Excerpted From: Lydia Robins Hendrix, Gifted Tracking as a Racist Vestige of Eugenic Thought, 51 Journal of Law and Education 214 (Fall, 2022) (348 Footnotes) (Full Document)


LydiaRobinsHendrixIn 1954, in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court stated in no uncertain terms that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Court reached this decision without reaching the issue of disparate academic outcomes correlative with racially segregated schools. Still, data reveals that segregated schools often do result in disparate outcomes for students; minority students who attend majority-minority schools tend not to perform as well as their White counterparts at majority White schools. Today, these inequities are more often than not the result of de facto segregation rather than de jure segregation. Regardless, the injuries remain the same, whether created de jure or perpetuated by a facially neutral policy.

While the kind of facially discriminatory de jure segregation prohibited by the Court in Brown and Green v. County School Board of New Kent no longer remains in force, there are myriad education policies that effectively create dual systems of education for American students. Much of the contemporary debate surrounding inequities in schools have focused on the use of vouchers and charter schools as tools that perpetuate injustice in the education system. In the midst of these conversations about racial inequities and unjust distribution of educational resources, there is a notable absence of the inequities perpetuated by gifted education. This silence is likely due to the perception of gifted education, or more specifically, gifted tracking through homogeneous grouping, as a merit-based system that places students into programs where they “belong,” which has exempted gifted tracking from conversations on vouchers and charter schools. Despite the perception of gifted tracking as an objective system of sorting students on an educational track according to their needs, there is sufficient evidence to show that tracking is heavily influenced by subjective factors derived from racist ideas, largely stemming from its eugenicist origins.

Rather than merely providing students properly identified as “gifted” with an education appropriate specific to their population, the lingering influence of the eugenicists has resulted in the use of racially and ethnically biased methods of gifted identification, meaning that many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are underidentified, while White students are disproportionately overrepresented in gifted programming. Consequently, just as the eugenicists intended, gifted tracking results in dual systems of segregated education, often within the same school building.

In fact, through disparate identification, gifted tracking repeats and recreates the very same harms that the Supreme Court condemned in the landmark cases of Brown and Green. Tracking inflicts socio-emotional harm and creates a sense of inferiority in many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, the harm decried in Brown. Simultaneously, educational resources and benefits are disproportionately conferred upon White students in gifted tracks, the very harm condemned in Green.

The great tragedy of the harms of homogenous grouping is that the practice is not necessary or even particularly effective. Homogenous grouping is justified on the notion of fixed intelligence, a theory largely repudiated by contemporary understandings of intelligence that acknowledge neuroplasticity and every student's potential for growth.

While academics and educators have long acknowledged the racial and ethnic inequities related to gifted tracking, the most commonly proposed solution has been to expand access to the gifted track while maintaining the legitimacy of homogeneous grouping and separate educational spaces for gifted students. However, despite the perception of gifted tracking as a legitimate educational policy borne out of sound pedagogical principles, its legitimacy is not so clear. Borne out of the Social Darwinist and eugenics movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the benefits of homogenous grouping on the basis of giftedness or lack thereof cannot be substantiated. Policies that group students according to giftedness or lack thereof continue to use racist tools to racist ends. Therefore, to dismantle the dual system of education perpetuated by gifted tracking, detracking paired with heterogenous grouping should be implemented to desegregate classrooms and school systems.

This Note will begin by providing an overview of the present data on the disparate identification of students in gifted programming by race and ethnicity. It will then turn to the eugenicist origins of gifted tracking and intelligence testing and how those eugenicist influences remain pervasive in the present causes of the underidentification of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and the comparative overrepresentation of White students in gifted programming. This Note will then examine how the disparate identification by race and ethnicity inflicts upon Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students the very harms that the holdings of Brown and Green aimed to eliminate. Part III will discuss the lack of justification for homogenous grouping and debunk the myth of fixed intelligence. Finally, Part IV will provide a recommendation to schools, suggesting that because tracking is unjustifiable, schools should detrack students and provide rigorous, engaging coursework to all students.

