Enhancing Professional Learning Strategies to Increase Students from Diverse Cultural Groups Participation in Gifted Programs

Ken Dickson

The year 2017 for me professionally, was quite fulfilling emotionally. It was more emotionally fulfilling than any year I have experienced during my four decades of involvement in the field of gifted education.

Two outstanding awards from my professional colleagues and peers fueled my fulfillment! Prior to last year’s NAGC Conference, I received two surprising communications from respected and admired NAGC leaders. Both shared that I had been selected to receive conference honors! One honor was the President’s Award presented by NAGC President, Dr. Sally Krisel. The other honor was the Special Populations Network (SPN) The Dr. Alexinia Baldwin Gifted AND... Award.  SPN Chairperson, Dr. Michelle Frazier Trotman Scott along with various membership of SPN made the presentation. Both honors are indeed, particularly humbling.

Why were these honors so fulfilling?  I, with an attempt at humor, have noted that such honors are sometimes awarded to persons who are well along in age. Well – I meet that criteria quite well. Additionally, I have noted that some honorees’ health seems to be significantly questionable – almost to the point that their last days are close at hand. While I am indeed well along in age, my doctors did not advise me that my last days were close at hand! Receiving these awards while I am reasonably healthy was one reason that made these awards so fulfilling!

However, there are many other reasons why these awards were so meaningful. Chief among the reasons involves my four decades of investigating gifted program equity issues. Overcoming the underrepresentation of students traditionally excluded from gifted programs has been my focus. They re-confirmed and re-affirmed my many of years of investigating ways to desegregate gifted education. They also solidified my determination to continue to push forward to maximize the academic advancement of students who are non-White, students who are linguistically different, students from different social and economic classes, and students who are disabled and with gifts and talents. In terms of underrepresentation, I support this definition:

Underrepresentation occurs when a student population in a gifted program continuously and systematically remains smaller than the percentage of that population in the school system, a school, grade level; or within a given gifted category of giftedness. Such continued population variances are rarely justifiable and are always a cause for concern and corrective action.

Note: Underserved or disproportionate representation are alternate terms used for underrepresentation. Related terms: Exclusionary programming; Segregation in gifted programs; Elitist programming.

Selected Characteristics of Underrepresentation

Students traditionally underrepresented in gifted programs include: non-White (except Asian) students; students who are linguistically different; students different by social class and economics; and students who are disabled and also with gifts and talents. Before proceeding, I offer a point of clarity that significantly relates to the content of this information. You may have noticed the word White capitalized above. Since Asian, Hispanic and other names of racial groups are capitalized, I prefer to capitalize White. I will also capitalize Black out of respect for both races. I prefer to do so since the context of this information is focused on race. Additionally, in the context of this information, when I refer to non-White groups, I prefer to not refer to them as minorities. This preference is intended to deemphasize long held negative connotations invoked by the word minority in the context of racial conversations – small; less than; subordinate. Non-White groups, particularly in the U.S., have traditionally been cast in negative terms such as minority, marginalized, or fringe groups, for far too long. Such relegating terms are disrespectful, harmful, and contribute to negative attitudes and actions regarding groups who are not part of the majority group.

Desegregation, Equity Challenges and Gifted Education

Desegregation challenges and negative attitudes have relentlessly plagued gifted education for at least four decades. From my perspective, such challenges and negative attitudes are unfortunate reflections of the worst parts of America.

These challenges are abundant and complex. Historically, and now in present times, we have seen a lack of inclusion of those students discussed above in gifted programs. (Herein, I will refer to these diverse groups as diverse cultural groups.) Regretfully, the complexities are generally associated with those who hold negative attitudes and low expectations for and about students from these diverse cultural groups. Various factors are involved and are inextricably connected regarding the challenges. I will focus on three:

  1. The realities and experiences of students from diverse cultural groups are a mismatch with ways typical schools are structured, including their processes used to identify students.
  2. Tests and other objective and subjective measurements used to identify giftedness are not designed or modified to account for diverse cultural groups’ life experiences. Gifted program identification processes have often been controversial (Naglieri & Ford, 2003, 2005). Additionally, there are many classical definitions of giftedness and identification processes tied to those definitions. They immediately exclude the giftedness or gifted potential in diverse cultural groups.
  3. Students from diverse cultural groups are often overlooked, invisible and misunderstood. This factor is associated with racial bias, prejudice, bigotry and apathy and bias in many tests – particularly IQ tests (Ford, 1998).

