Skip to content

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

February 10, 2012

“While parents of all children who are not in the mainstream do not have an easy time in our society, the fact that 2e children’s disabilities mask their giftedness, and their giftedness masks their disabilities, makes it incredibly hard to get the “experts” to listen and to understand that you can’t just average the two and say this is an average child.” − Joan Affenit

“As we strive to close the achievement gaps between racial and economic groups, we will not succeed if our highest-performing students from lower-income families continue to slip through the cracks. Our failure to help them fulfill their demonstrated potential has significant implications for the social mobility of America’s lower-income families and the strength of our economy and society as a whole.”  – Joshua Wyner, Achievement Trap

“The soft bigotry of low expectations”  This famous line of President George W. Bush supporting the passage of No Child Left Behind resounds today as states still struggle to get every school and every child to meet minimum academic standards.  But as states strive to improve urban schools, I have to wonder if the government cares that one group of students is still being left behind due to low expectations.  Why are gifted minority, low-income, and learning disabled students still being overlooked?

The National Association for Gifted Children lists 5-7% of students as gifted.   Studies haven’t shown vast variance in giftedness between groups based on race, income level, or learning disability.  So why are gifted classrooms full of neurotypical wealthy white children?

I believe there are a few main reasons for this disparity.  First, tests may not measure intelligence or academic potential in the same way in each group.  Second, prejudices may prevent some from seeing members of various groups as possibly gifted.  Third, peer pressure within certain groups may lead to students being accused of ‘acting white’ if they academically standout.  Fourth, some groups may not have access to high quality preschools or place an emphasis on education in the home before beginning school.  Fifth, other factors may obscure the student’s parent, his natural advocate, from recognizing his giftedness.

Some claim IQ tests, a standard often used for determining entrance to gifted programs, have often been shown to be racially and economically skewed.  If so, equally gifted minority or low income students often will score lower on IQ tests and would not make the cut into a gifted program.  It is important that multiple measures be used and tests shown to adequately measure IQ across diverse populations be employed.  Additionally, exams must be tailored to meet a student’s needs.  Will a gifted student with dyslexia score equally as well on a written exam as an equally gifted neurotypical student?  Can standard tests properly assess visual-impaired children or students whose primary language is not English?

Unfortunately, stereotypes and prejudices still exist in even the most open-minded people.  With some minority and low-income groups scoring lower than average in academics, gifted students in these groups are often overlooked as many times they don’t fit the classic mold.  A boy gifted in writing or a girl gifted in math may be missed because of gender stereotypes, which, whether they are based in fact or not, cannot give a complete picture of an individual.  Twice-exceptional children may be overlooked when a learning disability is equated with low IQ, a mental illness causes the child to not fit in with other gifted children, or a physical disability overshadows an individual’s other capabilities.

Within communities there is also often great pressure to not stand out, even in a very positive way.  When celebrating academic talent is viewed as boastful in a way that celebrating athletic or theatrical talent is not, the message sent is to hide success in school and academic abilities or risk being ostracized.  In certain communities this pressure is immensely stronger.  Gifted black children are often accused of ‘acting white’ because they are working to succeed in the intellectual arena instead of athletic.  Academically-advanced lower-income children succeeding in the classroom can be viewed as pretending to be ‘better’ than they are, attempting to be white collar, or becoming a member of the oppressing class.  A twice-exceptional child who learns to mask his learning disability through applying his gifts risks having aid withdrawn and neither his disability nor his gifted nature are supported.

While most in our community have access to high quality preschools, many parents in other communities cannot afford to send their children to such centers or may not even have them available locally if they could afford them.  Daycare options available may not have an academic component.  Parents may not have finished high school or learned to value education and not have the impetus or knowledge to cover basics that most of our kindergartners come in knowing.  Parents of kids with disabilities may have expended their time and energy meeting those needs and not covered academic material.  For all these groups, more immediate needs than education may consume their resources.  While all these gifted kids academically race at a high speed, starting far behind classmates may hide their abilities.

Many gifted children are recognized through the advocacy of their parents.  However, parents unable to spend significant time with their children due to long work hours, who haven’t received a strong education themselves, or do not recognize their children’s gifts masked by learning or physical disabilities may not know to advocate for their child or have the time to.  It is vital to have teachers trained in gifted education who can see the gifts that have been missed.  Will a teacher not educated in understanding all gifted students recognize that the boy disrupting the classroom both has Asperger’s and is bored from being far ahead, compounding his difficultly in sitting still and learning?  Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of their students and finding the overlooked and hidden gifts of these children can change a life forever.