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Plainly stated, gifted tracking was intentionally designed to ensure that White students received the highest quality of public education and deliver superior instruction segregated from non-White students. Faced with an influx of diverse students in public schools, educational psychologists were able to institutionalize their eugenicist goals by implementing IQ testing, normed to White culture, to give legitimacy to separating those who they deemed gifted and withhold more complex, enriching education from the “morons” and feebleminded, those who were not White Anglo-Saxons. While the overt racism of the eugenicists' original language regarding giftedness remains largely a relic of history, the harms that gifted tracking inflicts upon Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students remain racist and inequitable by the nature of the practice. Despite these harms, tracking maintains an appearance of a legitimate pedagogical tool, all while it is unnecessary and based in a flawed understanding of intelligence. While many advocates for gifted children, acknowledging its inequities, argue that there are means of preserving the practice of tracking while widening the gates to expand access to gifted programming, the practice is simply unjustifiable. Instead of tracking students according to biased, unreliable, and pseudoscientific methods, schools should adopt policies that embrace heterogenous grouping and expand gifted education to all students.

Education scholars are no strangers to the issue of comparative underenrollment of students of color and impoverished students in gifted education and advanced coursework. The suggested remedies to inequity in gifted tracking primarily have focused on expanding the identification of gifted persons, either by implementing universal screening and thereby eliminating more subjective aspects of identification such as teacher-led identification or by reconsidering what giftedness means. Advocates for expanding identification emphasize the need to “find and support greater numbers of high-performing students,” emphasizing their perception that inequities lie with the failure to identify students who already have some innate talent that is yet to be discovered. They argue that failure to identify gifted students has resulted in “withholding much-needed support from young people who might have made important contributions to our economy, culture, and society at large.” Lamentably, these advocates for expanding gifted identification establish the problem as a failure to mine students for the potential resources they would offer to the workforce, rather than identifying the issue as a failure to provide an equitable education to students. These arguments echo the eugenicist vision of “children ... as the raw material of a new State; the schools as the nursery of the nation.” Advocates of gifted tracking maintain that separating students from the general education classroom is a system worth preserving, assuming that expanding access will resolve the present harms. However, as Stark explains, “[T]he move toward a more equitable, culturally relevant and holistic definition of gifted education does not guarantee that these models will change in practice. Instead, pluralistic and multicultural models of gifted education risk reproducing the earlier, racialized discourse on the nature of giftedness.” The suggestion of expanding access to gifted tracks fails to acknowledge that there is simply no need to isolate students by gifted or non-gifted status, and there are effective pedagogical practices that will provide all students with access to education that will support their achievement.

Rather than preserve a fundamentally flawed system, schools should eliminate tracking entirely and implement heterogenous grouping, providing a substantive curriculum to all students. Provided the appropriate resources, heterogenous grouping is an effective and appropriate means of ensuring student success. While advocates for gifted tracking have argued that gifted students need unique instructional strategies, the methodologies adopted in gifted education are, in fact, advantageous for all students. By exposing all students to an “engaging and substantive” curriculum, students are more likely to “master complex material later in school.” Research further supports this approach. Studies have shown that de-tracking math courses leads to improved test scores and the likelihood that students will take advanced coursework later, and a 2016 study found that “when students labeled non-gifted were placed in gifted classes their math and English language arts achievement scores increased by 0.5 standard deviations.”

Still, beyond simply eliminating tracking, educators need a framework for addressing the diversity of abilities and experiences in heterogeneously grouped classrooms. To this end, sociologist Allison Roda suggests that the complex instruction strategy of instruction is a particularly effective strategy for detracked classrooms. Complex instruction is “a teaching strategy that relies on cooperative group work in diverse classrooms.” Students work on a central concept but have options among a variety of tasks that may be assigned based on that concept. While resisting labeling or sorting, the teacher sets “high expectations for learning an academic engagement, creating an environment where students draw on each other's unique strengths and abilities through student dialogue and problem-solving.”