A major reflection of such challenges and negative attitudes can be easily found in some, if not many of America’s schools – particularly in schools that are diverse, but majority White. This is common in some major urban centers. While schools may be majority White, their compositions can include many diverse racial groups. Purposeful “atypical structures and structuring” is necessary to support ideal school-wide desegregation – specifically for gifted programs. “Structures” include internal and external formations (e.g., people; services; schedules; practices; attitudes) and are arranged, organized, recognized to create, support, and maintain teaching and learning environments that reflect a standard. These structures represent a pattern of attitudes that are considered normal school operations.

Seemingly, discrimination challenges have existed in American society, including its schools, as long as there have been people representing diverse groups and integration laws. Regretfully, schools’ gifted programs in majority White schools, as microcosms of society, are among the places where discrimination seems to be most evident. During my 30+ years as an administrator of gifted programs, I have visited hundreds upon hundreds of classrooms designated gifted or advanced. Overwhelming discrimination—an absence of children of color and children who represent various linguistic, class, economic and disability groups—was always vividly evident. My perspective is that there are few places in society where discrimination is greater than in a gifted program in a diverse, majority White school.

Overcoming equity disparities are often challenging. Ideally, to obtain maximum results, equity policy specifically focused on exceptional needs programs, particularly gifted programs, must be established and enforced. Equity policy must be fully supported and enforced at every administrative level, including Boards of Education. Too often such levels of support and enforcement do not occur. Why?  The political will in school systems to not support and enforce equity is abundant and complex. This is largely dependent on the community, as schools reflect the will and attitudes of their communities they serve. Many gifted programs have historical traditions in many communities. The programs are deemed comfortable elite private school environments in public school institutions. Therefore, the political will among school administrators and Board members to defy the public is often non-existent.

Being a part of numerous administrative structures, I am keenly aware of such school and community relationship realities. These regretful equity realities drive practices in many schools, even after written cautions to the schools regarding disproportionate representation were communicated. To assist schools, I would offer supports in the form of professional learning opportunities to address the disproportionality in their programs. But since site-based management would be in effect, and in the absence of a gifted program equity policy, schools were not required to participate. Therefore segregation, discrimination, and disproportionate programming would remain. Such challenges were indeed replete with racial bias, prejudice, bigotry, and apathy regarding students from diverse cultural and linguistic communities.

Strategies, Options and Research Designed to Overcome Gifted Programs Underrepresentation Challenges

Over the years, a variety of strategies and commendable options that research has produced are accessible to help overcome underrepresentation challenges in gifted programs. Many research strategies and options have focused on:

  • Meeting minimal equity targets to increase culturally diverse students’ participation. This strategy has met with federal court approval and is the first federal consideration that gifted education has been afforded outside of Javits funding;
  • Using group specific local re-norming and related disaggregation processes;
  • Implementing schoolwide enrichment processes;
  • Universal screening at grade 2;
  • Using tests differently in efforts to balance both equity and excellence;
  • Assessing learners thinking and reasoning abilities, instead of what learners have learned in school. These are testing strategies designed to evaluate learners’ cognitive abilities. They include nonverbal tests designed to factor out cultural background influences; and
  • An array of modifications and school/home-made variations that are based on research, that pose as research-based practices. Some of these variations are so modified (watered down) to satisfy local attitudes, that it is almost impossible to associate them with any viable research.

These strategies, options and variations of them have been a part of research and cogent discussions in gifted education for a very long time. Some of them are state of the art identification methods that promote equity of access for all students. They are, from time-to-time, updated to keep in step with the changing school landscape. Some of them have been the result of societal laws regarding protections and rights for diverse cultural groups. These results shaped attitudes, theories and research outcomes associated with schools’ practices. In turn, these results, combined with the passing of time, have affected attitudes and mores in the general society.

