Abstract

Sleeter's 1987 article "Why is there Learning Disabilities?" provides an analytical template for examining the rise in discourse surrounding Highly Gifted and Talented (HGT) programs in the past ten years. This article begins with an historical and policy account of the local context that supported the rise of HGT. Then it highlights three key rationales from Sleeter's paper to demonstrate how the discourse related to supporting the rise of LD is reconstituted into the discourse related to supporting the rise of HGT. These discourses are analyzed using critical discourse analysis to demonstrate how the rhetoric for LD and HGT maintains race and class stratification in the public school system. This article finishes with an example of one school with an HGT program that believes students can have their needs met without separating them.

Recently, I learned that Denver, CO has a new type of educational program that I had not heard about in my fifteen or so years as an educator — Highly Gifted and Talented. This program carries with it categorical and educational significance that matters beyond the local context. The rise of Highly Gifted and Talented programs (HGT) — as a more selective offshoot of Gifted and Talented programs — indicates that students who are placed in these programs are somehow different from most students in school. The creation of these programs brings several questions to the surface: When did these programs arise? For what reasons? What do these programs mean in relation to other educational initiatives like (full) inclusion?

As I reread Sleeter's (1987) "Why is there learning disabilities?" I was faced with an uncanny similarity between rationale she exposes behind the rise of learning disabilities (LD) in the 1960s and the emerging discourse surrounding HGT programs in Denver, Colorado. I found many similarities between the rise in local policy discourse surrounding HGT programs in Denver Public Schools (DPS) and Sleeter's political analysis of the rise of LD. These similarities extend to the rise of academic standards in schools and to a new form of white middle class protectionism. I argue that the rise of HGT since 2000 has a clear historical and political link to mandated desegregation policies (1973-1995) in Denver and also to the rise of inclusion (1990s) in schools. Both factors created schools and classrooms which were more heterogeneous than before. Shortly thereafter, the first HGT program began.

In this article, I begin with an historical and policy account of the local context that supported a rise of HGT in the past eight years. Then I use three key rationales from Sleeter's paper to frame how the justification of the rise of LD in the 1960s is reconstituted into the discourse supporting the rise of HGT in recent years. Sleeter's reasoning about the rise in LD coupled with a current analysis of HGT demonstrates maintenance of racial and class stratification in the local public school system. Finally, I offer an example of one school in Denver that uses the HGT designation quite differently than the other schools; it uses HGT and the added resources attached to it to improve education opportunities of all students at the school.

Classifying students

Classification systems are used to sort students, teachers, and classrooms. They result in a system that privileges a few, ignores most, and denies others rigorous academic engagement in schools. Therefore, when new categories arise, their development must be analyzed. The new category is encompassed within an institutional context that leads to a construction of a new identity, new institutionalized perspectives and new understandings about children in schools. The underlying epistemologies behind a new category are not often apparent to participants in the system, but can be exposed through careful scrutiny of the new category (Bowker & Star, 1999).

The analysis in this paper follows a tradition established by social theories of deviance (Becker, 1963), labeling theory (Mercer, 1973), and examination of the effects of stigma (Goffman, 1963). It also follows a tradition in critical special education of questioning purposes (Skrtic, 1995), special education classifications (Dunn, 1968), placement options (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987; Lipsky & Gartner, 1996), and issues of overrepresentation of students of color and English Language Learners in special education (Artiles, 2003; Banks et al., 2005; Patton et al., 2003). These theories provide the foundation for examining the rise of a new category that targets a very small group of students who are thought to have "exceptional intellectual ability and academic potential." The analysis is doubly important when prior investigation into gifted programs has demonstrated a relationship between gifted programs and resegregation in schools (Oakes, 2005; People who care v. Rockford Board of Education, 1993).

Who are HGT students1

DPS states that the "Highly Gifted Program provides an educational option for identified students whose exceptional intellectual ability and academic potential, with related social/emotional needs, exceed those addressed in a regular classroom. It provides a full-day school experience and is designed for students who have academic needs beyond their grade level and who need the support and challenge provided by a peer group with similar interests and abilities" (DPS, n.d.b).

