Guest blog by Frank C. Worrell, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Rena F. Subotnik

For more than a quarter century, critics have faulted gifted education programs for catering to kids from advantaged backgrounds. These programs do, after all, 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. In a study based on data from the 2006 Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Survey, for example, education researcher Donna Y. Ford at Vanderbilt University and her colleagues found that African American students are underrepresented in gifted programs by about 51 percent and Hispanic students by about 42 percent, relative to their proportion in the nation’s schools.

Of course, if minority students are systematically denied the benefits of such programs—a more sophisticated curriculum, motivated peers and, in some cases, specially trained teachers—gifted education serves to increase the gap between them and kids who are already proficient and enjoy access to resources. Correcting this problem requires trying to get at the roots of this discrepancy, which run far deeper than racism or bias in the selection process. Important social forces work against overall academic achievement in some races and cultures, and for it in others. The result is that fewer kids from poor families or of certain ethnicities end up qualifying for advanced programs.

In other words, the skewed population in gifted programs is largely a reflection of an overall achievement gap. African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are severely underrepresented among the top 1 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent on almost every achievement measure, including grades, GPA, class rank and standardized test scores—and at every level of education from kindergarten through professional school. Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state achievement tests, educational psychologist Jonathan Plucker at Indiana University and his colleagues documented in 2010 the underrepresentation of lower-income students and minorities who have been historically underrepresented at the highest levels of achievement. Without intervention, the achievement gap between high-ability European American and ethnic-minority students increases between grades five and eight.

The reasons and causes for the achievement gap include a host of factors that could be labeled educational malnourishment. Among them are lack of access to supplemental educational programs and tools including technology; poor quality schools; lower teacher expectations; low levels of parental education and parental involvement; negative peer influences; and lack of tacit knowledge about higher education. The most potent of these is poverty, which is related to many of the other variables listed.

Poverty is only a part of the problem, however. Although most gifted students appear to come from middleclass homes, not all are wealthy. In a 1992 study employing the Project Talent database, Lubinski and Humphreys separately identified students the top 1 percent on cognitive ability and in the top 1 percent on socioeconomic measures. They thus found 497 gifted boys, 508 gifted girls, 647 environmentally advantaged boys and 485 environmentally advantaged girls. Only 41 boys and 46 girls were members of both the advantaged and gifted groups, showing that gifted individuals are not uniformly the most well off. Further, over one million of the approximately 20 million children who qualify for free or reduced lunch rank in the top 25 percent of students based on achievement in Grade 1, although only 56 percent of these students remain high achievers by Grade 5. Thus, according to a 2007 study called The Achievement Trap, students from low-income families—who are also more likely to be from minority groups underrepresented in gifted education—lose substantial academic ground over the course of their elementary school careers.

Parent involvement and knowledge about educational systems and opportunities are often pivotal in guiding children toward achievement. A large proportion of gifted-program participants, particularly at the secondary level, are children of East Indian and Asian immigrants. These immigrant families seek to capitalize on opportunities in public education. When New York City offered special summer practice sessions for entrance examinations to selective public high schools, Asian American families enrolled in greater percentages than other groups, reported psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University in 2010. After these summer sessions, the Asian American student population in selective high schools rose from 40.8 percent to 60.6 percent while the percentage of African American students dropped from 11.8 to 4.8.

Those gifted children whose parents are knowledgeable about special schools and programs, are savvy about negotiating the educational system, and have financial resources for supplemental programs do fare better. Not only do families have to be aware of after-school and summer Talent Search programs to apply for them, but such programs are also self-supporting and currently have insufficient funds to provide comprehensive access to all lower-income families. Consequently only a small percentage of gifted children—chiefly, those from wealthier homes—can take advantage of them.

Psychosocial factors are also likely to play a role in the underachievement of African Americans in particular. According to one theory, African American students actively resist doing well because they perceive that achieving academically is giving up their Black identity and acting White. Several studies support this hypothesis. For example, in a 2008 article, Ford and her colleagues found that high-achieving African Americans reported that doing well in school and taking honors and advanced classes were associated with acting White, whereas underachieving and pretending not to be smart were associated with acting Black. Thus, high-ability or high-achieving students from low-income or ethnically and racially marginalized backgrounds may have trouble reconciling their social and academic identities, making them feel they don’t belong in gifted programs or advanced classes. Scholars debate, however, about how well these effects generalize beyond the laboratory and to different school settings and populations.

Closing the achievement gap among demographic groups is an ongoing challenge to educators, researchers and policymakers. The difficulty lies in ensuring that talented students from all groups have equal access to gifted education programs while recognizing that significant achievement differences among groups will result in some unevenness as long as achievement gaps persist. In 2005 educational psychologist David F. Lohman at the University of Iowa suggested that one way to boost the number of minority students identified as gifted is to use local norms in making placement decisions, enabling gifted programs to serve the top 1 to 3 percent of students in the community. A newly released report by the National Association for Gifted Children endorses this idea and suggests other strategies such as mining achievement data to identify students who are making rapid improvement or exhibiting “upward trajectories.” Making gifted programs in schools more widely available and expanding funding (for example, from corporations and foundations) for out-of-school programs could also alleviate some inequities.

Also, as we did with Headstart, we should fund more enrichment programs in language arts, social studies, math and science so that they are widely available in the early elementary grades and in schools and districts serving students who are underrepresented in gifted education. The goal: to find and spark the interest of students with talent in these domains. We also need to highlight the contributions of gifted individuals from minority backgrounds as more than important historical figures, but also as scholars and academics whose contributions are tied to their investment in education and their giftedness. In schools, we need to showcase minority academic exemplars—from college students to doctors and engineers—from the community. In other words, we need to harness the power of role models in support of academic goals, not just those in athletics and entertainment. In addition, we need to find ways to increase the availability and appeal of various educational opportunities to minority and lower income families to increase the likelihood that these families will take advantage of them.

All of these efforts need to be long-term and complement those aimed at the broader achievement gap. The ultimate solution to underrepresentation of minority students in gifted education programs is an education system that puts all students on equal footing, no matter their race, culture or socioeconomic status.

This blog was adapted from the Psychological Science and the Public Interest article “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science,” at the Association for Psychological Science’s website:

For more on gifted education, also see “To Nurture Genius, Improve Gifted Education,” by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Frank C. Worrell in Scientific American Mind, November/December 2012.

Frank C. Worrell is a professor at in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Paul Oszewski-Kubilius is director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. Rena F. Subotnik is director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association.

Credit: Flickr/judybaxter (top), Brookhaven National Laboratory Educational Programs (middle right)