A need for pigeonholes

Thomas J. Mertz highlighted some inherent problems with the “Cluster Grouping” scheme envisioned in MMSD’s Talented and Gifted Plan. Given the swift policy creation the board is starting to enact, it is useful to highlight some of the potential downsides to ability grouping.

A dichotomous and discouraging set of statistics, one with the focus both on TAG education and the special education, should give one pause to think further about the school board’s current rush to implementation of the TAG plan without establishing the terms for an evaluation.

The Education for Change site has highlighted the under-representation of children of color in gifted education classes and programs.

* In 1997, African-Americans made up 17.2% of the total student population, but only 8.40% of those assigned to gifted and talented classes or programs.
* Latina/o students comprised 15.6% of the student population, but 8.6% of the students designated for gifted and talented classes or programs.
* King, Kozleski and Landsdowne (2009) reported that in California in 2007, 7.2% of the students enrolled in public education were African-American, yet only 4.13% of those enrolled in gifted and talented educational program were African-American.

The National Research Council Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education reported that Asian/Pacific Islanders are 1/3 more likely than white students to be in gifted programs, while African-American and Latina/o students are less than half as likely to be enrolled in gifted and talented educational classes and programs as Caucasian students.

It is not much of stretch to conclude that many of the problems with the assignment of students to gifted education programs are due in large part to the lack of agreement and an overall subjectivity around defining what giftedness actually means. Therefore, the potential for discrimination here is more evident and explicit.

At the same time, when we look at these same sort of comparisons for assessment evaluations of children in special education, we find some similar and disturbing numbers. Consider the disproportionate number of students of color classified as special needs students. The Twenty-Second Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2000) documents the extent and seriousness of the problem:

* African-American youth, ages 6 through 21, account for 14.8 percent of the general population. Yet, they account for 20.2 percent of the special education population.
* In 10 of the 13 disability categories, the percentage of African-American students equals or exceeds the resident population percentage.
* The representation of African-American students in the mental retardation and developmental delay categories is more than twice their national population estimates.

The same National Research Council panel cited above has also noted that in 1998, African-American students were 59% more likely to be identified as emotionally disturbed than Caucasian students. According to a NAACP study, “contrary to the expectations, is the finding that the risk for being labeled ‘mentally retarded’ increases for blacks attending schools in districts serving mostly middle-class or wealthy white students” (p. 18). In fact, as Losen and Orfield (2002) have noted, African-American children, and especially males, are at increased risk for mental retardation and emotional disturbance identification as the white population of a district increases.

These numbers tell us caution and careful study is the wisest course of action whenever we embark on an effort to pigeonhole children. It always done with the best of intentions (mostly), but a rush to implementing a program so rife with labeling is indeed a worrying one.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under AMPS, Best Practices, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, No Child Left Behind

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