Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gifted, Talented, and White

Is it any surprise that New York City's gifted and talented programs are overwhelmingly filled with White and Asian kids?  Of course they are.  Pick any district across the country, and gifted and talented kids will disproportionately come from homes with higher societal capital; they will have parents with more education, higher incomes, more stability, less health problems, less abuse, less crime on their block, etc.

While some students are clearly "gifted" in some areas, this is often going to be secondary to their development overall.  By the time a child has entered public school, her cognition, vocabulary, emotional skills, etc. will have been determined to a large extent by the environment in which she was raised.  A child who has been taught high levels of grit, determination, self-control, for instance, will be in a position to be much more successful in a learning environment.  These simple skills will give them a non-linear developmental advantage, as new opportunities for learning build on themselves in a productive loop.

I teach lower-level high school students, those who have not demonstrated an ability to be successful in higher-level science classes.  Many of them I would indeed consider very intelligent, possibly gifted.  However, due to any number of individual life and developmental issues, they would not be successful in a gifted program.  On the other hand, I could imagine a student's simple ability to remain focused and complete her work would find her in an excellent position to excel in a gifted environment of higher-level thinking, problem-solving and creative learning.

As we near the end of the semester, around half of my students are at serious risk of failure.  This is not due to their inability to comprehend the work, but rather their lack of academic focus and ability to complete relatively simple assignments.  Why is this?  Why can't they simply complete their work?

The answer to this question is key to understanding American socioeconomic and political philosophy.  In the article on gifted programs I linked to above, a professor of education was paraphrased thusly:
looking at the gifted landscape in New York City suggests that one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way the city selects children for those programs.
A co-worker of mine, my hunch a Republican who nonetheless understands the degree to which these students are severely academically dysfunctional, commented to me that these kids have a choice to make if they want to be successful in life: either get right and do well in school, or continue to slack off.  To the extend that they have a choice, he is right.

But how much choice do they really have?  To me, the professor of education got it nearly right: either poor and minority students are less likely to be truly gifted, or that we have a highly stratified socioeconomic system in which citizens' life success is determined by how much societal capital they have.  There is really no evidence for the former, and by all accounts truly "gifted" individuals are equally common across race and class lines, with socioeconomic effects on development largely crowding out genetic effects.

Yet there is overwhelming evidence of the effects of societal capital on human development.  Unfortunately, little of it seems to have had much impact on the assumptions of modern conservatism, which holds to the notion that the effects of class are marginal, and that ultimately every individual makes a choice.  This allows them the convenience of being able to ignore the effects of power relationships that inevitably become increasingly entrenched in capitalist societies, as capital is able to be leveraged in a non-linear way so as to rigidify class lines and limited mobility.

Unfortunately, too, the current progressive coalition has so watered itself down with neoliberal apologists for capitalism and the magic of markets, that it has lost sight of the very real and serious implications such a system has for the disempowered and de-capitalized individuals, in both the societal and financial sense.  The entire education reform movement, with its emphasis on market-oriented solutions to the achievement gap such as teacher accountability, high standards, curricular narrowing to core subjects, and charter schools, is predicated on deliberate, strategic ignorance of underlying dynamics of societal capital.  To do so is, according to the movement's gallingly hubristic proponents, simply "making excuses".  When a car is heading for a cliff, its brake lines cut, would the observation that pumping the brakes is not the real problem be considered to be "making excuses"?

We currently do not know how to rectify our socioeconomic dillema: how to promote equity of societal capital in a system in which the unequal distribution of societal capital is key to its being leveraged for individual social gain.  Gifted programs are perfect example of this reality.  As the article points out:
Ms. Lindner, the fifth-grade teacher, said she was “always surprised” when she saw more than two or three white children in her general education classes. 

As a parent herself, and a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she said, “there’s no way I’d put my kid in a general-education class here, no way, because it’s right next to the project and all the kids in general education come from the projects.”

She said her experience was that many of the children in her general education classes were at grade level or below and did not get the same support from their parents that the children in the gifted classes got. “They’re tougher kids,” she said of the general education students in the school. “They’re very street-savvy. They don’t have the background; their parents are hard on them but don’t know what to do with them.”
This is the inconvenient truth of education in America.  Socioeconomic effects, societal capital leveraging are real and fundamental to how we live our lives, and it isn't pretty.  People don't strive to move into the projects, they strive to move out of them.  We want the best for our children.  We want them to have every advantage in the world.  How could we do any less?  And in a system of competitive leveraging, this is going to create barriers to entry, and entrench power hegemony. 

Just because we may not know how to address such deeply tragic and predestined systemic inequities from a policy standpoint, we cannot pretend that they do not exist, or that they are only of marginal import.  Rather, we must face the brutal truth that they are the locus of modern inequality.  Only then will we be in a position to seriously take on the notion that unless every citizen receives at least somewhat equal access to societal capital, he or she will not be truly free.

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