Addressing Obstacles and Challenges that Undermine Underrepresentation

Stakeholders committed to overcoming underrepresentation have implemented underrepresentation strategies and options to meet program equity goals, with varying degrees of success. For each option or its variation, it seems that there are equal and opposite negative obstacles and challenges that emerge to delay, reduce, or eliminate initiatives to address underrepresentation. These obstacles range from:

  • Personnel changes or losses who were the driving force behind initiatives to overcome underrepresentation. It is important to make sure that underrepresentation initiatives are not person dependent, but system dependent;
  • Loss of local resources to fund underrepresentation initiatives. Such initiatives must never be implemented on soft monies;
  • Changes in attitudes at the system or school levels regarding equity that redirects support and funding. This is very probable with changes of administration, student population or influential parents;
  • A once independent underrepresentation initiative becoming attached, combined or comingled with other initiatives that have nothing to do with equity. This is one of the quickest ways to kill an equity initiative;
  • Local, state or national policies that hinder, reduce, or eliminate local initiatives that address overcoming underrepresentation.

These obstacles and challenges are regretful. Some are results of norms that characterize large urban school systems. Others however, are obstacles instigated by those who oppose equity. They are creatively and surreptitiously calculated to guarantee students from diverse cultures do not achieve.

Given these kinds of obstacles and challenges, backup plans developed by committed equity warriors (personnel/stakeholders committed to equity) are strongly recommended and required if equity is to be achieved. A viable, realistic and pragmatic backup plan can help equity warriors overcome underrepresentation. Additional help and support is required at various administrative levels – often easier said than done. Sometimes equity warriors have to go over, under, around, or through obstacles to achieve their equity goals. Now and again this is at great personal risk. Providing for students from diverse cultural backgrounds can be occupationally hazardous. Some school systems, like some parts of America, are just not ready to maximize opportunities, access, and support for its youth or adults from diverse cultures to achieve. In that regard, overcoming obstacles to underrepresentation by any means necessary has been, and continues to be required.

Underrepresentation Disparities and Data

Underrepresentation disparities are incredibly pervasive and persistent. Underrepresentation is evidenced in small, average, and large school systems, particularly in large diverse urban school systems. Underrepresentation has been well documented in various research outcomes Here are two sets of data to illustrate the disparities:

Data Set 1 - Ford, Richert; U.S. Department of Education, 2008, et. al.

Underrepresentation ranges from 50-70% in diverse school districts

  • Black males - underrepresented by 153,000.
  • Black females by 101,000; i.e. at least 250,000
  • Hispanic males/females by at least 42% respectively
  • Total culturally diverse students not identified.

Data Set 2 - U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March 2014

  • Black and Latino students represent 42% of student enrollment in schools offering gifted programs, yet only 28% of them are identified and served in the programs.
  • White students comprise 49% of all students in schools offering gifted programs and 57% of students in the programs.
  • While English learners are 11% of students in schools offering gifted programs, fewer than 3% of them are served in gifted programs.
  • Similarly, students with disabilities (inclusive of students who are twice-exceptional, yet not identified for gifted services) served by IDEA are 12% of all students in schools offering gifted programs but represent fewer than 3% of gifted students nationwide.
  • White and Asian-American students make up 70 % of students enrolled in gifted and talented education programs, compared to 55% of White and Asian-American enrollment in schools offering gifted and talented programs.
  • While 7% of students without disabilities are participating in gifted and talented education programs, only 1% of students with disabilities served under IDEA do so. (Note: In 2011-12, 7% of children ages 3-21 serve under the IDEA were classified as having intellectual, as opposed to learning, disabilities that might preclude gifted education participation). Similarly, the percentage of non-English learners participating in gifted education programs are three and a half times greater than the percentage of English learners participating in these programs.

