In a little-noticed speech published by the US Department of Justice and given in September 2010, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas E Perez, referred to data on the representation of black learners within gifted populations.
He stated that, while blacks comprise 17% of the student population, only 4% of students enrolled in gifted classes are black.
This astonishing statistic means that, for black learners to be proportionately represented in US gifted populations, more than four times as many learners would need to be included than are at present.
The source of this data is not clear from the speech, but it paints a significantly worse picture than earlier statistics.
For example, the Office for Civil Rights publishes its own data collection which includes national projections for gifted and talented populations broken down by ethnic background. There is data for 2006, 2004 and 2000.
The 2006 data suggests that some 9.15% of gifted learners are black, a slight improvement on 2004, when the projection was 8.99% and on 2000 when it was 8.23%.
These figures are comparable with those in the Digest of Education Statistics , presumably because they are drawn from the same source.
Since Perez does not say how he came by his data, we cannot know whether it is comparable with the statistics referenced above. But, if it is comparable, that would suggest a major reversal in the slow but steady progress that hitherto was being made in the US towards broadly representative gifted populations.
Even if his data is not comparable, the relatively better OCR/DES figures continue to give cause for concern. Although they are now four years old, they would suggest that, assuming continuation of the slow rate of improvement between 2000 and 2006, black learners will still be heavily under-represented.
Indeed, it is likely that identification of black gifted learners would need almost to double before they were represented in proportion to their incidence in the overall student population.
In England we have a similar problem, although not so pronounced. Our most recent data, which I reviewed in this post, shows that, in the primary sector, the proportion of the gifted population from black Caribbean and black African backgrounds respectively is not widely out of kilter with the proportion from white backgrounds.
But the secondary sector performs less well and, in effect, needs to recruit around 50% more black Caribbean and black African students to secure an equitable position.
Much has been written about why this is the case. One would expect by far the most significant factor to be the prior attainment of black learners relative to white learners. Current data on attainment disparities in UK schools is contained in the new Equality and Human Rights Commission report. This shows that, in terms of post-16 performance, such gaps are narrowing, with black african performance comparable with white performance, though black Caribbean performance is still some 12 percentage points behind the average.
It is a source of some concern then, that black students in our secondary schools are not yet more equally represented in G&T populations. As in the US, the data continues to show improvement, but the rate of improvement is too slow. And we need to look more seriously at other possible reasons for the disparity, some of them relatively unpalatable to contemplate.
I cannot prove it, but I would surmise that gifted populations in the US are more likely to be influenced by attainment outcomes because attainment is typically a more significant identification criterion than in England, where we encourage a ‘best fit’ approach that incorporates a wider range of quantitative and qualitative evidence.
Moreover, we in England are advised to ensure that our schools’ G&T populations are broadly representative of our wider intake, since we work from the assumption that ability is evenly distributed across all ethnic backgrounds. The tradition in the US is much different and publications like ‘The Bell Curve’ have ensured that the issues remains highly charged.
But the bottom line is that we in England can ill afford to be complacent, since the evidence suggests that our secondary schools have much still to learn about effective identification, high expectations, overcoming stereotypes – and so on.
That said, if the situation in the US is as dire as Perez says it is, all kinds of alarm bells should be ringing in the US gifted education community right now!