For as long as I can remember, being “smart” has been a significant part of my identity. It was being identified as smart that had me automatically enrolled in pre-AP courses in middle school and put on track for AP/Honors courses in high school. It was because of this designated intelligence that I knew of more obscure classes not even listed on my school’s curriculum, offered only in the morning before the official school day. It was because I had been recognized as smart that, despite not attending a particularly “good” high school, I still got into WashU.
And in the summer before second grade, kicking off this domino effect of opportunities, it was being smart — perhaps more precisely, testably “talented” — that would grant me access to PEAK: a specialized education program for “gifted” students.
However, a question that did not accompany this inflation of my childhood ego was how advanced learning tracks for elementary students came to be. The Personalized Enrichment and Advancement of Knowledge program (PEAK) is one of many variations of Gifted and Talented (G and T) initiatives around the country. These initiatives became especially common as the demand for integration spread, and are typically offered to students between 2nd-6th grade. While mission statements vary slightly depending on the institution, they all generally seem to support the notion that PEAK/G and T programs are for students with “outstanding abilities,” in need of a more unique curriculum than that typically taught in public schools.
In the podcast “Nice White Parents,” a dissection of school integration, host Chana Joffe-Walt begins episode 3, “This Is Our School, How Dare You?” by investigating the role of gifted programs in integrating public schools. Like the one she focuses on, many districts adopted gifted tracks in an effort to stop the white flight from urban public schools. Gifted programs became a legal way to uphold school segregation, and still in many ways support this separation today. Almost 60% of students admitted to gifted programs are white (compared to 50% overall enrollment), and those who aren’t are generally more likely to be from middle class homes with college educated parents.
Additionally, there is no countrywide consensus for gifted testing or even an agreed upon definition of the word, and the way giftedness is determined is unsurprisingly entrenched in racist and inequitable testing measures. Surveying seems to most often be a two-test process: first, a cognitive ability test — despite research indicating that cognitive testing is still racist and IQ tests having a complicated past with eugenicists — and second, an individual evaluation conducted by a psychiatrist, although it is unclear what exactly this second evaluation actually tests for.
Along with the sketchy (and now omnipresent) testing processes, parents that have access to outside resources and knowledge about gifted programs still have an extra advantage in ensuring their kids are amongst the little Einsteins. Parents and teachers can refer students for gifted testing if they believe they have potential, and then, should said kid perform well enough on the initial assessment, parents are then responsible for transporting them to a second location to receive the individualized test. However, many parents that are not heavily involved in the inner workings of the school system aren’t even aware of this process, or that recommending their children for something like this is a possibility. Likewise, teacher bias also makes it such that qualifying Black and brown children are far less likely to be recommended for gifted testing.
Joffe-Walt interviewed a former student in the NY public school system whose district had a separate gifted school. Despite her impressive academic performance being exactly the type of thing that would result in a referral, she explained that she had never even heard of the gifted program. Instead, she recalls becoming aware of the other school through a visit with her band, where she saw that they had better instruments, more space, and more equipment, and readily described her school as having “second class hand-me-downs” in comparison. Joffe-Walt would also uncover that despite having the same school board, the gifted school had significantly smaller class sizes, specialized instructors, and a significantly lower teacher turnover rate.
Having the reputation of being a smart student (especially in small schools) extends beyond the end of gifted programs. In addition to automatic placement in pre-AP/AP courses (often despite test scores), niche opportunities — such as an advanced math class in my school taught in the morning and offered only to students the teacher mentioned it to — are more likely to be available for you as well. During my senior year of high school, admissions officers from Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale held an information session in the guidance counselor’s office and spoke to only six of us out of my senior class of almost 400. It was during school hours, and invite only. We were not chosen through any concrete system, but simply by who our administrators thought would benefit from the opportunity. We were not specifically the top six students in the school, and there were plenty of others with rivaling grades who were never granted the choice and most of whom probably never knew it existed. It was again the perception of giftedness far more so than genuine ability that deemed us worthy of exposure to a potentially life-altering opportunity.
Included in every mission statement I found for gifted programs — regardless of the state they are in — is that these programs are necessary to help exceptional children achieve their destiny in making exceptional contributions to society. In the years since establishment, despite attempts at making them more equitable, the general message maintains that some kids are just born smarter; some kids are just gifted. However, is it much of a surprise that students placed in an optimal environment for success — smaller classrooms, more thought-provoking assignments, more one-on-one attention, more behavioral exceptions, and more physical resources — are likely to outperform their peers? Does this prove anything other than that kids with more specialized instruction are more likely to do well, and is this anything other than common sense?
Hopefully, it’s obvious that my argument isn’t to suggest that kids selected for gifted programs aren’t intelligent, it is to highlight that it wasn’t and isn’t necessarily a unique intelligence. We were just chosen to have our skills honed and ambitions supported. “Gifted” kids have inequitable access to choices. Gifted kids get unmatched opportunities because their reputation often precedes them, making them who comes to mind when competitive opportunities arise. The practice of pouring an excessive amount of resources into a select group of students while depriving others is to make a knowing disinvestment from their futures.