This kind of collaborative approach that embraces opportunities for dialogue and partnership between students of diverse abilities and experiences is reflective of the reality of today's world. The simple truth is that the ability to collaborate and work with people of different backgrounds and skills is a fundamental skill for a globalized society. While many teachers feel intimidated by the prospect of teaching to heterogeneously grouped classrooms, those who have embraced collaborative problem-solving and discussion have seen encouraging outcomes. In their study of teacher attitudes on detracking, Oakes et al. spoke with Olivia Jeffers, a teacher at a high school in the American South. Jeffers's English class is comprised of students of diverse races and abilities, and she implements an approach similar to Roda's suggested complex instruction. Students are offered a choice in their reading assignments and allowed to complete research projects on individual schedules, which means that students who crave more challenging, complex work may do so at their discretion. While students complete reading and research projects according to their own skills and interests, they can benefit from collaborative whole-group discussions. Jeffers speaks about the experience of an affluent, White student in discussions with her peers:

In class, when I have a discussion, and she makes a statement, everybody else hears it, and we talk about it. She gets to pontificate, she gets to make a statement about something very important. She always gets insight from somebody who hasn't had her experience, or doesn't own a horse, or a place out in the country. A kid who gets on the bus everyday, and lives in two rooms. So when she defines self-reliance [the topic of recent class discussion on Emerson] ... it's from the perspective of a kid who has it--who has a family that has given it to her and the financial security to maintain it. But she's got to hear from a kid who's had to struggle his little buns or her little buns to get it. Now if that is not a learning experience, I don't know what is.

For Jeffers, heterogeneous grouping is not just beneficial but “essential to the learning process.” Rather than detracting from each other's potential for learning, students in collaborative classrooms help facilitate each other's growth, creating empathy for diverse persons along the way.

While the example of Jeffers's classroom speaks more to students' soft skills, Dr. Carl Wieman has found improved testing outcomes as a result of discussion among heterogeneous learners. In his study, Wieman gave his students physics questions to answer individually, and then they would discuss the problem with a peer. Afterwards, the students would respond to a question that tested the same concept but in a different way. After discussion with their peers, not only did weaker students improve on the second set of questions, but also students who had already performed well in the course.

Another physics professor, Eric Mazur, utilized a similar approach to Wieman, and, similarly, he found that discussion between students of varying strengths improved outcomes for both types of students. Mazur found that stronger students would provide more effective explanations to their weaker peers than he could

because the professor learned physics so long ago and the understanding was so deeply ingrained in his psyche [] he can no longer see or understand the difficulty that John has, but Mary can. Mary can call upon the assumptions and errors in thinking that she recently struggled through in order to achieve deep understanding, and so she can explain the hows and whys to John in a much clearer way.

Again, rather than impeding each other's learning, students of mixed abilities learning alongside each other support each other's growth.

The suggestion that students be detracked has been met with resistance by parents, educators, and policymakers. For example, in 2017 New York City undertook a study to evaluate issues of equity related to gifted education in its public schools. The study found that New York City's current model of tracking is “unfair, unjust, and not necessarily research based. As a result, these programs segregate students by race, class, abilities and language and perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement,” and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio proposed the elimination of all gifted tracking as a result. The proposal was met with varied responses, including some parents who described the elimination of gifted tracking as “leaving a pile of 'bloody broken bone fragments,”’ while others welcomed the change, concerned by the lack of equity in resource distribution to students in regular classes.

The responses of these New York City parents are somewhat predictable; it is understandable that proposal of detracking will be met with resistance. After all, as Oakes et al. explain, “At risk for the parents of high-track and gifted-labeled students is the entire system of meritocracy on which their privileged positions in society are based.” Parents are likely fearful that their students will lose the advantages they perceive to result from homogenous grouping and tracking. However, in a just society, one that seeks to provide education on “equal terms” to all students and to ensure equity in “every facet of operations,” gifted tracking cannot be separated from its eugenicist past, especially as it continues to maintain the inferiority of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and precludes a fair opportunity for every student to experience meaningful growth. Consequently, the practice is unequivocally unjust and indefensible. It is now time to de-track students and allow them to enjoy the benefits that arise from sharing each other's diverse strengths and experiences.

Lydia Robins Hendrix is a third-year law student at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a licensed English teacher in the state of South Carolina.