“Social Justice” Comes for Henrico’s Gifted Program

by James A. Bacon

Here we go again. The Richmond Times-Dispatch is using “statistical disparities” as evidence of racial bias in Henrico County schools.

Under pressure from federal authorities to address racial disparities, Henrico County is endeavoring to enroll more students from minorities in the county’s “gifted” programs. States the article: “The Richmond Times-Dispatch reviewed annual reports on the demographics of the Henrico students identified as gifted and compared them with the division’s enrollment demographics…. As of the 2021-22 school year, Asian and white students were 4.9 times and 3.5 times likelier than Black students to be determined gifted.”

Why does such a disparity exist? Black parents in Henrico, wrote the RTD, claim that Black students are not being identified as gifted due to behavioral issues, according to an external audit of the program.

The article leads with a story of a bright biracial lad whose teachers acknowledged that he was mathematically gifted but did not admit him into Henrico’s gifted program on the grounds of immaturity. He acted out because he was bored by remote learning during the COVID shutdowns, said his mother, Amanda Reisner. “That didn’t set right by me. Maturity has nothing to do with giftedness.”

Reisner’s remark raises an interesting question of whether students (of whatever race) should be denied admittance to a gifted program if they are unable to conform to expected behavioral standards. But let’s set that aside and focus on how the RTD uses statistics to make admissions into the gifted program a racial issue.

In RTD-World, the fact that more Asians and Whites are admitted to gifted programs is highly suggestive of bias.

Matthew was not admitted to Henrico’s gifted program in first grade, and only one student at his school, Mehfoud Elementary in the Varina District, was identified for the program that year.

Varina, a district on the far east end of the county, has areas with high concentrations of poverty. Its student population is nearly 75% Black.

Meanwhile, across town on the wealthier western end, the Three Chopt District has less than 12% Black enrollment and had several elementary schools with upward of 100 students in the gifted program the same year.

Here’s a point of comparison that the RTD did not use: the percentage of elementary school students who score “pass advanced” in English and math.

In Three Chopt Elementary, 41% of Asian students, 44% of White students, and 26% of Black students scored “advanced” on their English reading Standards of Learning exams last year. For math, the pass rate was 59% for Asians, 35% for Whites, and 10.5% for Blacks.

In Mehfoud Elementary, the Virginia Department of Education build-a-table returns zero results for students passing English reading and math. The tragic reality, in other words, is that no student scored “pass advanced.” If none qualified as pass advanced, it is no surprise that that only one last year met the even more stringent criteria to qualify as “gifted.”

The pertinent issue is why academic achievement is so low at Mehfoud Elementary. One line of questioning might address the socioeconomic background of the children. What percentage of children come from households classified as economically disadvantaged? What percentage come from single-parent households? What percentage suffer from disabilities? How engaged are their parents in their learning at home? Another line of inquiry might examine the conditions at the school itself. How short-staffed are the teachers? How is teacher morale? Are administrators working to raise expectations, or do they make excuses for poor academic achievement?

The RTD asks none of these questions in this article — just as it fails to ask these questions in any of its reporting. Reporters use one and only one prism: race. The newspaper routinely presents racial statistics in such a context so as to allow readers to infer that discrimination or bias is at work.

Discrimination or bias cannot be ruled out as factors in differential outcomes. But the same can be said for dozens of other variables. The data I have presented suggest that the racial breakdown of children in Henrico’s gifted program is largely consistent with the breakdown of children performing at advanced levels in their SAT tests. If Black children are under-represented compared to their population in advanced SAT scores, we must seek explanations other than bias in the selection process for the gifted program.

I would go one step further in this analysis. The ideologically driven obsession with race is highly detrimental to public education. It distracts from the underlying issues responsible for low educational achievement, and it calls for inappropriate “solutions” that might well do more harm than good. Will admitting more bright students with behavioral issues into gifted programs be beneficial to anyone? Call me dubious.

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38 responses to ““Social Justice” Comes for Henrico’s Gifted Program”

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Henrico School Board candidates need to vigorously debate this issue prior to the November 2023 election. The equity wrecking ball needs to be weighed in the balance of the voting public.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    The newspaper did not ask the questions you pose because they were not the point of the article. The article was about gifted programs. The article cites facts–the disproportionate number of of Black kids in gifted programs. You cite the differences in standardized test scores among schools. However, you ignore the argument made by one teacher that giftedness is not always reflected in grades. Do you think that Blacks are less gifted, as reflected in the proportions in Henrico’s gifted program.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Your question in the last sentence is beneath you, Dick.

      Performance can certainly be evidence of being gifted.

      But lack of performance does not prove a child is ungifted.

      A kid can be learning disabled and gifted, for example. He or she may need the learning disability to be dealt with before assigning to a gifted class.

      The child can be bored in class, act up, and still be gifted.

      Schools can use IQ tests to check if a child is gifted if his/her performance does not indicate it. The most widely used individual IQ tests for school-aged youngsters, and the most valid and reliable of the measures are the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fifth Edition (WISC-V), the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence – Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV) and the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scales.

      None of that has anything to do with race. None of that tells us anything about Henrico’s gifted program.

      Neither does the RTD article.

    2. walter smith Avatar
      walter smith

      And do you believe that any result not in strict proportion to percentage of the population is racism?
      Are college and pro athletic teams racist?
      Seriously, is your contention that any significant difference can only be racist?
      That’s not a serious proposition. And if it is, it is foolish.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I have never argued for a “strict proportion to percentage of the population.” However, when there is a significant disparity that is widespread, there is a problem

        The facts are clear. There is a clear disparity in the proportion of Black students admitted to Henrico’s gifted program. Unless one thinks that Black students are naturally less gifted, I fail to understand why anyone would object to the Henrico schools trying to figure out why more Black students are not being identified for the program and refining its selection criteria to better identify the factors involved.

        You consistently bring up college and pro athletic teams as examples. The situations are not comparable. The rosters of teams are based on objective measures tailored to the activities engaged in by the teams. That is not the case for elementary school kids.

        1. “The rosters of teams are based on objective measures tailored to the activities engaged in by the teams.”

          How is that different for gifted programs or achievement tests? They use “objective measures tailored to the activities engaged in”

          JAB hit it with questions about poverty and chaotic single parent households.

          We clearly need to do much more to help disadvantaged kids thrive. The Gov’s initiative to get all kids reading and writing at grade level by 3rd grade is a good start.

          Focusing on lack of achievement through the lens of race rather than conditions that affect all disadvantaged kids hurts rather than helps.

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            I agree that it is important that all children are able to read at grade level by third grade. What actions has the Governor or his administration taken to implement this priority?

          2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Excellent change of subject.
            In answer to your question, See https://www.doe.virginia.gov/teaching-learning-assessment/k-12-standards-instruction/english-reading-literacy/literacy/virginia-literacy-act

            That is the Virginia Literacy Act passed in the 2022 General Assembly and signed by Governor Youngkin.

            BTW, the VLA was one of the most bi-partisan efforts I have ever seen. https://legiscan.com/VA/sponsors/HB319/2022

            Here is the approved bill. https://legiscan.com/VA/text/HB319/id/2575201.

            It is now § 22.1-253.13:1. (For Effective Date, see 2022 Acts cc. 549, 550, cl. 2) Standard 1. Instructional programs supporting the Standards of Learning and other educational objectives.

            In Richmond, the Board of Education has a lot of work to do. Among other things, it has to update the Standards of Learning, which require public hearings and wait times. The legislation and associated procurement laws require time to acquire state approved remedial reading materials, but VDOE is working through those requirements as well for BOE approval.

            On the local level, reading specialists and teachers in schools are already at work on remedial reading instruction.

            But then you could have looked it up yourself.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            ” … if their child does not meet literacy benchmarks.”

          4. Dunno how far it has progressed beyond his initiative. Maybe someone who is following the GA will know what funding the initiative is likely to receive.

            Youngkin is at least doing something positive. It beats just moaning about “equity” and how lack of achievement isn’t real, it’s all just racism. That guarantees failure for a lot of kids.

        2. walter smith Avatar
          walter smith

          Then point to some objective factor showing racism. And athletics is not necessarily entirely objective. Nonetheless, generally the ability wins out. There are tons of factors possible, including that the group of kids who attend Mehfoud have less ability, black and white, overall. And, aren’T “Asians” over-represented? Is Henrico discriminating in favor of Asians?

        3. LarrytheG Avatar

          You’re onto the issue and the usual suspects ….

        4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          Dick, your jump to “Unless one thinks that Black students are naturally less gifted” is despicable.

          That is twice.

          The first was “Do you think that Blacks are less gifted, as reflected in the proportions in Henrico’s gifted program?”

          Have you stopped beating your wife?

          See how that works?

      2. LarrytheG Avatar


    3. TacoTuesdays Avatar


  3. Behavior problems might well go away when the child is placed in a challenging and rewarding environment. Engagement tends to crowd out behavior issues. It is hard to separate race from the many possible underlying socioeconomic factors including implicit bias. Yet many want to argue that race matters not at all.

  4. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    There should be written, specific and objective standards for when a child qualifies for gifted classes. If a student satisfies the standard, she/he should be admitted. Behavioral issues are separate and must be considered as such. If any student has behavioral problems, they should be addressed irrespective of whether the student is in remedial, general or gifted programs.

    The test for racial or ethnic bias should compare those students who qualify for a gifted program against those who get into such a program. If there is, for example, a significantly lower number of black students getting in the gifted programs over the base that qualify versus a similar comparison to white, Hispanic or Asian students, we have a problem.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      One way to do this is put down each candidate on paper without identifying race and let a 3rd party using those “objective standards” choose.

      1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

        That is the way we took tests in law school. Everyone got a card with a number on it. The number was written on the blue book in which test answers were written or on the typed paper. The instructor did not know the identity of the students while grading. Ditto for the two bar exams I took – one in Minnesota and one in Iowa. It always seemed to be a fair way to treat students.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          We agree. They could and should do that for deciding which kids go into the gifted program.

          Purely by the attributes of the kid that would make them candidates or not.

          The trick is defining what the attributes are. IQ is certainly one. what else?

          1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            Other factors beyond intelligence could be considered at the margins without defeating the purpose and fairness of the programs. But whatever is considered should be written and its relative weight set forth. When government makes decisions about people those judgments should be as objective as possible and based on recorded facts. One such factor might be enthusiasm for learning. A student who is excited about learning is more likely to benefit from advanced classes than one who sits like a lump day after day. But this should be documented.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            We agree, but on these factors that are more subjective, it’s important to have people who are distanced from the ones they are judging and using those measures without regard to the child, his/her school and their demographics. At that level when the word “enthusiasm” appears in the documentation , there is no room to give more (or less) weight to any individual students – it’s across the board for all students treated the same way.

            In my mind, no one that knows the child , his/her teacher, principal, others at the school, should
            be involved in any final determination, and that should be done by folks apart from that school and disassociated from the child and his “home” school.

            The other factor is exactly what resources are provide to the child and whether they are at his/her school or a “regional” school. That’s important because of the numbers of kids at each school
            that qualify and if it is in a school where only one or two kids are determined to be gifted, will they
            then receive the same level of resources that would be provided at a school with 10 or 20 kids who are determined to be gifted?

          3. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            Demographics should not enter a decision whether a student enters a gifted or advanced class. As to admissions to a special school like TJHSST, geography could be considered under a plan where X seats per middle school were guaranteed so long as all of the eligible students pass an admissions test.

  5. Maybe Henrico should look to Charlottesville where last year they declared 86% of their kids were gifted. That was the rate of giftedness that was needed to achieve racial “equity” in giftedness in C’ville.

    See how simple it is to solve the discrimination in giftedness problem? That’s much easier than actually working to help poor kids, many from chaotic homes, actually succeed academically.

    The Gov’s initiative to teach all kids to read and write by 3rd grade is a big leg up to achieving success for all kids.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Probably right relative to statewide.

      1. Guess statistics are just a subset of those racist mathematics. Maybe we should congratulate most black kids for declining to culturally appropriate STEM stuff.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    When we’re talking about young children, we’re not talking about older “competitors” that have been identified as potential talent and then trained and developed.

    A small child has no training, just pretty much a blank slate who can be tested for IQ but even that is not considered 100% definitive.

    So the question is for kids of roughly equal IQs, what wouldn’t they qualify somewhere near their demographic percentages in the population. Small differences yes, huge disparities – why?

    No, it’s not necessarily racism but it IS something. Do we want to know what it is? Can we explain to most folks reasonable expectations WHY big disparities are to be expected?

    In my mind we should know and understand the “why” and saying it’s “culture” is no more acceptable than saying it’s “racism” without some serious explanations.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    We’d certainly need what attributes are used in determining whether they are candidates for the gifted program. Then we’d need each kid to be judged purely on those attributes by someone not in that school and not knowing their demographics.

    So how is it done now?

