On a recent, chilly Sunday morning, children ranging in age from 4 to 6 waited with their parents in the cafeteria of a Brooklyn school. Each wore a name tag.
The kids chatted cheerfully (in several languages) until each was summoned upstairs to be tested for a spot in New York City's gifted program. Their parents sent them off with hugs and the promise of special treats for doing their best.
When a student is identified as "gifted," the label is a vote of confidence — as in the indelible Nina Simone song. It also comes with a prize package: extra services, accelerated classes, individualized learning plans. The availability of these services varies widely from district to district. The chances of being identified as gifted also varies — notably, by race.
A new, national study finds that black students are about half as likely as white students to be put on a "gifted" track — even when they have comparable test scores.
Previous surveys have found a similar gap, but the researchers here — Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding at Vanderbilt University — looked only at students attending schools with gifted programs. So the disparity can't be accounted for by, say, the fact that black students are more likely to attend under-resourced schools.
Only one factor erased this disparity between students: the race of their teachers.
Nonblack teachers identify black students as gifted in reading 2.1 percent of the time. Black teachers are three times more likely to identify black students as gifted in reading: 6.2 percent of the time. That's the same rate as for white students, no matter the race of their teacher.
Grissom, a political economist by trade, tells NPR that this disparity in the identification of gifted students may be an unintended consequence of efforts to overhaul gifted programs. Because of racial gaps in standardized test scores, many districts have moved away from using tests alone to identify gifted students. Instead they rely more on the opinions of teachers.
"That opens a big potential door as a driver for disparity," Grissom says. "We moved to a system of a more holistic review, but the consequence of that has created more opportunities for discretion."
Jose Luis Vilson is a middle school math teacher and author of the book "This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education." Vilson, who is African-American and Hispanic, says "five or six times a year" he recommends a student of color for advanced classes or a competitive high school only to find himself having to convince his fellow teachers of the student's aptitude.
"It's generally been my role to see past the cultural differences in the ways that students demonstrate their knowledge." Vilson says that, in his experience, some teachers may associate giftedness with a certain type of vocabulary, a "docile" attitude, even a certain style of penmanship.
The bias is often there "on the part of the student," too, Vilson says. "They don't believe in themselves. They don't see themselves as capable because they have a set of behaviors that don't align with the gifted norm."
Other research suggests that black students are more likely to face disciplinary actions in school. Is it possible that, with two equally curious, verbal, energetic young children, a black student is more likely to be labelled a troublemaker by a white teacher, while a white student is more likely to be labelled gifted?
Perhaps, says Grissom. Or maybe there are other factors of cultural competence, as Vilson suggests, that make a black teacher better able to identify giftedness in black students. Perhaps black students gain more confidence and are better able to learn from black teachers. Or maybe black parents are more comfortable advocating for their children with black teachers.
"We can't tell from this study what specific mechanism is underlying this," he says. "So the next step is to try to dig further to see if we can nail it down a little bit."