Perpetuating Inequality

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.


  1. My experience as a parent leads me to believe that lack of low income participants in gifted and talented has less to do with bias and more to do with laziness and cowardice. Affluent parents threaten to remove their child if not part of a g&t program from first grade, so admin succumbs to pre-mature assessment of g&t. My view was that half of the students in the program were only voracious readers, but not otherwise gifted.

  2. Might I add to this idea of structural racism and advantage the ingrained attitude of so many in the wealthy class about having “earned” their wealth by themselves. This notion of lifting oneself up by your own boot straps, of having done it all yourself, is rife throughout our culture. Those who hold this view about their “success” are legion, and they perpetuate this view through the power of the positions they hold in society. You never hear about their inherited money, inherited family business, inherited stock, inherited land, nor the family trust fund. They do, however, brag about being a “legacy” to some exclusive university as if they had “earned” that as well. I call them the “spoiled sons of rich white men”. Today one might call them “Trumps”.

  3. I found the local gifted and talented programs in my rural area schools to be quite biased toward the students with parents that the school admins determine to have enough financial means to become donors to those programs. These programs became a joke around here decades ago. The students and parents that are chosen feel some sort of self-elitism that no one else appreciates at all.

    The same thing happens in sports programs here. When my son played football his team lost every game for 3 straight years. The talented players became depressed and beaten down. They kept dropping off the team, yet no changes were made. My son finally quit after his junior year. The coaches begged him to stay, but he held his ground and said NO MORE.. He was so skilled that they had him playing both defense and offense, but not in the offensive position that he was best at and truly needed in by the team. That position was chosen by and given to one of the unskilled players who had parents with money. What was the overall problem for the team? The coach placed 3 extremely untalented students in key positions that caused the entire team to play horribly. Those students received and kept the positions that “they” chose simply because their parents would donate large sums of money to the program. It was a disgrace. Parents with enough money can buy their loser children whatever they want and the school administrators perpetuate this problem.

  4. Nancy: Sounds like the coach was doing what coaches are praised for: giving every kid a shot, not leaving some on the bench, that the important thing was playing, not necessarily playing to win, a concept not endorsed by some parent-quarterbacks.

  5. Nancy: Sounds like the coach was doing what coaches are praised for: giving every kid a shot, not leaving some on the bench, that the important thing was playing, not necessarily playing to win, a concept not endorsed by some parent-quarterbacks.

  6. OMG – that wasn’t the case at all. It really was all about money. Those kids got to choose and keep their positions because their parents donated a lot of money to sports. There were several students that didn’t get to play. However, as the good ones kept leaving the program the ones left on the team had to play the entire time. There were no subs left.

    It had absolutely nothing to do with making sure every student got their turn to play.

  7. Theresa; Ken Glass seems to be a good example of what/who your comments refer to. He appears to have no comprehension of low income – or even middle income – lack of funds to send gifted children to the appropriate classes, nor do they have the transportation to get them there. There are also those students of all races, religions and nationalities who NEED special education but cannot afford it nor can they transport them to these locations if they can find them.

    In the 1970’s my oldest son, super intelligent and needing accelerated classes, was a victim of too few available sources and a family whose income could not afford the few expensive alternatives to IPS. At age 19, he tested to join the Navy; I got a call from a Naval officer telling me my son had scored the 3rd highest test score EVER to come out of the state of Indiana and had qualified for nuclear power training.

    At the same time I was seeking education for my 2nd son who had been diagnosed by the Indianapolis Child Guidance Clinic and Indiana University Medical Center as being dyslexic. There were NO classes available for him and of course no money if their had been. I might point out that we are white so race didn’t enter into the equation.

    The same problems today prevent many unknown gifted children from the advantages of education to meet their level of ability. The same is true for those who have “special needs”. Neither end of the educational spectrum is met for the average family by Indiana Department of Education or IPS. Instead of “follow the money”; this seems to be a case of “where IS the money?”

  8. Another thought: why not make those enrichment activities and high expectations available to all students? You know, “school.”

  9. Let me expand on my previous post. What I see is that a large percentage of the “haves” hold the attitude that they somehow earned their power and money all by themselves , and now deserve it. This attitude allows them to rationalize selfishness by reasoning that since they did it, all others should be able to do likewise. The reasoning goes on to hold that if some people are poor, it is because they did not work hard enough. The poor deserve their poverty. Thus they can excuse their support for legislators who vote not to fund public education or programs for the poor. It’s called “blaming the victims”.

  10. JoAnn, you have experienced exactly what still goes on today. The people with money are the ones whose voices are heard. No Money = No Voice. This seems to hold true in every sector of our society.

    Ginny – that is a wonderful thought, but short of an earthquake to shake up the school systems, I just don’t see that happening.

    Theresa – your points hold true not only at local levels, but all the way to both State leaders and Congress.