What can be done to better assess which children are gifted and not miss ones whose other traits may mask it?  That is a question that people in the educational community struggle with.  Some suggestions have been using multiple assessments that can measure giftedness using a variety of methods to compensate for learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or cultural differences; testing every child for giftedness, not just those recommended by parents or teachers; training teachers about giftedness so they can recognize it when it is less than obvious; creating an atmosphere that honors academic success and talent as much as talent in arts and athletics; and providing each child with an opportunity to attend a high quality preschool.  Most important will be training teachers about giftedness so they can recognize it when it is less than obvious;   The solutions are going to need to be worked out by the educational community or many children will never know how to apply their gifts and may miss a crucial opportunity for personal and professional success.  And the soft bigotry of low expectations will claim another victim.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together we can make a difference for gifted children!

The Importance of Gifted Education Series
I. Why I Am Passionate About Gifted Education
II. Why Is Gifted Education Necessary?
III.  Is Gifted Education Equal Education?
IV. Is Gifted Education Expensive?

V. How Does Gifted Education Help Everyone?

VI. What Are Characteristics of a Gifted Child?

VII. Why Grades Don’t Matter to Me
VIII. The Procrustean Bed of Education
IX. The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
X. I Want My Kids to Fail

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2012 8:52 AM

    What has been your experience as a parent of a gifted minority, low-income, or 2E student? Please let readers know!

  2. Alison permalink
    February 11, 2012 8:54 AM

    i have a son that just imploded in farmington public schools, a place i moved bc i thought the schools would be able to support him. i have had many thoughts similar to your own; if my son was missed and destroyed in a few short months, there must be others who are looking down the barrel of ‘special education’ labeling. it’s terrifying! we are new to this but thinking talking to the school board is on the list. i don’t WANT to send my child to private ‘gifted’ school but he is there now and it is working for him in ways that, without major adjustments to attitude and accomodation, public school does not. thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. Kim permalink
    February 11, 2012 2:52 PM

    Our experience is the public schools have virtually zero interest in dealing with or helping our children. We sending them to a private school that has turned them around, but have to sacrifice in many ways beyond financial to manage that, while also fending off assumptions about how ‘rich’ we must be.

    It makes me incredibly angry because I would like nothing more than to send my kids to free public schools. We tried again this year to transition them back into public schools, but the rules regarding how kids are dealt with were strict and unyielding and seemingly completely ignorant of the needs of truly gifted (as opposed to simply wealthy and well supported at home).

  4. February 13, 2012 10:43 AM

    Excellent post on a critical topic! Importantly, the new position paper, “Redefining Giftedness for a New Century” ( identifies gifted as the performance or achievement in the top 10% (or rarer) in one or more domains and comprehensively address diversity.

  5. dncresearch permalink
    March 6, 2012 6:47 PM

    Why do so many commenters want to send their children back to schools where their needs have not been met in the past, and where it is quite obvious their child or children’s needs will not be met in the future? What is the “magic” surrounding public schools that leads people to believe they are a better place for any child than an alternative where the child feels comfortable and is learning? As parents and as a society, we have no duty to support failing public schools, none at all.

    Public schools are jokes, people! They systematically destroy a child’s ability to learn, innovate, and grow intellectually. This is what they were designed to do, to make children good little obedient worker bees to feed and sustain an industrial economy. If you want more for your child than that, take him or her out of public school, and do it while they’re young. Better yet, never enter them into that drudgery in the first place. There are many, many alternatives that are affordable.

  6. May 16, 2012 3:49 PM

    Many thanks for this post. Your insight should be disseminated widely. In my book Bright Talented & Black, I make reference to discrimination through low expectations. I think we all agree that professional development and family advocacy can help address this systemic issue.

  7. Allie permalink
    March 26, 2016 8:24 AM

    This is still happening my daughters for whatever reason did not score high enough when everyone takes the test in kindergarten. They go to one of the poorer, more racially diverse schools in our district. Oldest daughter retested in 4th grade and identified as 2e but only after I requested she be tested again. Never occurred for any her of teachers to reach out. It was my questioning about is it normal to read 4 plus grade levels ahead. During conferences they would always mention how I must work with my girls all the time. I don’t other than make sure they do their homework. My younger daughter identified at end of her second gr year after my request. She was however going off on her classmates and teacher because she has little patience. She was also “taking over” and teacher was having trouble reining her in. She spent a lot of second grade in the buddy seat or sitting in the corner. With help of gifted program she was first child to skip 3rd grade at her school. I looked at the numbers and their are 11 gifted students at her school as many as 70 in other elem schools in the area. Since 2 of the 11 were my children the number made me sad. I’m guessing there are many unidentified children remaining at our school. But since our school cares mainly about raising the average test score those coasting on the top aren’t being identified.

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: