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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.