Why you should care
Because “gifted” can be a loaded word.
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Any parent would feel a surge of pride when their child is referred to gifted education — and, understandably, concern over a referral to special education. But when it comes to a teacher’s referral of a student to educational programs, it’s not just learning abilities that play a role in the decision process. Recent research has found that
Race can affect who is referred to gifted programs — and to special education.
Rachel Fish, an assistant professor of special education at NYU, assigned 70 third-grade teachers to read case studies of fictional male elementary school students and make recommendations. In each case study, certain characteristics of the student were altered, including race and ethnicity (conveyed by his name, such as “Carlos,” to indicate a Latino student), and whether he was learning English. Also altered: factors hinting at his suitability as a candidate for gifted or special education — academic challenges, meant to suggest a learning disability; behavioral challenges, suggesting an emotional disorder; or academic strengths coupled with emotional sensitivity, a possible sign of giftedness. Teachers rated how likely they were to refer each student for gifted and special education testing. The finding?
It turns out white boys were more likely referred to special education when they showed academic challenges and Black and Latino boys were more likely referred when they showed behavioral challenges. Teachers were also more likely to refer white boys with high academic performance and emotional sensitivity to gifted education than their Black and Latino counterparts.
These disparities might stem from differences in expectations based on race. Teachers might view white students who struggle with academics as performing below their true abilities, but expect poor academic performance from others. And Black or Latino boys might be flagged for special education testing because behavioral challenges in students of color might be seen as more problematic and aggressive. When emotionally sensitive white boys with high academic performance are more likely referred for gifted testing, this suggests that teachers might have lower expectations for giftedness in students of color.
To be sure, the reasons why a teacher might refer one student over another “is very speculative,” Fish says. It’s possible the teachers used race to gauge whether the student’s school even has the capacity to enroll him in special education, points out George Farkas, a professor at the School of Education at University of California, Irvine. Schools that serve high numbers of students of color typically also have low performance, which might also mean that they have more students who need special education services — more than they can accept. A teacher at a poor school who reads about a Black student with academic challenges might think he “doesn’t look bad enough” to warrant a referral to a most likely oversubscribed special education program, Farkas notes. But earlier research has shown that teachers do perceive students’ academic abilities and behavior differently depending on students’ race — although that doesn’t necessarily mean teachers are more prone to racism. The study simply captures the bias that exists throughout society, she says.
This bias could also influence day-to-day decisions beyond referrals for education testing — like whether to send students to detention or encourage them to pursue college. Which could, in turn, “have a long-term effect on how the student sees themselves as able to achieve at a higher level and what curriculum is exposed to them,” Fish says. Yet research reveals that teachers often “see themselves as color-blind”; they want all their students treated equally.
The good news is, there’s evidence that training and awareness can help. “We need to work together with other teachers to push each other and think through these perceptions and get to know their students’ families and communities better,” Fish says. “We need to help teachers investigate their own biases.”