Sunday, September 1, 2013

Desegregating Gifted Education:Lessons to Learn from Illinois School district court case

Lessons to Learn from Discrimination in Illinois School District Court Case
Donna Y. Ford, PhD.
2013 Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor
Vanderbilt University

On July 11, 2013, Illinois Federal District Court Judge Robert Gettlemen issued a decision holding that District U-46 (Elgin) discriminated against Hispanic students in the district’s gifted program until at least 2009 (see McFadden vs. Board of Education for Illinois School District U-46). Both intentional and unintentional discrimination were found. As the Plaintiff’s expert witness in the case, I urge all school districts to learn from the case and eliminate barriers to gifted education for Hispanic and Black students.

Hispanic and White students both represented 42%-46% of the school district, depending on the year. At the elementary level, the district has two gifted programs that begin in grade 4 – SWAS and SET/SWAS. SWAS (School Within a School) was comprised of majority White students (98%); SET/SWAS (Spanish English Transition School Within A School) contained only Hispanic students who had exited ELL classes (they were bilingual and/or English proficient). Note that there were no Black or White students in SET/SWAS.

Each year, White students in U-46 were over-represented in gifted education while Hispanic and Black students were extensively under-represented in gifted education, specifically the SWAS program. Despite the over 40% of Hispanic students in the school district, in most years, they were only a miniscule 2% of SWAS classrooms. As the Court found, even Hispanics born in the U.S. (20%) were not allowed – denied the legal right –to attend classes with gifted White students. SWAS and SET/SWAS were located in different school buildings; these gifted students never attended classes, events or school trips together.

Using the equity formula that I shared, which provides a 20% allowance, the Judge indicated that Hispanic students should have been at least 32% of gifted education in this specific district. The equity or allowance formula is available in Ford (2013).

Specifically, the Court found that the district discriminated against Hispanic students who had exited from the district’s ELL program by segregating them into a separate gifted program, not allowing them to be in classes and activities with gifted White students. Judge Gettlemen’s decision renewed the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) principle that ‘separate is inherently unequal’.

… the District had viable proven alternatives to the segregated SET/SWAS program, the most prominent and obvious of which is a single, elementary gifted program that provides individual students with language supports when those students needed it. The District chose instead to separate gifted Hispanic students from their white peers, thus perpetuating the cultural distinctions and barriers to assimilation that our nation’s civil rights laws are dedicated to prevent. That this segregation occurs at the stage of a child’s education and life when he is most vulnerable to identifying his opportunities by cultural differences only aggravates an otherwise disparate impact on these children (p. 29).

In addition to physically segregated programs which he found to be intentional and based on race, the Court also found that policies, procedures and instruments used by the district to screen and identify gifted students resulted in a “serious disparate impact” on minority students. Judge Gettlemen found a combination of intentional and unintentional discrimination regarding (a) screening and identification tests, (b) designated cutoff scores, and (c) criteria in weighted matrices. Noteworthy is that a nonverbal intelligence test (i.e., Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test) was deemed culturally neutral and effective at identifying Hispanic students for admission to SET/SWAS but was not used for admission to SWAS. Equally important, it was found that teacher referrals were biased against Hispanic and Black students and, thus, contributed to their under-representation, a subject which I have written about extensively.

These issues raise serious questions and reservations regarding the educators’ and decision makers’ intent, along with measures, policies, and procedures to increase – or deny – access to gifted education for Hispanic and Black students.  This is also a pipeline issue – lack of access to gifted classes in elementary school contributes to closed doors in middle school, high school, college, and careers. Sadly and empathetically, as Judge Gettlemen stated:

“one can only wonder how many other highly talented and gifted Hispanic children were educated in an unnecessarily segregated setting rather than integrated with the full range of children in the District” (p. 30).

In U-46 and many other school districts (New York City and Florida are often in the news), the gifts, talents and potential of Hispanic and Black students have been compromised and denied, representing a great waste of human capacity. Not only do these non-White students suffer – our nation suffers. Education is reportedly the greatest equalizer – a believe that I support with all of my heart; thus, our Black and Hispanic students need and deserve access to gifted education. To deny them this right is indeed inexcusable, indefensible, and intolerable! As Judge Gettlemen noted, giftedness exists in every racial and ethnic group (p. 21). The sooner educators and decision makers accept this reality, the better off we all will be.

The entire court consent is available beginning on page 21 at

Recommended reading: 

Ford, D.Y. (2013). Recruiting and retaining culturally different students in gifted education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Our guest blogger this week is Dr. Donna Y. Ford. Dr. Ford is our one of our nation's foremost experts on multicultural & gifted education. Author of numerous books on the subject, Dr. Ford is a sought-out speaker, expert witness, and highly respected scholar. See more information about Dr. Ford's work and history on her website:

1 comment:

  1. My son achieved 92% in winter MAP math. For U-46 this is the criteria for being identified as Gifted or Talented. I never received any letter from the District. The fact is we are Asians by race and we're not even considered as part of any discussion or discrimination. I don't know what will happen next but this way my 3rd grader will loose the opportunity to study according to his capabilities and becoming the part of this nation's future growth.