of child development -- or of justice -- are these programs following that would allow us to cry "foul" at the above figures? Why should the figures for student participation in programs for gifted students (or in athletics or in the school orchestra) match the proportions of gender, race, or ethnic origin in the society at large?

The Role of Genetics

One reason to expect proportional representation of various groups in these special programs for gifted students would be the belief that intellectual ability is determined at birth, that it unfolds in a regular maturational sequence, and that it is resistant to outside influences, so that environment and experience play no role in its development. Since few people can be found who accept the concept of an inherent difference between races, sexes, or ethnic groups in the ability to learn,(4) this would mean that there should be an equal distribution of these subgroups in programs for the gifted. A deviation from that equality would be interpreted as arising from some unfair practice, such as discriminatory tests for eligibility. Therefore, following this line of reasoning, someone's civil rights are being violated.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that genetics does play a significant role in the development of various intelligences. Studies of twins and adoptive children clearly indicate that some children are born with more potential for learning rapidly than others. These differences apply within various racial and ethnic groups, not between them.(5) But that is only part of the picture.

The rest of the story is that environment and sequential experiences play a significant role in the crystallization of native abilities. If a particular environment allows a child to have more experiences and to obtain more encouragement from adults and peers he or she considers important, then the child's abilities will flourish. Thus boys who are encouraged to work with mathematics and are told (implicitly or explicitly) that excelling in math is a masculine trait will develop their native abilities beyond girls who are told that they are not supposed to be good in this subject and that math ability is gender-specific to males.

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