HGT students are "defined as having intellectual ability and academic potential in the top two percent2 of all students" (DPS, 2001a). A child who qualifies for HGT often possesses the following traits as evidenced in the HGT application form for 2009-2010: the child is "curious about everything," is "a fast learner," "uses advanced vocabulary," and/ or "speaks like an adult," is an "early or eager reader," "expresses strong beliefs, ideas, or opinions," has exceptional short or long term memory," "generalizes information across settings," "understands abstract ideas," "is a leader of children the same age," "needs everything to be perfect," and is "extremely sensitive to others." This form also asks for examples about a student's verbal, spatial mechanical, construction, and problem solving expression (DPS, n.d.c). The principal at one of the HGT elementary magnets has this to say about HGT youngsters, "they are very different children — difficult to raise. They are very intense. This is a safe place for kids to be, and ask their weird questions and make up their strange games" (Meyer, 2008). She is proud of the growth of HGT in DPS and wants "kids from all backgrounds … to have the same opportunity to be safe and weird in their brilliance" (Meyer, 2008).

This new category of HGT, created through parental and organizational pressure on the DPS Board, consists of students whose defining characteristics could encompass a broad range of students from a variety of backgrounds. Sleeter (1987) states:

Reforms were to help schools more efficiently fit every child for a 'place' in society, with some 'places' clearly more desirable and profitable than others. Advocates of school reform envisioned their own children among those who would rank as 'bright' or at least 'average', and therefore would receive the better teachers, beefed-up programs, and more lucrative opportunities. (p. 219)

Evidence points to HGT privileging white, middle class children over the rest of children in DPS. The next section examines the institutional history that lead to the adoption of HGT in 2001.

Situating Highly Gifted and Talented

This section historically locates the demographic changes that have happened in DPS in relation to other large schooling changes like inclusion, desegregation, HGT, and resegregation in the district (See Figure 1). Since 1973 Denver has been under a court desegregation order whereby busing and racial integration were imperative for determining school populations. This ended in 1995, when Judge Matsch lifted the order and the Denver Public School Board voted to reintroduce neighborhood schooling. As might be expected, schools began to resegregate because of demographic shifts and the end of court ordered busing (Horn & Kurlaender, 2006). From 1994 to 2003 the white population in DPS decreased by 7%, the black population decreased by 2%, and the Latino population rose by 12%. At the same time, "DPS has begun to see a rise in the number of racially isolated schools" (Horn & Kurlaender, 2006, p. 7). Fully half of the elementary schools went through "noticeable change in white representation" (p. 8) after 1995.

Figure 1

  • 1973   Court-ordered desegretation
  • 1976   Gifted and Talented
  • 1990   Rise of inclusion
  • 1995   End of court-ordered desegretation
  • 2000   Highly Gifted and Talented
  • 2008   Changes to DPS' HGT application

Racial changes to the schools meant socio-economic changes as well. Race and class are highly inversely correlated in Denver. Schools with low white enrollment have a high number of students with a low socioeconomic status. Schools with a high concentration of poverty have "negative educational consequences on all students" there (Horn & Kurlaender, 2006, p. 11). Therefore, racial shifts following the end of busing in Denver left some schools with fewer resources and more needs than other schools in Denver, which left students more segregated in the district than before.

During the same time period, inclusion of students with disabilities rose in the district, although the Colorado Department of Education maintained a concern for and maintenance of a continuum of services (Duhaney, 1999). These two factors precipitated the 2000 proposal for formally adding HGT programs to the district.

Although Gifted and Talented has been a category under the Exceptional Children's Educational Act since 1976, a new sub-category officially emerged in Denver in 2000-2001 (C.R.S. 22-20-101 et. seq.) called Highly Gifted and Talented (this category does not exist anywhere else in the state). An HGT program arose as a pilot program in 1985 in a partnership between a local university and DPS (Teller Elementary, 2008). After several years of partnership the two entities split; the university created a university-based educational center and DPS decided to continue the HGT program as an official program starting in the 2000-2001 school year. Shortly thereafter, the DPS school board passed Resolution 2716 which provided guidelines for the few highly gifted elementary programs in the district (DPS, 2001a). A year later, school board meeting minutes indicated a need to increase the number of HGT programs from six to seven because of increased parental interest in placing students in these programs. The board also showed interest in this proposal because of worries about the "number of students who were attending private schools" in the area instead of staying in DPS. Parents also indicated that adding an HGT program to the seventh school, that already housed a program for students with hearing disabilities, "would enhance the appeal as a neighborhood school and expand their diversity" (DPS, 2002c). At that same meeting, another school that already housed an HGT program wanted to expand their program to include students who were labeled "high achieving students3 ." In this case, the school wanted to expand their program by opening the program to a broader group of students so that the few students in HGT would remain at the school; the other option was closing the HGT program because of low student enrollment, meaning that the HGT students most likely would leave (and their high test scores would too). This school had recently lost other students because they and their families followed "highly popular teachers" to a new school that recently opened (the new school is a K-8 and has a much higher population of white students, from 14.86% at the former school to 43.01% at the latter) (DPS, 2002c).

