Gifted and Talented Programs Benefit White Students Disproportionately / Teen Vogue

“Gifted” programs funnel money towards a disproportionate share of white students, Tracie McMillan explains in her new book.

By Tracie McMillan, Teen Vogue

I still remember the the first time I heard about “gifted” kids. I was fifteen, and taking part in a summer program for “gifted” Michigan high school students. Most of my classmates in the program had been “gifted” their whole lives. It was my first time, though. I went to school in a rural, low-income district without the funding to run gifted programs. Being gifted, I figured, usually took money—and I was proud to have earned that title without it.

I thought about that a lot when I began reporting the story of two millennial sisters, who I call Lindsey and Maryann, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I went there to study how the re-segregation of America’s public schools, which began in the late 1980s, played out by the 2010s. I was shocked to find a holdover pattern of segregation alive and well: The school’s gifted and talented program.

It wasn’t that the gifted program was all white; that was nearly impossible in the school, which was majority Black by then. Segregation showed up in how much more likely white students were to be considered “gifted” than their Black classmates: three times as much, in fact, and at rates five times the national average. Once I dug into the school’s history, though, something became clear: “Gifted” programs were always about money—specifically, funneling it towards a disproportionate share of white students. This was obvious as I read through news reports, studies and district demographics. I thought about myself and Lindsey and Maryann: Were we really gifted? Or just white?

I share the Hattiesburg story in the passage below from The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism. The book begins and ends with my family’s story, alternating with profiles of four different white Americans across the country and its generations. The book seeks to accurately diagnose the cause of a massive problem in America: Widening economic inequality atop a racial wealth gap. We can’t fix one without addressing the other. Being honest about the white bonus is part of how we get there.

The last mass departure of white students from the public schools of Hattiesburg, Mississippi came in the 1980s, once the federal courts really put their foot down and said: You have to integrate, now, for real. After that, the share of white students began to drop slow and steady. In 1989, the district—which at the height of segregation had a student body that was 2/3 white—was about 30 percent white. By 2008, when Lindsey Becker graduated high school, it was just over 5 percent. In 2012, when her little sister Maryann graduated, it was less than 5 percent white. By 2020, it was under 3 percent white.

The loss of white students had been a long time coming.

When Lindsey began first grade at Thames Elementary, the Hattiesburg schools were still under a court order to integrate. With the help of a busing program and careful attention to attendance zones, every school, including Thames, had a racial makeup close to that of the district. That was the standard set by the court. Yet if the district followed the letter of the law, it did little to follow the spirit of it; few individual classrooms met the court’s standard. Then, in 1997, the courts declared that the district was “unitary” and released it from oversight. The district had proven it was desegregated. Now administrators could assign students to schools however they liked.

In the fall of 1999, Hattiesburg’s public schools ended the busing program that had ensured that each school in the district was integrated. In its place, the district adopted a “neighborhood schools” model, assigning students to the school closest to their home. For the Beckers, this meant their children stayed at Thames. This was a relief for Rosie, who had been observing the differences among schools as she became more familiar with them. “I was glad we ended up at Thames and not some of the other schools, because some of the other schools really were awful,” Rosie told me. If they had landed at any other school, says Rosie, “We would’ve moved. I would have made sure that happened.”

While “neighborhood schools” can sound innocuous, it began as an anti-integration term, deployed by white parents trying to prevent school desegregation, says historian Matthew Delmont, whose book Why Busing Failed tracks battles over school integration from mid-century through the 1970s. The term first entered broad public use after white parents in Glendale-Ridgewood, Queens, objected to the prospect of students from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—a Black neighborhood—being bused to their schools in order to relieve overcrowding. “The white parents started saying they want to protect their ‘neighborhood schools’ and that they were opposed to ‘forced busing,’ ” says Delmont; the terms were “two sides of the same coin.” Neither term addressed the problem that civil rights activists had hoped Brown would address: the concentration of public education spending on white students at the expense of Black students, a practice driven as much by housing segregation—itself fueled by private practice and public policy—as by Jim Crow laws.

When Hattiesburg schools returned to a neighborhood assignment model, the demographics of each elementary shifted. Instead of approaching the racial composition of the district overall—about 15 percent white and 84 percent Black—each school now ref lected the race and class makeup of the public school students who remained nearby. Under the court-approved integration plan, every elementary had been around 10 to 20 percent white—just like the district overall. When neighborhood schools opened in 1999, more than three-quarters of the district’s white students were clustered in just two schools: Woodley and Thames. Indeed, in a district with 306 white elementary kids to spread across six schools, more than half of them, 173 students, attended Thames.

That was the year when Lindsey walked into her math class and saw, for the first time in her life as a student, mostly white faces. Her homeroom that year remained mostly Black, as did most homerooms at the school; the school was still only one-third white, after all. It was only Lindsey’s math class, an advanced one, that seemed so much whiter. But as time went on, Rosie says, the pattern was clear: “The white kids would end up in all the smart classes. There’d be Black kids there, too, but almost every white kid would [be in the advanced classes].”