  11. It’s hard for any of us to admit how much of who we are came as a gift from the circumstances of our birth. Parents who cared. Functional neighborhoods. Lack of prejudice against our physical presence. Friends who helped. Exposure to intellect. Extended families who loved. Sufficient nutrition and health care. Opportunity for sports and/or arts. Respected presentment like clothes and all our stuff.

    All of that is put at risk by poverty. Not that there are not people who compensated for the lack of some of that by exceptional gifts in other areas like Ben Carson for instance. But the odds of being a “normal” adult definitely correlate with advantaged beginnings.

    Just as importantly advantaged is relative. One of my favorite books has always been Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” because it showed so clearly how childhood is more affected by relative poverty than absolute poverty. As long as everybody is in the same boat whatever the level of have, it becomes merely life’s table stakes.

    That is why relative poverty is society’s biggest challenge. Societies are largely defined by their ability to reduce it.

    I have never met a person who believes that the perfect world is not one in which families raise children lovingly and by virtue of their ability to provide. Yet pervasive achievement of that goal has largely eluded us. It has eluded us because there have always been the remnants of previous generations raised in relative poverty plus the failures of business to employ all available human capital.

    So society continues to try through combinations of voluntary and involuntary charity. And continues towards imperfect success or continued failure depending on ones level of optimism.

    Is that societal goal achievable or will we always suffer from wasted potential? Nobody knows. However it is clear that we all suffer from our common failure to find solutions.

  12. As a Baby Boomer I can relate to this – “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.”

    I worked in a union steel mill in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The various departments were segregated by race. Back then the racism could be spoken about out loud and privately and it’s purpose to maintain segregation was understood. The upper management, foremen and office staff were all white. It took Equal Opportunity Laws to redress this situation.

    After obtaining a Bachelors Degree I went into White Collar work for large financial companies. The same segregation was evident and included woman in the mid 1970’s. The technicians and management were all white and male. Again Equal Opportunity Laws slowly redressed this situation.

    The point is, it was as many people pointed out to me it was not what you knew, it was who you knew that determined the opportunities you might have for the future.

  13. @ Louie, your final comment explains it so well….

    “The point is, it was as many people pointed out to me it was not what you knew, it was who you knew that determined the opportunities you might have for the future.”

  14. Thought provoking….I have been thinking about this topic of schools and especially urban schools versus suburban schools. My mom taught at a school where every child was on free and reduced lunch and where the average IQ was 76. Parents were concerned for education but so many come from a single parent household and spent most of their time alone when they get home because mom is either working her second job or busy trying to keep up on all the chores. The school psychologist educated the teachers all of which were raised in middle class houses and who lived a different experience than the children they were teaching on what was really going on in the homes of the children. Some had no food and the only food they had was what the shool provided. Lack of clothers, personal space, mattresses, and even blankets.

    In one of my psych or sociology classes from decades ago I remember reading articles that very few people born into poverty are able to get up and out of poverty. Now I also refer to poverty beyond just finances; I worked in child psych for 10 years and so many come from horrific dysfunctional backgrounds and studies show how very, very difficult it is for anyone to come out of these backgrounds and truly improve upon.

    I live in the suburbs and in an excellent school system. They have all types of programs and lots of fundraising programs. Last year each student did a painting in art class and their painting was framed and put on display where we all were invited to an art show. For $50 you could take home your child’s framed picture. If you couldn’t pay the $50 I THINK you still got the picture but w/o the frame. It was awesome to see the pride on all the children’s faces. Then I thought about the children in some of the IPS schools I visited when I was a public health nurse knowing that many didn’t get to have these wonderful opportunities. It makes me sad.

  15. It’s always interesting to look at the numbers, the statistics provided by each state’s department of education. Here’s a link to the IDOE, pre-set for IPS; however, one can select any public school district or any specific public school, including charter schools, within a district in Indiana to check the 2014-2015 stats. These statistics include enrollment, demographics according to Federal guidelines, accountability results, and personnel overviews.

  16. I have four grandchildren and would be the first to admit that my kids are better parents than I was able to be. Some of that is cultural – today the fashion among the affluent is involved parenting and, IMO, ego stroking sometimes beyond functional especially with girls. (Over compensation?)

    I admire the effort very much though.

    I suspect that when I was growing up we were marginally middle class but relatively comfortable (never hungry). Relative in the sense of the small community that I grew up part of.

    My kids grew up more solidly entrenched in the middle class more because I was in the right place at the right times with the right talents.

    While I feel like I worked for all of that as everybody that I know does I also realize that the good fortune of my circumstances has shinned on me my whole life too.

    Is it possible to allow everybody those same environmental advantages? No, I don’t think so. Can we mitigate some of the disadvantages for some of the disadvantaged? Yes, certainly.

    Isn’t that enough inspiration for us?

    The Pope for one thinks so.