In early 2003, a member from the Denver Association for Gifted and Talented came to the school board with concerns about children that were being held back by No Child Left Behind. He felt that HGT students needed to be "allowed to forge ahead when they were performing above grade level" (DPS, 2003). A year later this same gentleman came back to the school board with two causes of concern; the first, a continued worry that the district was keeping advanced students from their potential because he felt they were receiving less attention and resources than "below average students," and he also asked the board to support an HGT high school in Denver (DPS, 2004).

School board commentary about HGT programs quieted down in 2005 and 2006 and then resurged in 2007. In early 2007 a parent commended the school board for "the district's commitment for two new schools for the 2008-2009 school year, one of which is a highly gifted magnet school" (DPS, 2007a). Two weeks later a resolution passed for the creation of the newest HGT program (DPS, 2007d). At that same meeting, a board member asked that the new school "aggressively recruit highly gifted students from low income and minority families" (DPS, 2007b). Two months later, a parent representative of the new HGT program told the board that the parent outreach committee's mission "is to reach out and recruit students that the gifted identification and testing process may miss; and to ensure cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity at the school and the new gifted program" (DPS, 2007c).

This issue recently gained more momentum. The Denver Post wrote an article titled "Minorities, poor get 'highly gifted' lift" in early 2008. This article cites a new entrance system into DPS' HGT programs that "gives extra credit to children who are economically disadvantaged or non-native English speakers" (Meyer, 2008). The article explains that HGT programs up until the present have "drawn mostly white students in a district that is mostly Latino (57% Latino, 20% white, and 19% black)" (Meyer, 2008). Right now only 25% of HGT students in the district are non-white. The new changes to entrance criteria are supposed to make that percentage rise to 30% (Meyer, 2008). Though only a 5% increase, the increase represents a "threefold increase" of English Language Learners and students who receive free and reduced lunch participating in the HGT program over the previous year (Meyer, 2008).

As of 2008, there is still no HGT high school in Denver. Enrollment in elementary and middle school HGT programs continues to be highly competitive, with a lottery and a waiting list every year.

Inclusion in Denver

Inclusion has risen nationwide over the past two decades. By 2000 "Most students (about 96 percent) with disabilities are being educated in regular school buildings. Almost half of all students with disabilities (46.5 percent) are being educated in the regular classroom for most of the school day. That is, they are outside the regular classroom for less than 21 percent of the school day" — or inside the classroom for about 80% of the school day (US Department of Education (DOE), 2003, p. 43). This number is slightly lower for students with LD, 44% of whom spend less than 21% of their time outside of the regular classroom (p. 44). In Colorado, the statistics are more promising. As of 2000-2001, 71% of students designated as having special educational needs in Colorado spent 80% or more of their time in the regular classroom. For students with LD that number rises to 76% (DOE, 2003).

One way that districts in Colorado choose to include students with disabilities is through a model of special education called the "center-school format" where all disabled students are bused to specific schools in order to pool services and personnel. In DPS, students with disabilities are bussed to 50 of the 63 elementary schools in the city. Students with different disability labels are served at different schools (Hubler, 2003). There are center programs at six of the eight HGT serving schools. Each school differs in the level of integration for students with disabilities and for HGT students.

In talking about inclusion, the Department of Education (2003) indicated that, "The trend over the past 10 years (from 1990 to 2000) has been to serve more children in less restrictive environments" (p. 50). However, an inverse trend is apparent with HGT programs in Denver. Students in HGT programs are placed in more restrictive settings, like HGT self-contained classes or in an HGT specific school. Inclusion is a way to have more students in the same environment interacting with each other academically as well as socially but what happens educationally and socially when there is one group of students entering the classroom while another group is leaving?

