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Dena Simmons Ed.D.

Why Are There So Few Students of Color in Gifted Education?

A conversation with Dr. Donna Ford.

Used with permission.
Source: Used with permission.

It is my pleasure to share with you my conversation with Dr. Donna Ford, a mentor to me. I first was introduced to Dr. Ford through Facebook as part of a mentoring space she co-founded called R.A.C.E. (Research, Advocacy, Collaboration, Empowerment) Mentoring aimed at supporting graduate students and faculty/staff of color in higher education and P-12 settings. I am excited to share with you my conversation with Dr. Ford where we explore why there are so few students of color in gifted education.

Dena: Dr. Ford, I have been following and reading your work for years, and I am so excited and honored to connect with you. Could you start by sharing a glimpse into your journey to get to where you are now?

Donna: Thank you for this opportunity to share my journey and, hopefully, inspire others. I claim Cleveland, Ohio as my home, even though I was born near East St. Louis. My two sisters and I were raised in a single-family home headed by mother. She was (and is) unwavering in her commitment to education--expecting and demanding that we value education and achievement. Failure, low grades, and a poor work ethic were not options for us. I learned the priceless value of work ethic, self-efficacy, and racial pride early in life, and it continues to serve me personally as an adult, mother, and grandmother and professionally as a professor and unapologetic activist for educational equity. For the most part, I have defied racial, gender, and economic odds that too many allow others to evoke to define our promise and possibilities. Learning from my mother and other strong and resilient Black role models and mentors, I have, in many ways, achieved the elusive American Dream. My personal and professional journeys are guided by several philosophies: (1) my DNA is not my destiny; (2) my zip code is not my destiny; (3) a mind is a terrible thing to waste (United Negro College Fund); and (4) a mind is a terrible thing to erase.

Dena: Thank you for sharing your upbringing. You started by sharing that you hope you inspire others, and I want to confirm that you have definitely always inspired me. Speaking of inspiration, what inspired you to do the work and research that you do in gifted education?

Donna: I deliberated long and hard about whether to major in gifted education or special education as a doctoral student. Much of what I wanted to say was being told in special education by people of color. However, this was not so in gifted education where there were less than a handful of scholars of color. The scholarship of Drs. Alexinia Baldwin, Mary Frasier, and Ernesto Bernal resonated most with me.

There are three educational turning points that helped to define and solidify my career in gifted education and multicultural education.

1) I was an advanced student, who was grade skipped as a first grader. Given this positive experience, I was very familiar with the impact of high expectations for students of color who live in poverty.

2) I was an A Better Chance (ABC) student, who experienced racial and economic discrimination in a private school as a 10th grader. I learned the negative power of low expectations and deficit thinking grounded in race and income despite high achievement.

3) I was the mother of a gifted Black son who faced discrimination during testing and throughout schooling. I again learned the negative power of low expectations and deficit thinking grounded in race and income, despite high achievement and family involvement. This was the deal breaker. I devoted my education and professional life to desegregating gifted education; to recruiting and retaining Black students in gifted education. My concerns about test bias and fairness, the paucity of educators of color, and the lack of rigorous multicultural education were further affirmed, validated, and legitimized. This is when the above philosophies came to life--our DNA and income must not be used to limit our destinies by educators and families.

Dena: Indeed, our destinies should not be limited! Did I ever tell you that I was an ABC scholar as well? Like you, I faced struggles during my private school years. However, before attending private school, my mother tried to get my sisters and me into a specialized school in NYC, but our school administrator at the time refused to fill out the paperwork because she did not want to lose good students. I wonder how many times something similar has happened to other children like me--kids of color from an economically-deprived community, trying to get a better education. From all of your years of research, what is one finding that you would want people to know so that they could do something about inequity in education?

Donna: This is a tough question to answer because I see so much wrong with education overall and gifted education, in particular. We need to go beyond educational reform; we need a revolution in education. When it comes to gifted education, over 250,000 more Black students and over 250,000 more Hispanic students should be identified as gifted. Combined, this means over a half million Black and Latino students are not accessing gifted education and, hence, are being both misidentified and miseducated.

A number of variables, mostly deficit thinking and biases by educators and decision makers, account for the grave and inequitable under-representation of Black and Hispanic students in gifted education (and Advanced Placement classes). In almost all districts, the first step to being screened for gifted education is teacher referrals (rather than universal screening). Educators are the key gatekeepers, who deny access to gifted education for Black and Hispanic students--similar to your own experience. The demographics of gifted education will not change without extensive training among all educators to be culturally competent; this entails anti-racist education and accountability. Notions of equality must be replaced with equity.

Dena: People often confuse equity with equality. Equality is about giving folks the same thing, but not everyone needs the same thing. Some people come to school needing more because of systemic oppression. Equity is about fairness and about giving people what they need to thrive. As a nation, I think we need to be better about making that a reality. Now, Dr. Ford, if you could change one thing about how schooling in our nation happens, what would you change?

Donna: I want to see so much changed, and undergirding all is a sense of urgency and commitment to preparing educators to be culturally competent. Doing so requires collaboration among higher education professionals, P-12 educators, and families. All must be on one accord, devoted to equity and accountability.

