New research

Study finds racial discrimination in school gifted programs

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students in Memphis attend a camp for CLUE, Shelby County's gifted program.

Black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers and especially if their teacher is white, according to a new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University.

And at least partly to blame may be a teaching force that is mainly white, and the level of subjectivity that still goes into decisions about which students make the cut in gifted programs, the researchers say.

“It is startling that two elementary school students, one black and the other white with identical math and reading achievement, will have substantially different probabilities of assignment to gifted services,” said Jason Grissom, the lead author.

The study was based on data from more than 10,000 elementary school students across the nation.

The data showed that black students were 66 percent less likely and Hispanic students were 47 percent less likely than white students to be assigned to gifted programs.

While the white-Hispanic assignment gap could be attributed entirely to a difference in achievement test scores, black students were assigned to gifted programs half as often as white peers with identical test scores. But researchers found that black students with black teachers were three times more likely to be granted access to gifted programs.

Grissom said the findings don’t suggest white teachers tend to be racist. Other factors may come into play.

“Maybe students respond differently to teachers with backgrounds similar to their own,” he said, or maybe a parent is more likely to approach a teacher about opportunities in a gifted program if the teacher is the same race.

“The implication of all three of those is that you’re relying on discretion to start the process,” he said. “One implication of this study is that we need to reduce the amount of discretion.”

The Catch-22 is that other studies show that achievement tests don’t always do a good job of identifying gifted students of color.

“It’s an interesting problem,” Grissom said. “You have to be really thoughtful. One kind of policy change can create opportunities for disproportionalities to slip in somewhere else.”

The study’s findings could assist districts that are seeking to make their gifted programs more fair and inclusive.

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, for instance, the district nearly doubled the percentage of newly identified gifted black students during the last year, from 12 percent last spring to 22 percent this year.

Schunn Turner, director of the district’s gifted program known as Encore, attributes the increase to  increased efforts to make parents aware of the opportunity — but there’s more work to be done.

“MNPS must still improve the overall representation of these groups in our  total enrollment numbers,” Turner said in an email, bolding the text for emphasis.

In Memphis, district leaders have tried to identify gifted students of color and in poverty as early as pre-kindergarten for inclusion in its program called Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, or CLUE.

When the district first started the program during the 1970s, leader Jo Patterson noticed that students with less resources at home were being left out, no matter how smart they were. So leaders began identifying younger students for enrichment programs such as trips to museums and other cultural activities in an effort to correct the disparity, a practice that continues today.

CLUE director Tommie Yelvington said she tries to ensure that students at all schools have access to gifted programs, and has upped the level of outreach to needier neighborhoods. Shelby County Schools also screens all of its students for gifted programs in the third grade, which Grissom said could help circumvent the problems of biases that arise when individual discretion plays too big a role.

“One of the most important things we do is to provide opportunities for all of our children,” Yelvington said.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.