Rationales behind the recent rise of Highly Gifted and Talented

The context of the language surrounding the rise of and current definitions of HGT mimics many of the same reasons for separating out LD as a separate educational category in Sleeter's (1987) article. This section of the paper examines the theories of action pertaining to the rise of LD in Sleeter's (1987) paper in relation to discourses used in data gathered about the rise of HGT programs in Denver today. Gee (1996) argues that the ways in which discourses are used among members of a community demonstrate one way of being in that community. He states (1996), "the way we use language in particular contexts not only represents perspectives, but creates them as well" (p. 1905). Cherryholmes (1988) iterates, "All speech is action.... What is done with an utterance is material" (p. 7). The common language used around LD and HGT serves to justify the existence of separate programs and to justify finding new ways of segregating students in school. The rationale and the language used to explain the rationale is a "normalizing discourse, which has the potential to render invisible other kinds of knowledge and pedagogies" (Kornfeld et al., 2007, p. 1924) like that of creating truly inclusive classrooms where all students belong and thrive.

In Sleeter's article, she provides three main rationales for the rise of LD in American schools, first for white students and later for students of color in the US school system. These reasons are that 1) LD helps schools preserve inequalities, 2) LD helps give parents bio-medical reasons for their child's perceived differences, and 3) an LD designation provides extra resources in a system that has scarce resources. In Sleeter's article (1987), each rationale also relates to school resegregation. These rationales support different stake holders' views on what is important about public education and how to achieve those important social, political, economic, and educational goals. These same rationales exist today in the data collected for this study about the rise of HGT programs in DPS. Ferri and Connor (2006) demonstrate the linkages between the discourse of desegregation and inclusion — both serve to continue to exclude some students from schools and classrooms. In this study, I examine a similar but different effect where students are not systematically excluded but who actively find ways to "fly the coop" in similar ways to traditional white flight from urban areas (Armor, 1986).

The next section provides analysis of the rationales behind the rise of HGT programs. The analysis is based on an understanding of Sleeter's three rationales for the rise of LD in the 1960s. As I undertook an historical policy analysis of the rise of HGT Programs in DPS, I turned to several data sources: 20 years of legislative and news sources in Colorado from 1987 to present, Denver board of Education minutes from 2001 to present, State Board of education minutes, the Colorado Department of Education website, and the DPS website. The data reflects 1987 as a start date which corresponds to the publication date of Sleeter's article.

1) LD helps schools preserve inequalities

Sleeter indicates that LD as a category does not represent a category of "progress," but rather that it "was essentially conservative in that it helped schools continue to serve best those whom schools have always served best: the white middle and upper-middle class" (p. 212). The rise of HGT also demonstrates a return to conservatism in that the creation of this category serves white middle and upper middle class interests. DPS preserves inequalities through prioritizing the needs of these parents and through providing acceptable reasons for meeting their needs. These reasons include worries about white flight, objective assessments for HGT, inherent differences in students, and not wanting to hold students back from rising to their potential.

As an urban district, DPS school board members contend with students of middle and upper income fleeing to the suburbs. These students and their families are important to an urban district for the forms of capital they help keep in urban areas. The district administratorswants to keep white and middle-income students in the district,4 and they provide programs that incentivize them to stay. School board meeting minutes indicate a willingness by a select group of parents to push for HGT programs. On several occasions, school board and community members proposed starting a new HGT program in order to maintain or increase enrollment (DPS, 2002c). For example, one elementary school that already housed a well-attended HGT program advocated for the creation of another close by. The program manager for Gifted and Talented Programs indicated that the second school would be "a perfect site for expansion of the program because of increased growth in the area and the number of students who were attending private schools." Her reasoning for creating a new program is two-fold: increase of growth and increase of flight. These two seemingly contradictory statements reside in the same sentence, which indicates that even though there is growth, we can expect new students from that growth to choose private schools instead of public ones.