Indeed, as school administrators at the time remember it, Thames was considered the best elementary—and was particularly prized by affluent white parents, wherever they lived. A former Thames principal and assistant principal tell me they remember a district practice in the 2000s called a “special visa,” granting students permission to attend schools outside of their neighborhood. The district administrator who managed attendance zones in that era remembered the “special visa,” too. These people remembered it as an informal policy—openly discussed but never codified as a written rule—that affluent white families living in the city’s historic district used in order to send their children to Thames. The superintendent and assistant superintendent at the time, who would have been privy to—and, ultimately accountable for—those visas, tell me they do not remember the practice in that way, or by that name.

At Thames, seeing white kids so heavily represented in advanced classes made a certain kind of sense to both Rosie and Lewis. So many of the town’s white professionals—doctors at the medical center and clinic, professors at the universities—lived near Thames. They had good jobs, which made it easier for them to take the time to be involved with their kids. No wonder so many white kids wound up in the advanced classes, they thought; no wonder all four of theirs did. It did not occur to them, as it would not occur to many parents, to wonder whether—maybe— their children had been given something they might not deserve.

Rosie and Lewis hadn’t known about Reach, Hattiesburg’s gifted and talented program, before their children started school. Although a 1989 state law required every district to provide classes for “gifted” youth in grades two through six, Hattiesburg had introduced a program in 1986, in the midst of consent decree battles to integrate the district. When the Beckers registered Lindsey for first grade—they’d paid for her to attend a Montessori kindergarten—the school had tested her abilities as a matter of course. They were happy with the assessment that came back: Lindsey was gifted.

As each of their children entered school, the Beckers hoped for the same designation for each of their children. For children who’d started kindergarten at Thames, getting into Reach required a referral. Anyone could suggest one: a parent, a teacher, a counselor, the child themself. The Beckers were so happy with Thames that they skipped Montessori for the rest of their children, sending them to kindergarten at the public school. Rosie tells me she did not make referrals for Lindsey’s brothers and sister—but she might have if the same news hadn’t come back about all three: Martin was gifted like Lindsey, and so was Isaac, and so was Maryann.

For the gifted and talented students at Thames, classes worked a little differently than for regular students. Lindsey remembers getting called out of class several times a week to work with a teacher who specialized in working with gifted and talented students. The lessons, according to program paperwork, were intended to boost creative thinking and “metacognition,” the ability to deconstruct one’s own thought processes.

By their very nature, gifted and talented programs divide students into those who deserve extra attention—the “gifted”—and those who do not: everyone else. (The concept of “gifted education” was popularized in 1916 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who advocated for eugenics—a pseudoscientific movement that believes differences in intelligence and other traits can be traced to race and nationality.) Few are found to deserve that attention—and the likelihood that a student will be found “gifted,” and gain access to additional educational resources, differs dramatically by race. In the 2000s, the share of all white students in gifted and talented programs was around 8 percent, while the share of all Black students did not exceed 4 percent. A 2016 study found that the odds of a white student being assigned to gifted and talented classes was triple that of Black students; other studies have documented similar trends.

In a district that was more than 80 percent Black, only one part of the schools was consistently whiter than the district as a whole: the gifted and talented programs. This was particularly true at Thames, which ran the district’s largest elementary gifted and talented program and, by 2002, taught two-thirds of the district’s white elementary students. At Thames, 41 percent of its white students were found to be gifted and talented, according to state records. That was more than five times the national average for whites and nearly triple the share of Black students designated gifted at the school. The district’s funneling of resources to white students in this way seems to have intensified in the upper grades. By the time Maryann, the youngest Becker child, started classes at the high school, more than 40 percent of white students there took AP classes—compared to fewer than 4 percent of Black students.

It is difficult to see how that lopsided support for white students could happen by accident. It is easier to see how the politics of desegregation kept district leaders from addressing it. As white flight intensified under the integration orders in the 1980s, the district doubled down on quality of education to keep whites from leaving the district: gifted and talented programs, a string orchestra, speech and debate, theater programs. “We tried to make our district’s curriculum the best in the area, so the only reason you would have to not go there would be maybe you didn’t like the demographics,” says Gordon Walker, the superintendent who oversaw the district during the years of court-ordered integration.

After speaking with Walker and other administrators, and reading news accounts, I got the sense that the district had made a certain kind of peace with the demands of white parents: If white parents insisted—subtly or otherwise—that their children were smarter than Black children, and if they insisted on access to specialized resources in order to stay, well, that was better than the district losing them. The district could still afford it then; stable real estate values, combined with a vibrant downtown commercial district, gave the schools sufficient tax revenue to pay for the extras.

In the end, it was of little use. White enrollment in Hattiesburg schools continued to drop. Those who stayed for the special programs benefited from them, alongside their Black classmates. But if they noticed, like Rosie did, that white students were more likely to be given that opportunity, they said little about it. Certainly, nobody was going to argue to have it taken away. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone to argue for offering high-quality education to everyone.

Excerpted from THE WHITE BONUS: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America by Tracie McMillan, published by Henry Holt & Company April 23, 2024. Copyright © 2024 by Tracie McMillan. All rights reserved.

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