Dena: Given what you just shared, what advice would you give a teacher going into a classroom with mostly students of color?

Donna: I strongly advise teachers to (1) self-reflect in order to recognize and check their racial biases; (2) demand professional development training to become culturally competent; (3) demand that higher education/teacher colleges have courses and degrees focused on culture, racism, classism, etc.; and (4) proactive at seeking all opportunities to become culturally responsive professionals, which includes immersing oneself in the communities of students.

Dena: Cultural competency allows for educators to ensure that their students are not subject to the negative outcomes of their implicit bias. Implicit bias dictates disciplinary practices, teacher expectations, and what content is taught. I also think that our teaching force should be stewards of equity--combating inequity when they see it show up in practices and policies at every opportunity. Now, to conclude our conversation, I'll ask you this: if you had to list three to five steps that we can take to get closer to equity in education, what would you list?

I have alluded to some of this already in our conversation, but to say it concisely, here are the steps that get us closer to equity in education:

1) Dedication to helping students of color access gifted education

2) Providing substantive for educators to become culturally competent

3) Studying and interrogating gifted education data, policies and procedures for racial biases

4) Collaborating and empowering families of color

5) Working with students of color to promote racial and academic pride

Dena: Thank you so much for your time--and for all that you do to fight for equity in education.


BOOKS (Relevant books):

Ford, D.Y., Davis, J.L., Trotman Scott, M., & Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (Eds.). (2017). Gumbo for the soul: Liberating stories and memoirs to inspire females of color. Scottsdale, AZ: IAP Publisher. (In gifted series edited by Donna Y. Ford and Malik S. Henfield).

Ford, D.Y. (Ed.). (2017). Telling our stories: Culturally different adults reflect on growing up in single-parent families. Scottsdale, AZ: IAP Publishers.

Ford, D.Y. (2013). Recruiting and retaining culturally different students in gifted education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. 2014 NAACP Image Award Nominee for Literature (Instruction).

Ford, D.Y. (2011). Multicultural gifted education: Rationale, models, strategies, and resources (2nd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Grantham, T.C., Ford, D.Y., Henfield, M., Trotman Scott, M., Harmon, D., Porchér, S., & Price, C.). (2011). Gifted and advanced Black students in school: An anthology of critical works. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Ford, D.Y. (2010). Reversing underachievement among gifted Black students: Theory, Research and Practice (2nd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.


Goings, R.B. & Ford, D.Y. (2018). Investigating the intersection of poverty and race in gifted education journals: 15-year analysis. Gifted Child Quarterly, 62(1), 25-36.

Young, J.L., Ero-Tolliver, I., Young, J.R., & Ford, D.Y. (2017). Maximizing opportunities to enroll in advanced high school science courses: Examining the scientific dispositions of Black girls. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 13, 174-182.

Wright, B.L., Ford, D.Y. & Young, J.L. (2017). Ignorance or indifference? Seeking equity and excellent for under-represented students of color in gifted education. Global Education Review, 4(1), 45-60.

Wright, B.L. Ford, D.Y., & Walter, N.M. (2016). Karl is ready! Why aren’t you? Promoting social and cultural skills in early childhood education. Wisconsin English Journal, 58(2), 81-101.

Ford, D.Y., Wright, B.L., Washington, A., & Henfield, M.A. (2016). Access and equity denied: Key theories for school psychologists to consider when assessing Black and Hispanic students for gifted education. School Psychology Forum, 10(3), pp. 265-277.

Wright, B.L., & Ford, D.Y. (2016). This little light of mine: Creating positive early childhood education classroom experiences for African American boys prek-3. Journal of African American Males in Education, 7(1), 5-19.

Ford, D.Y. & Russo, C. (2016). Historical and legal overview of special education overrepresentation: Access and equity denied. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 16(1), 2016, 1–8.

Ford, D.Y. & Russo, C.J. (2016). Legal issues impacting racially and culturally different gifted learners. Excellence and Diversity in Gifted Education, 2(1), 1-7.

Naglieri, J. & Ford, D.Y. (2015). Misconceptions about the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test: A commentary of concerns and disagreements. Roeper Review, 37(4), 234-240.

Russo, C.J. & Ford, D.Y. (2015). Education for gifted students in the United States: An area in need of improvement. Education Law Journal, 16(3), 188-196.

Ford, D.Y. & Russo, C.J. (2015). No child left behind . . . unless a student is gifted and of color: Reflections on the need to meet the educational needs of the gifted. Journal of Law in Society, 15, 213-239.

Ford, D.Y. & King, R.A. (2014). No Blacks allowed: Segregated gifted education in the context of Brown vs. Board of Education. Journal of Negro Education, 83(3), 300-310.

Ford, D.Y. & King, R.A. (2014, Fall). Desegregating gifted education for under-represented Black and Hispanic students: Equity promotes equality. Teaching for High Potential, 1, 13-16.

Ford, D.Y. (2014). Segregation and the underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics in gifted education: Social inequality and deficit paradigms. Roeper Review, 36, 143-154.

About the Author

Dena Simmons, Ed.D., is Director of Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.