Inequalities also exist through the procedures for accessing HGT services. The testing students undergo for HGT demonstrates the use of "objective" assessments like the Raven's Test of Progressive Matrices and the Cognitive Abilities Test — both nationally norm referenced tests. These tests help Denver determine who are the top 1% of students in the district (DPS, n.d.a). The tests are given to a select group of students based on teacher or parent recommendation. However, Sleeter (1987) questions "objective assessments of individual characteristics" (p. 234). She also raises the argument that the "political purpose (of testing) …has been cloaked in the ideology of individual differences and biological determinism, thus making it appear scientifically sound" (Sleeter, 1987, p. 212). Individual testing is supported by parents and district personnel. In DPS, signs point to parents and schools using individual differences as the primary reason to merit separate programs for HGT students.

A principal of one of the HGT programs was cited as saying "they are very different children … They are very intense. This is a safe place for kids to be, and ask their weird questions and make up their strange games" (Meyer, 2008). Her use of "they" and "their" indicates a group set apart from other children, different from the norm in some way and obviously different from other "intense" children who "ask weird questions" and "make up strange games." If one accepts that "these children" need something that is "different from or additional to what is generally available," (Scottish Executive, 2006) then the logic follows that a district should provide these children with unique services.

HGT in Denver arises at an educational moment where tougher standards are the current norm and ability grouping is regaining public sentiment as the best way to educate students with disparate educational needs. At a school board meeting in 2003, a member of the Denver Association for the Gifted and Talented remarked that "concern (with)… 'No Child Left Behind' should not mean that any child should be held down to grade level and not be allowed to forge ahead when they were performing above grade level" (DPS, 2003). This same sentiment echoes through Sleeter's article (1987) when she indicates that heterogeneous grouping was replaced by "tougher standards and ability grouping, which was to 'enable bright students to forge ahead of others"(p. 218). It is uncanny how comments more than 15 years apart use the phrase "forge ahead" as a way to indicate why some students should be strongly encouraged to take the lead in the educational rat race. When some students are in the lead because of parental pressure or national economic gain, the rest are behind. This preserves inequality in the educational system.

Part of how schools maintain inequalities is through the rationale that in order for our country to do well economically in the world, our "best and brightest" must be singled out for special treatment. This argument has been around since the beginning of public schooling and was forwarded in Sleeter's article (1987) where she indicates how according to some, "schools exist to serve American's race for international control" (p. 215). This argument has been forwarded for HGT programs as well. For example, one area superintendent in 2001 called for "training counselors to identify students who have potential for success" (DPS, 2001b). How does a counselor identify students who have potential over the rest who do not have potential? One problem with identifying potential is documented in a California college-going study. California undertook a large scale study in 2006 that sought to document students' access to college information from counselors. The study found a large disparity between Latino and black students' access to college information from counselors, and that of Asian and Caucasian students. They found that one barrier to college-going equity was the use of counselors as gatekeepers who only indicate to those "students who have potential" about extra services like AP classes. When some students are selected over others for more information or better educational opportunities, the rhetoric of "potential" is often seen as a viable reason to promote some students' academic possibilities over other (Rouse, M., personal communication, October 3, 2008). Using potential as a marker provides a continued avenue for inequalities in schooling.

Given that inequality is structured into our educational system, we do see times when parents of color and their children rise up to ask 'what about us'? In Sleeter's article (1987) she indicates how LD started as something for white, middle class families to explain their own students' school failure. Soon thereafter, minority voices grew louder and indicated the injustices that students of color experienced by being placed in classes for students with mental retardation, cultural deprivation, or in other classes for students who were behind. The same phenomenon is currently happening in Denver in relation to access to HGT classes in the district. In Fall 2001, a group of high school students from high minority enrollment schools went before the Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD) "with allegations of disparate treatment in Denver Public Schools" (DPS, 2002b). Their concern led the CCRD to commission a report about the disparity in educational achievement between black and white students in the district. Although the report did not focus on HGT specifically, it did note that students of color in Denver were less likely to be in accelerated classes than their white counterparts. The report concluded that "to ensure full academic achievement success among African American students, inner-city schools must make AP courses accessible and teachers and counselors must encourage African American students to enroll" (Colorado Civil Rights Division, 2002, p. 10). In 2006, a Latino parent group asked the school board to ensure that "Gifted and talented programs … create parity for those Latino students not been identified or have been unintentionally misplaced into special education classrooms" (DPS, 2006). A year later, a school board member who agreed to approve another HGT program stated her concerns about racial and economic equity and asked that the new program "aggressively recruit highly gifted students from low income and minority families" (DPS, 2007b). In the first case the Latino parent group gently asks the school board to notice students that have "not been identified" or have been "unintentionally misplaced," such a gentle request indicated their lack of position of power in school board meetings. In the second case, a board member wants aggressive recruitment — a much stronger stance given her stronger position in the meeting.

