Harvard Educational Review
  1. Reversing Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students

    Promising Practices and Programs

    By Donna Y. Ford

    New York: Teachers College Press, 1996. 256 pp. $52.00; 24.95 (paper).

    Reversing Underachievement among Gifted Black Students: Promising Practices and Programs is an important and timely book, the first to outline the problems in defining, identifying, programming, retaining, and providing thoughtful solutions for the education of gifted, potentially gifted, and underachieving African American students. With a newly developed federal definition of giftedness, it is important to ensure that African American students benefit from gifted and talented programs. With this book, Donna Ford will contribute to the reform of gifted and talented programs in the United States. As Ford states in her preface:

    This book is an ambitious undertaking . . . developed with multiple audiences in mind — educators, counselors, parents, administrators, researchers, and practitioners. It is comprehensive because it focuses on the psychological, social, and cultural factors that influence the achievement of Black youth who are gifted or potentially gifted. It focuses on the respective and collaborative roles that families, educators, peers, and students themselves must play in promoting the academic, psychological, and socioemotional well-being of these particular students. (p. ix)

    In the first two chapters, Ford confronts two related problems — the definition and identification of real and potential giftedness, and the definition and identification of underachievement. She provides encompassing theories and definitions of giftedness, intelligence, and underachievement in order to provide a structure for exploring the practices that facilitate identification of students who are gifted, students who are talented, and students who are underachievers. Within this context, Ford makes a strong case for what she terms "potentially gifted," and argues convincingly that the past and current identification process for inclusion in gifted programs neglects the African American population. Further, she explains how racist policies and practices of educators, institutions, measurement instruments, and negative stereotypes affect the placement of African Americans in gifted programs across the nation, thus causing many African American students who may be gifted to be overlooked. These factors also reinforce the stereotype of African American students as underachievers. Ford exposes the lack of knowledge teachers and other school personnel charged with selecting gifted and talented students often have about this process. Because the traits and talents of many African American students may look quite different from those of White students, she claims, teachers and staff members are often unable to identify gifted African American students.

    Although Ford is excellent at pointing out the flaws in the current system for identifying students for gifted and talented educational programs, she does not end her discussion there. She makes ample recommendations for making gifted educational programs inclusive rather than remaining exclusive, such as comprehensive and culturally sensitive assessments.

    In chapters four through nine, Ford describes the factors that affect and/ or influence representation of African American students in gifted programs: social, cultural, and psychological factors; gender issues; and school and family influences. She explains the problems and then provides recommendations to ameliorate the effects they can have on African American students. In these chapters, Ford relies on current research while also acknowledging the dearth of research that includes African American participants. Clearly, Ford has done her homework.

    In a key chapter, "Promising Practices, Paradigms, and Programs," Ford analyzes several programs that attend specifically to the needs and concerns of gifted and talented African American students. Ford identified ten themes that permeated these exemplary programs: 1) increased acceptance that giftedness is multidimensional; 2) greater recognition that giftedness has numerous manifestations; 3) accepting that giftedness is contextually and culturally sensitive; 4) developing a culture of assessment rather than identification; 5) an emphasis on continuous and long-term assessment; 6) a philosophy of inclusiveness; 7) a prescriptive philosophy; 8) collaborative partnerships; 9) staff development and parent and family education; and 10) a commitment to reform in gifted education (p. 186). In focusing on these themes and on programs such as Project First Step, Project Discovery, Project Spring II, among others, Ford attempts to identify supportive environments that encourage gifted African American students to achieve.

    The final chapter includes recommendations for future research and programs that will increase both the knowledge about gifted and underachieving African Americans and the numbers of African American students in gifted programs. Ford ends her powerful and comprehensive book in this way:

    In general, our efforts to recruit Black students into gifted programs have increased in recent years. However, more concerted efforts must be aimed at the retention of these students once they are placed. In this way, we ensure that underachieving, gifted, and potentially gifted Black students receive the education to which they are entitled, that their educational rights are not violated, and that they participate in all opportunities that promise to discover and then nurture their abilities. (p. 200)

    This is a powerful ending to a book that should make teachers, administrators, and parents think more deeply about gifted education and African American students' place in it.

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