    1. Try reading this: https://www.doe.virginia.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/2314/637950367189030000 then look up that school division’s statements. There is nothing in the regulations about demographics and there is a requirement to screen for bias in the materials used:
      7. Assurances that (i) the selected and administered testing and assessment materials have been evaluated by the developers for cultural, racial, and linguistic biases; (ii) identification procedures are constructed so that those procedures may identify high potential or aptitude in any student whose accurate identification may be affected by economic disadvantages, by limited English proficiency, or by disability; (iii) standardized tests and other measures have been validated for the purpose of identifying gifted students; and (iv) instruments are administered and interpreted by a trained personnel in conformity with the developer’s instructions.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Thanks for the link. Many subjective words that are left up to the school division to decide specifics.

        The fact that there are significant disparities cannot be really explained away by what boil down to really exceptionally subjective processes.

        ” ) identification procedures are constructed so that those procedures may identify high potential or aptitude in any student whose accurate identification may be affected by economic disadvantages,”

        claiming that procedures are “constructed so that” is not proof at all that it is actually done in a fair and objective way.

        I’m not buying it. There are significant disparities, and the claim is that ” we do it right”. Nope.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        If a child was being evaluated for a potential learning disability, it would not read like this. There would be specific indicators they would be looking for.

        The same approach should be used for gifted, not subject opinions characterized by words like “may”. Either the child has specific characteristics that merit selection or they do not.

        And the process should be done exclusively by professionals, the same way that determinations are made with respect to providing help for a learning disabled child.

        The descriptions here of who may be involved in such determinations include almost anyone in the school, no matter whether they have actual expertise in evaluating gifted children or not.

        The process as described is clearly susceptible to bias and no surprise there is such a large disparity in the outcomes.

  8. First, it needs to be determined if his acting out is from more than boredom. Just putting him into the gifted program without any professional evaluation of other potential issues would be a disservice. “Supporting the Identification and Achievement of the Twice-Exceptional Student: Frequently Asked Questions” https://www.doe.virginia.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/38912/638064336621800000
    Looking at “What are the most common characteristics of twice-exceptional learners,” this item stands out for this child: “Appears immature relative to cognitive ability and chronological age since such students may use anger, crying, and/or withdrawal to express feelings and deal with difficulties.” If there are other issues in the list, then the child is entitled to both gifted education and identification of what additional supports he may need through an IEP.

  9. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “The article leads with a story of a bright biracial lad whose teachers acknowledged that he was mathematically gifted but did not admit him into Henrico’s gifted program on the grounds of immaturity…. Reisner’s remark raises an interesting question of whether students (of whatever race) should be denied admittance to a gifted program if they are unable to conform to expected behavioral standards”

    He’s 8 years old (you didn’t mention that). It really is not unusual for some children (boys in particular) to mature at slightly different rates. The school certainly has experienced such factors in its student population – nothing new there. Seems like his age, however, is important to whatever case is being made. Additionally, he entered kindergarten during Covid. It is not like he is a gifted 5th grader who is “unable to conform to expected behavioral standards.”.

    But the real question is not whether children (of whatever race) are being denied based on behavior but more whether children of specific races are being denied based on behavior while some are not (for the same behaviors).

    1. TacoTuesdays Avatar

      Simple solution.

      Go by test scores only.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        I am not sure that test scores are the only valid indicator of a gifted child in the 1st grade but there should be as many objective criteria that are not subject to personal opinions as possible to be sure.

  10. Thomas Dixon Avatar
    Thomas Dixon

    The sign on the entrance to work reads, “Women and minorities are encouraged to apply”.
    Ain’t diversity and inclusion great?

  11. democracy Avatar

    Marian Diamond, who died last year, was well-known for the research she did on rat brains, finding that rats raised in “enriched” environments had bigger, denser brains than those raised in a control group, which in turn had bigger, denser brains than those raised in an “impoverished” environment. Diamond said that she and her fellow researchers had no problem extrapolating the rat brain research to human brains.

    There’s a reason for that. Because it’s true.

    Everyone has a brain. Not many know much about it and how it works. The development of the brain is critical in the early years. Young brains that develop under conditions of malnutrition, environmental degradation, violence and abuse tend to end up very different in size and neural wiring than those that develop in more ideal conditions .

    The American Academy of Pediatrics puts it this way: “toxic stress in young children can lead to less outwardly visible yet permanent changes in brain structure and function….chronic stress is associated with hypertrophy and overactivity in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, whereas comparable levels of adversity can lead to loss of neurons and neural connections in the hippocampus and medial PFC.”