One of the HGT programs is striving to aggressively recruit from low income and minority families. It has a Parent Outreach Committee whose primary purpose is to "reach out and recruit students that the gifted identification and testing process may miss; and to ensure cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity" (DPS, 2007c). Additionally, these concerns have been heeded by DPS, and starting in the 2009-2010 school year, admission to HGT programs will include broader assessment criteria like artwork, writing, speaking more than one language, and living in poverty (Meyer, 2008).

Parental outcry led to changes in student designation with learning disabilities (Sleeter, 1987). The same is beginning to happen with HGT in Denver. If parents of color find ways to get their children access to services they did not previously have, like in the case of LD, will that create more equitable schooling? Or will they just be competing for the 2% of available HGT spots in DPS? Or will their outcry just provide a new way for middle class and affluent parents to once again opt out (or up) in order to maintain educational advantages?

2) LD helps give parents bio-medical reasons for their child's perceived differences

The definition of HGT in Denver, rationale behind these programs, and parental wishes all point to large student academic differences as the main reason why these students need a different sort of education than other students in schools. One description of HGT students is that they have "demonstrated extraordinary academic achievement or abilities and intellectual potential found in the top one percent of the national student population" (Teller Elementary, 2008).

"Extraordinary" indicates that this group of students is outside the norm, the norm which is educationally standardized. Reliance on the "normal curve," used for determining innate ability, (Gould, 1981), results in students being described as being in the "top one percent," at the far right tail of the normal curve. Innate ability is heightened by the word "nationally"; not only are these students so far to the right of the curve in the district or state, they are so exceptional as to merit national comparison.

In Sleeter's article, (1987) she convincingly explains why parents and educators legitimate the idea of biological determinism to advance the rationale for LD programs in schools. Biological determinism, for these parents, helped their children break away from being "classified as slow or retarded by specifying the organic damage affected specific areas of learning, not learning in general" (p. 227). Labeling helped parents not have to take the blame for their child's perceived deficits and it separated their children from children who they perceived really were slow or retarded. The practice of labeling students as LD continued educational inequality because white and middle class students could be newly separated out from other students in desegregated schools.

Highly Gifted and Talented is a category that does not necessarily assume biological determinism, but it does rely on the belief that HGT students are significantly intellectually different from their peers. This belief in significant academic and intellectual difference provides the rationale for why some students need the HGT label and need separate educational services. Parents in DPS have advocated for their HGT students to be separated out from the rest of the school in order to best meet their children's needs. When discussions were under way in 2002 to open a new gifted and talented program at an elementary school, the spokesman said, "most of the parents with whom he has spoken have expressed a desire for their children to continue in a sheltered program, where the students stay in a group for core subjects and take only electives outside of the group" (DPS, 2002a).

These students are sheltered academically but they are also sheltered racially and economically too. HGT designation stratifies schools and classrooms in Denver. Out of the 68 elementary schools in Denver, eight house HGT programs. A simple comparison of the percentage of white students in a school to the schools that house HGT programs reveals a shocking pattern (see Table 1).

Table 1
Number of schoolsPercentage of white studentsNumber of HGT programs
4>80% 1
270-79.99%1
260-69.99%2
750-59.99%2
440-49.99%0
230-39.99%0
420-29.99%0
43< 20%2

In the 43 schools with less than 20% white students there are two HGT programs. In schools with less than 50% white students, which is 53 schools (or 78% of DPS elementary schools), the number of HGT programs does not increase. The other 75% of HGT programs occur in schools with more than 50% white students.

