The Washington Post’s Wonkblog recently reported on an education experiment in Ft. Lauderdale that holds so many lessons—not just about inequality, but about institutional and unintentional racism, the waste of human capital, and the difficulty of seeing things that lie outside our comfortable worldviews.
In 2003, Cynthia Park asked her staff to make a map showing where every gifted student lived in Broward County, Fla.
The result was an atlas of inequality.
“All of them were scattered in the suburbs and in the wealthier communities, where parents were more involved in education,” recalls Park, who oversaw the county’s gifted students program. “The map was virtually void in other areas.”
The map convinced Park that the district needed to work harder to identify gifted children from impoverished areas, and in 2005, it began giving a short test to all students in the second grade. Children who scored well on the test were then evaluated to determine whether they should be enrolled in the system’s gifted program.
The result? The district identified an additional 300 gifted children between 2005 and 2006—and the impact on racial equity was huge: 80 percent more black students and 130 percent more Hispanic students were now entering gifted programs in third grade.
Prior to this change in the method for identifying precocious children, the school district had relied upon referrals by teachers—a system used by many, if not most, school districts around the country. (Not, I am pleased to report, in IPS, which uses a system similar to the one in Ft. Lauderdale.) And therein lies the problem. As the Wonkblog notes
Critics say gifted programs amplify inequality because they disproportionately recruit children from high-income families — another example of how opportunity accrues to those already blessed with opportunity.
This is a perfect example of how systemic bias operates.
People who dismiss the notion of structural racism or advantage do so because they see bias as intentional, and success or failure solely as a measure of individual effort and/or merit. They look around and no one is burning a cross on that black family’s lawn, or otherwise displaying hurtful antisocial behavior, so they draw the (not-unreasonable albeit inaccurate) conclusion that bias is absent.
The Ft. Lauderdale teachers who failed to identify precocious poor children weren’t bigots—they wouldn’t have been in those classrooms, working with poor children, if they were. But like most of us, they’d been socialized to connect intellectual capacity with certain markers of behavior—markers that children from disadvantaged families are less likely to exhibit.
A similar phenomenon occurs when businesses have job openings. Positions tend to be filled via “networking.” The word gets out to people already in those networks, who mention the opportunity to their friends, and to people with whom they feel comfortable. People who look and sound and act like them. It isn’t intentionally nefarious—it’s human. It’s the way the world works.
But in the aggregate, these otherwise innocent social networks operate to keep advantage where it is, and to exclude access to those whose talents and abilities are less recognized, because they are expressed differently. These are the “old boy’s networks” that continue to constrain women’s progress, the continuing friendships of alumni from elite schools disproportionately populated by the offspring of wealthy families, and the many other “communities of interest”—professional or social—where, as the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.”
America cannot afford to lose the contributions of talented citizens simply because that talent comes in unfamiliar forms. We need to break through the barriers that keep us from seeing each other accurately. The Ft. Lauderdale approach is one small step in that direction.