Equity in Highly Capable (HiCap) programs in Washington State is a hot topic these days. There's no question that there is a disproportional under-representation of low-income students, students with learning disabilities, English Language Learners, and students of color in our HiCap programs statewide. But what is the root cause behind this disproportionality?
Peeling the onion, first we find that there are many outdated identification practices in common use, that each carry bias: relying on parent or teacher referral to identify students for testing, conducting testing on Saturdays, using only English-language test instruments, sending only English-language information about the HiCap program to parents, yearly testing windows, not providing practice tests to all students, ignoring known biases in the test instruments, relying on the appeal process to catch mistakes, and many others.
Peeling the onion a bit further, we find that even if students were identified properly, there are many outdated practices in how districts provide access to HiCap programming that creates barriers, such as: not providing full transportation to magnet programs, classroom makeup that does not reflect the diversity of the community, believing that differentiation can reliably meet HiCap student needs, assuming that all students have access to technology and homework help at home, and many others.
Peeling the onion a bit further, we realize that the driving issue behind these problems of identification and access is a lack of funding in the WA state budget, despite the fact that Highly Capable programs have been part of Basic Education since 2014. Outdated identification practices arise because there is not enough funding to “do it right.” Furthermore, HiCap funding is used almost entirely for identification and professional development (not staff), so UNDER-FUNDING highly capable programs in the WA state education budget is DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR EQUITY PROBLEM in highly capable programs across the state.
Peeling to the center of the onion, we realize that the reason Highly Capable funding has not been prioritized is because most people believe that HiCap students will turn out alright in the end, regardless of whether they were well served at school. This is a myth. In actuality, HiCap students have challenges in social and emotional development, delayed development of executive function, and are at significant risk of not developing grit or growth mindset if school is always “easy” for them.
We need to stop thinking about Highly Capable programs as a coveted “prize,” and the equity problem as being primarily about figuring out how to spread that prize around more fairly. That’s not it at all.
Rather, we need to reframe the conversation: HiCap programs are a vital “whole child” intervention for vulnerable students who would likely not be successful with a conventional approach. Hence, we need to seek out EVERY child who needs that intervention, in order to best support students’ long term outcomes.
With that frame of mind, we realize that some of our most vulnerable children are habitually underrepresented in our state’s HiCap programs, which just makes this inequity that much more painful. This is a social justice issue.