An interesting aspect of LD is how "many professionals believed that LD children were distinct from 'culturally deprived' children, even though the two shared similar learning characteristics" (p. 230). If these students are somehow intellectually different, then the rationale for separate programs gains ground. Admitting that LD students might be intellectually different from but share similar characteristics to another group calls into question significant intellectual difference as a rationale for separation or special programming. As mentioned, in DPS there are students who are considered Gifted and Talented (top 10%), those considered HGT (top 1-2%), and a third category of students considered to be High Achieving (HA). The differences between the categories are the tests given for entrance into the category and priority placement into programs. Ability and achievement tests have been called into question in relation to racial discrepancies in schooling (Horn & Luelander, 2006; Orfield & Lee 2005). If the tests are questioned, then placement into these specialized programs becomes questioned as well.

3) An LD designation provides extra resources in a system that has scarce resources

In Sleeter's article (1987), she explains the relationship between funding and categorical distinctions. She states, "For purposes of obtaining funds for special classes and teacher training, the category required a legal definition" (p. 229). HGT proponents know that added resources like training for teachers and special classes comes with a label and they seek to have these resources funneled towards their students. Staff at the newest elementary school to house an HGT program "have undergone extensive training in highly gifted education. They also will undergo continued professional development on differentiated learning for all ability groups" (Teller Elementary, 2008). This school received extra financial and professional support because of the new program. Luckily they see their mission as furthering the education of all students in the school and see differentiation as something for all their students, not a select few. This is only one of two HGT programs in the district where students who benefit from the HGT label are not in separate classrooms from their peers for the majority of the day. In the rest of the district, parents and educators prefer to use these resources for separate classes for this separate group of students.

The resource question is very interesting in an educational system that relies on scarcity of resources. Some schools have been in danger of losing their HGT programs because of lack of enrollment. DPS schools cannot justify hiring a teacher for less than 20 students. For example, one school chose "to expand the program at the school to include high achieving students. They found this to be a model that worked well (at 2 other schools). The numbers had declined … over the last years and they felt this expansion would help revitalize the program. They wanted to continue to offer a program with enough students to make a viable program" (DPS, 2002c). The rhetoric here is about revitalization of a program, not of finding a way to continue to serve a group of students who are qualitatively different than other students and need a separate setting. The underlying rationale is about keeping and expanding resources for this program at this school relates back to the category — whether LD or HGT — being a conduit for extra resources.

Lessons from the rise of HGT in DPS

Denver is undergoing many educational and demographic changes. In recent years the number of white students has fallen in the district and the number of students of color has risen and will continue to rise. In addition to the rise of students of color is the rise of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. In a school system that is based on scarcity and meritocracy, one can see why parents want to do what it takes to get the "best" education for their children. This system rewards getting to the top and staying there. Being part of a system that tries to integrate everyone into the same classroom produces fears about a lack of rigor due to heterogeneous groupings, a lack of hierarchy if there is nowhere "better" to be, and a lack of trust that the system will educate all students well.

In light of DPS' changes, one can ask: Why this program now? Although there is not a direct correspondence between race, class, and HGT, as has been shown to be the case for LD, there is enough circumstantial evidence to question the rise of HGT in Denver at a time when more students with disabilities and more students of color are flooding general classrooms. It is well documented that many school practices and policies benefit middle class and wealthy students — often at the expense of students in poverty (Darling-Hammond & Post, 2000; Kozol, 1992). Students of color and students with disabilities make up a great percentage of those in poverty. Therefore, classist underpinnings of schooling affect both these groups of students. Denver is the only district in the state to have HGT programs and it is the district with the least number of white students in the state. This could mean that the HGT program is opening challenging opportunities to all students in the district. It could also mean that HGT is a way to keep white students in the district. Recently parents of color and advocacy groups have noticed a racial discrepancy between students in these programs and the overall school and student populations. The rise of HGT now helps explain why 75% of the HGT programs are in schools with more than 50% white students.

Is dismantling HGT the best solution in Denver? We know that DPS is firmly entrenched in beliefs about meritocracy, white, middle class students and their parents benefit overwhelmingly from this meritocratic system. We also know that parents want to maintain status and have some control over deciding the "best" school for their children. If we try to create an egalitarian system it will just send those same parents off to find "something better" — which means leaving the district. So instead of creating a new reason for white flight, what else can be done in an urban area like Denver, where "white parents flee to make the best possible life for their children within a social context they accept" (Sleeter, 1987, p. 233)?