  17. A few years back I attended a parent teacher meeting in a school in Carmel, IN. I was seated next to a very nice lady and we talked. We introduced ourselves and when she told me her name I recognized it as a very prominent name in Indiana. She told me she was there to see that her child got the A that she should have received because she and her husband intended to send her to one of the expensive East Coast Colleges and she wanted her child to have a 4 point average and the teacher didn’t seem to understand that. I asked how she would convince the teacher and she said “believe me, I won’t have a problem when he realizes who we are”. She was a few people ahead of me and when she was done she stopped and told me that it was easy to change a grade when teachers know who they are talking to. I walked with her to the parking lot and she drove away in about $100,000. auto and waved at me. I never forgot that and yet she was a very friendly and seemingly kind lady, privileged and knew it, but probably didn’t know or really care that not everybody could what she did. She and her husband did come from backgrounds of a lot of wealth and inheritance. Oh well, it is what it is!

  18. @Sabra, I do not question or doubt any word you wrote. Yes, I’ve witnessed similar occurrences of grade changing in a couple of upscale school districts in other states.

    And, at the same time, I’ve witnessed some weird occurrences with grade changing attempts in IPS, the most vivid is from 2006 when I was called to the Principal’s conference room in an IPS high school. Evidently I was summoned to be an adult witness, perhaps a token witness, whereby I sat quietly and observed the Principal and the parents of a male student who’d failed grade 12 English, an absolute requirement before graduation only a few days in advance, attempt to cajole, to guilt trip, and to wring their hands toward the heavens hoping to convince the grade 12 English teacher to change the student’s grade from an F to a D.

    The English teacher did not budge, and then the Principal called the student’s church pastor where he implored the teacher to change the grade. Things went from bad to worse when the pastor, on speaker phone mind you, requested that all in the conference room bow our heads while he made fervent entreaties to the Lord requesting that the Lord change the English teacher’s mind about the grade. She didn’t; I was told to go back to my office.

  19. BSH; didn’t something similar happen with a young, well liked, qualified male teacher at Shortridge High School some years back? And didn’t his story go public? I believe the teacher was relieved of his position…or did I imagine this bit of IPS educational lack of ethics?

    We will never know the identity of that “prominent name in Indiana” in Sabra’s story but I’m sure many of us are not surprised to read her story or to know that money does talk; but…so do high school athletics for those with a talent that could, and often does, lead to money. Money and athletics produce high school and college graduates for poorly educated students too often. Poverty of the mind or the soul counts for little when there is money to be made.

  20. Interesting school stories but that behavior carries over until we depart this mortal realm.

    All of life we are evaluated by people who have private agendas involved as well. Sometimes that falls in our favor sometimes against us. Privilege nudges those odds towards our favor.

    People who benefit more than suffer from it typically regard themselves as entitled to it.

    There’s no more obvious place for that than the world of celebrity. A world that we Americans find ourselves in more and more.

  21. 1/5th of all family fortunes today can be directly traced back to slavery.

    The ‘Curious’ condition constituted a combined GNP which dwarfed that of the entire nation and comprised the economy upon which this nation was founded and thrived.

    We can observe the effects of ‘selective breeding’ upon other species.

    That group which charged down from Eastern Europe in the dawn of mankind didn’t farewell for the caretakers of the planet. How did they get up there? We know they had to have come from Africa some time before.

    I would opine the ‘caretakers’ recognized them as perilous and exiled them.

    Just sayin’

  22. The basket ball coach who had never spoken to me showed up in my U.S. History class room with a big, “Hi Irv” My answer was, “No, I’m not giving him a passing grade.” He never spoke to me after that. He took a job in a different school system the next year. It had a lot more white kids.

  23. I have frequently blogged that we do not know how many potential Einsteins may be lurking behind the counter on second shift at the 7-11 who will never be identified and educated to the benefit of all of us. Let’s remember that Sir Alexander Fleming, son of a Scottish bankrupt farmer, whose education was paid for by Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), came up with penicillin which saved billions of lives (including mine). Educations is not an expense; it is an investment.

  24. I can think of no valid reason for IPS not adopting a simple short-form generic screening test to be administered to all students at the close of 2nd grade to assist in identifying those students who may be gifted and talented. In the jargon of special education in which the gifted education program falls, that’s called Child Find. To be sure, the students are accustomed to assessments and to all manner of test instruments.

    The ‘Hamilton Southeastern Schools’ administers such a screening test for all 2nd-grade students shortly before the close of the grade 2 year. Dependent upon the scores yielded, students are requested, with parental consist, to take two more in-depth assessments, one in mathematics and one in the language arts. This is accomplished with a minimum of invasion to the students, little time from their instructional day, and performed by central office administrators in an objective manner.

  25. Everybody should be rightfully suspicious of and repelled by a system where “she don’t” automatically consigns a small child to the back of the line. Still, in my experience inner city schools go way overboard in placing kids that are woefully behind and in dire need of remediation in AP classes. How do we weed out the systemic racism and class privilege without foregoing too many standards? This is a difficult question. Differentiation is really a pedagogical joke, but tracking can be abused so easily. Where do we go from here?

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