Actions/Solutions to Increase Participation of Students from Diverse Cultural Groups in Gifted Programs

It is critical that gifted education stakeholders have access to effective professional learning opportunities focused on students with high needs, including students from diverse cultural communities. Traditionally structured general programs that encompass traditional gifted programs are likely to underrepresent students from diverse cultures. Effective professional learning opportunities focused on diverse cultures will better enable stakeholders to identify and serve high ability students from low-income families and other underserved groups. Such opportunities will also assist school systems to meet “requirements associated with the Every Student Succeeds Act and their use of Title I funds that may be used to identify and serve gifted students from low-income families and other under-served populations.

Additionally, there is Priority 5 of the Final Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs which emphasizes the need for programs that develop “opportunities for students who are gifted and talented (as defined in section 8101(27) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended), particularly students with high needs (as defined in this notice) who may not be served by traditional gifted and talented programs, so that they can reach their full potential, such as by providing a greater number of gifted and talented students with access to challenging coursework or other materials.”

Courageous Conversations: A Professional Learning Strategy Focused on Increasing Participation of Students from Diverse Cultural Communities in Gifted Programs is an action strategy that I have designed to help gifted education stakeholders who are responsible for professional learning and those who engage in gifted education professional learning. Based upon “Courageous Conversations About Race,” by Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis J. Linton, I have adapted selected concepts of it for gifted education. When facilitating this professional learning strategy, I focus on gifted education and its response to race as related to identification practices. Further, I introduce seven racial competencies that participants can embrace and apply in their practice. Racial competence is key in transforming gifted programs’ troubling identification issues: The competencies include:

  • guiltless, victimless, transparent, open, genuine discussion methods.
  • discussing race with and among diverse audiences.
  • recognizing self, peer and student racial perspectives.
  • the relationships between racial perspectives and how they react with each other.
  • examining elements in school and the greater society that help and harm racial harmony.
  • examining power and privilege and how it operates to expand or reduce understandings regarding race and racism.

The competencies help gifted educators engage in effective dialogue intended to transform their thinking, attitudes, and actions to increase the presence of students from diverse cultural groups in gifted programs by integrating gifted education and multicultural gifted education concepts. This strategy is effective because it can be customized to meet the needs of the school system, supporting gifted educators who are passionate about and committed to overcoming underrepresentation of students from diverse cultural groups.


The information in this article has been presented to raise awareness of and increase support for equity-based identification processes, as well as equity-based philosophies in general. Students from diverse cultural groups require such equity-based philosophies. Why?  These students’ daily existence is exposed to realities that have dramatic and significant negative impacts on their academic success.

These realities include systemic racism and discrimination on a daily basis – in and out of school; low family income; exposure to neighborhood violence; and unusual levels and degrees of loss of resources which are already scarce. Further, many of these students face varying levels of family disruption, ranging from instability of family members (e.g., long-term incarceration of a primary caregiver; unusual levels of and foster care system connections; homelessness) to threats of deportation.

These students are apt to encounter situations that cause disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions. They are also apt to having to engage in situations and circumstances that are out of their control.  These situations and circumstances can be frequent and can cause high rates of absences that lead to poor grades that lead to underachievement that lead to exclusion form gifted programs.            

The realities further include family members who are controlled by the justice system, homeless shelter existences; and/or the absence of basic necessities, such as a next meal, or where the student will sleep

Added to this, students from diverse cultural groups have to endure culturally irrelevant assessments on which their gifted potential is determined. Therefore, every resource must be directly focused on these realities. These resources must include a framework that comprises multiple access points, opportunities, and support structures across a school-wide spectrum, supported by ongoing systematic multicultural professional development policies. A reduction in underrepresentation has the best chance for success when such frameworks are supported with integrity.

It would be ideal that underrepresentation would transcend all levels of racism, bigotry, and prejudice and be completely eliminated by equity-based philosophies. Such an ideal is illusive as prejudice, fear of differences, and racial hatred are realities that are deeply ingrained in our society. We must find ways to overcome them. Until we do, these realities will continue to contribute to educators’ failures to identify students from diverse cultural groups for gifted services, in proportion to their enrollment.

Ken Dickson, a consultant, was named the 2017 NAGC President's Award and Special Populations Network Gifted AND... award winner.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.