Everyone has the "desire to be part of a set of functionally relevant and valued social norms and institutions," but these norms and institutions will have to change quite dramatically to meet this desire (Kittay, 2006, p. 97). One idea for changing norms and institutions that benefit from HGT is to show parents how creating a truly egalitarian class can give all students a chance to excel in school (Hart et al., 2004). Another idea is to develop a broader sense of giftedness in the school and community (Matthews & Foster, 2005). A third is to create creative ways to keep students interested at school. These include whole grade or subject specific acceleration, as well as forms of enrichment like mentorship, career exploration, books, and online possibilities (Matthews & Foster, 2005). Horn and Kurlaender (2006) note that "white students in integrated settings exhibit more racial tolerance and less fear of their black peers over time than their counterparts in segregated environments … and leads to their likelihood of cross-racial interactions and friendships" (p. 5). If white parents see evidence that their child learns valued social and academic skills and receives extra value in the form of what desegregation does for white students, then maybe we have a chance at making schools into a part of the democratic process in this nation.

The newest HGT program in Denver is striving to do things differently than before. It sees adoption of an HGT program as something that will benefit all students in the school. Much like other inclusive practices that open classrooms up for all students through creating multiple entry and exit paths to a lesson or giving students choice in their own learning, this "school's goal is to create intentional and effective learning environments for all students. Every child … will benefit from this highly differentiated curriculum, instruction and assessment" (Teller Elementary, 2008). Rather than pulling students away from each other and creating an environment where some learn more, better, or differently than others, this new program understands its mission to bring new pedagogies to everyone at the school. It sees how "every child benefits both academically and socially by interacting with many different children with many different special gifts. This model is real life" (Teller Elementary, 2008).

Popkewitz (2002) argues that curricular decisions "obscure the normalizing and dividing practices of teaching. This includes reformulating questions of diversity into a particular curriculum enactment that has consequences for social exclusion and inclusion" (p. 262). HGT, like other categories in schooling, does not, in and of itself, have to be dividing — but in practice it often is. It often divides students based on race, class, and ability even though the official rationales do not articulate these hidden curricula. The discourses highlighted in this paper demonstrate that HGT programs are often used as a mechanism to diminish white flight from the district, but result in white flight within the district. The rationales behind HGT discourses parallel in many ways those demonstrated by Sleeter in the rise of learning disabilities: preservation of inequalities, bio-medical (or significantly different intellectually) reasons for children's perceived differences, and extra resources in a system that has scarce resources.

HGT, whether a term for one child or a group of children, impacts that child, other children with the same label, other children at the school and at other schools, teachers, parents, administrators, and the list could go on. This new category in DPS is shaping "in profound ways the possibilities for learning and change" back to the status quo of segregated Denver public schools (Cook-Sather & Youens, 2007, p. 62). However, HGT also has the possibility, as in the case of the newest HGT program, to shape classrooms that benefit every child both academically and socially, but it will take careful and continual pressure to break away from the status quo and create schools and classrooms that benefit all of Denver's students equally.

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Endnotes

  1. "HGT students" is language used throughout policy and school board documents so it is the language used in this paper.


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  2. There are discrepancies in this paper between 2% and 1% being the cut off for students to be considered HGT in Denver. The discrepancies occur because different official documents cite either 2% or 1% of the student population as eligible for HGT services.


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  3. "The tests to determine highly gifted and high achieving students are different. Highly gifted children are screened on ability tests like the Raven's Test of Progressive Matrices and the Cognitive Abilities Test. High achieving students are screened on achievement tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Aprenda, or CSAP. The designation of highly gifted makes a difference when placing students at magnet sites. At each Highly Gifted Program magnet site, students who qualify for the Highly Gifted Program are placed first. If the magnet site is also a high achieving site such as A, B, C, or D, students who qualify under high achieving are placed after highly gifted students. These students attend the same classes throughout the day. Personalized Education Plans should be completed once a semester for students in the Highly Gifted Program as per the Highly Gifted Program guidelines, but beyond that, nothing is different for these students in the classroom" (DPS, n.d.a).


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  4. Denver has about 20% white students while the rest of the state has over 60% white students across districts.


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