    In plain speak, alleviating poverty and its pernicious effects, and providing children with high quality environments before they get to school, and following up with health and academic and social policy programs while they are in school, results not only in high-quality education but also in a high-quality citizenry….and in promoting the general welfare of the nation.

    Isn’t that what public education in a democratic republic is supposed to do?

    It is, at least to those who are interested in helping to nurture democratic citizenship, and who want to promote the general welfare.

    We’ve known for some time that poverty affects the developing brains of children. Research confirms it. A recent study at MIT “found differences in the brain’s cortical thickness between low-income and higher-income teenagers.” Not surprisingly, those differences find their way into test scores. Another recent study found that low-income children had brain surface areas 6 percent smaller than those of upper-middle class kids. That typically translates into less brain density, and then, into a lessened ability for ” language, memory, spatial skills and reasoning.” These things can be ameliorated. But not for free.

    As Richard Rothstein reported in ‘Class and the Classroom’ nearly a decade-and-a-half ago in discussing literacy gaps between low-income and higher-income children, “deficits like these cannot be made up by schools alone, no matter how high the teachers’ expectations. For all children to achieve the same goals, the less advantaged would have to enter school with verbal fluency that is similar to the fluency of middle-class children.”

    There’s nothing new or radical about any of this. It’s in the Constitution. The Framers envisioned a democratic society “ in which the common good was the chief end of government.” They agreed with John Locke’s view that the main purpose of government –– the main reason people create government –– is to protect their persons through –– as historian R. Freeman Butts put it –– a social contract that placed “the public good above private desires.” The goal was “a commonwealth, a democratic corporate society in which the common good was the chief end of government.”

    Is there any sane person who would say that Trump, the Republican Party, white evangelicals, and white supremacists share in that conception of democratic government? Isn’t it abundantly obvious they they don’t?

    Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about the desire of humans to know, and the fear of knowing, because knowing requires doing. It’s easier to pin a flag on a lapel than it is to commit to and work for “liberty and justice for all.” It’s a cinch to profess you’ve been “saved” by a “lord and savior” if you really don’t have to do much beyond that, especially if — as prosperity preachers preach — “God wants you to be rich.”

    Psychologist Milton Rokeach explained in ‘The Open and Closed Mind’ that ‘beliefs’ often lead to the quest for “power and status,” identification with absolute authority and “a cause,” and “the moral condemnation” of those one deems inferior or different. People who are more dogmatic — close-minded — are more likely to believe and behave that way. The Republican Party is their ideological home. Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it this way in a piece, ‘Let’s Just Say It: Republicans Are the Problem’:

    “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition..”

    Let me put that a different way. Republicans are now inherently opposed to democracy and everything it represents., including public schools.

    Testing in the United States has a long and pernicious history. Alfred Binet, one of the early pioneers in “intelligence” testing, feared that student test “scores” would lead to labels. He was right. The SAT is a test that emerged from intelligence testing, and its abuses are legendary.

    See, for example: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/the-best-class-money-can-buy/4307/

    During World War I the U.S. Army used what it called the Alpha Test, derived from IQ testing, to sort and select recruits to be grunts or officers. Not surprisingly, immigrants and the poor and those with little formal education fared far worse than more affluent, white, longer-term U.S. residents.

    And after World War I testing abuses got worse.

    The eugenics movement relied on “intelligence” testing to help determine which citizens should be forcibly sterilized. Indeed, the words moron, idiot and imbecile were clinical terms used to describe the degree of a person’s mental “impairment.” In Buck v. Bell (1927) the Supreme Court endorsed testing for the purpose of certifying those who were mentally “deficient” and thus a burden to society.

    Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that Carrie Buck was a “feeble-minded woman,” who “is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health, and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”

    Coming in the wake of the first world war, and at a time when testing was promoted as being “scientific” and even “infallible,” Buck v. Bell sanctioned forced sterilization in the United States.

    Holmes continued: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

    And it only got worse. See, for example:

    Just when forced sterilization was ending in the U.S., laissez-faire supply-side economic policies became ascendant with Reagan and Bush number one. Deficits and debt piled up, the U.S. became the world’s largest debtor and ran huge trade deficits, jobs were shipped off-shore, and the rich became fabulously richer.

    Then, Reagan administration published ‘A Nation at Risk,’ claiming that American economic competitiveness and national security were threatened by “a rising tide of mediocrity” in public schools.

    None of that is true.

    There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?

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