Could Our Assumptions about Who Receives Advanced Education be Wrong?

Recent surveys suggest higher participation rate among minority students than expected

A student paints at an easel in art class

Advanced education has always been controversial. Whether discussing gifted programs, acceleration, ability grouping, or honors courses, school leaders and equity-minded advocates have questioned the need for and effectiveness of such services.

The debate has become especially acrimonious, primarily due to underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and low-income groups in these programs. In response, many public schools have reduced or eliminated advanced services, arguing that the programs are both discriminatory and ineffective (see San Francisco, Cleveland, Culver City, among many other examples).

But do parents and caregivers share these misgivings? Evidence suggests they are sensitive to concerns about social justice but disagree with schools’ efforts to eliminate or reduce advanced services. For example, media reports indicate that many parents in San Francisco sought alternatives when advanced math was rolled back in the public schools. Furthermore, in a recent, nonbinding referendum, over 80% of voters approved a measure requesting that the San Francisco school board reinstate algebra in middle school.

However, much of this information is anecdotal or focused on specific school districts. Early last year, we began a partnership to examine data collected directly from parents about their families’ experiences with advanced education. A question on advanced education was included in three monthly EdChoice/Morning Consult national surveys: “How many of your children, if any, are taking at least one gifted, advanced, or honors class at her/his school?”

The question was broad but provided insight into who receives advanced services. The U.S. Department of Education, via its Civil Rights Data Collection, estimates that 6.7% of students participate in gifted education programs. However, the participation rates parents reported by this survey were considerably higher (see table below for the March survey; February and October data are similar). For example, nearly 50% of parents reported that at least one of their children participated in some form of advanced education.

Participation rates for low-income students are relatively low (roughly half the rate for high-income families), which was expected. But nearly half of Black parents reported their child received advanced services. That rate is similar to the responses from non-Hispanic white parents and several times greater than public school participation rates drawn from other sources (again from OCR: 13% Asian, 8% White, 5% Hispanic, 5% American Indian, 4% Black). Parents in rural areas or small towns reported among the lowest levels of participation. These results suggest Black families may use a range of options to obtain advanced services for their children in school, yet rural families may have limited options.

Table 1. Parent-Reported Participation of Children in School-Based Advanced Programs (N = 1,029)

Group Total
Overall 49%
Black 48
Asian 64
Non-Hispanic White 47
Hispanic 53
Low Income 34
Middle Income 43
High Income 66
Urban 61
Suburban 48
Small Town 31
Rural 37

Source: Morning Consult National Tracking Poll #2303093, March 15–17, 2023

Additional questions were added to the monthly survey in October to examine how parents are interpreting “gifted, advanced, or honors class.” The overall percentages in response to the original question remained similar: 49% reporting at least one child receiving advanced services, 36% for low-income families, 36% and 30% in small towns and rural areas, respectively.

Parents were asked two follow-up questions if they indicated that at least one of their children participates in advanced education. The first question was, “Which of the following school-based academic programs or courses is your child participating in?” The second asked about “out-of-school gifted/advanced academic programs.”

As suspected, honors courses were the most frequently selected school-based option, with 43% of parents of advanced students indicating that their child was taking at least one such course. The second most-frequent option was a traditional gifted program (31%), followed by dual-credit courses (27%), special schools for advanced students (21%), and AP or IB courses (15%), with another 19% indicating some other, unspecified advanced program.

Regarding out-of-school-time, afterschool programs were the most commonly indicated option (32%), followed by academic summer camps (20%), online courses not offered by their school (18%), weekend academic programs (16%), college courses not arranged by their school (10%), and 37% indicating some other, unspecified advanced program.

Of course, the actual participation rates for the entire sample of parents are likely half of these reported rates—given that 49% of parents report that their children receive advanced services, and only they were asked about specific programs and services. Interestingly, none of these total-sample participation rates would be remarkable: roughly 21% for honors courses, 15% for gifted program, 13% for dual credit, 10% for special schools, and 7% for AP/IB. These estimates nonetheless suggest that families pursue a wide range of advanced options for their children.

The out-of-school participation rates are a bit trickier to interpret, primarily because the questions about these services were only asked of the 49% of parents who reported that their children received in-school services. Therefore, the total sample participation rates are likely higher than our estimates of 16% of parents reporting that their children attend afterschool programs, 10% advanced academic summer camps, 8% online courses, 8% weekend programs, and 5% college courses.

Table 2. Parent-Reported Participation of Children in Specific School-Based Advanced Programs (n = 621)

Group Gifted Program Dual Credit Special School AP/IB Honors
Overall 31% 27% 21% 15% 43%
Black 24 29 20 12 40
Asian 23 20 15 27 45
Non-Hispanic White 36 27 19 16 42
Hispanic 26 31 32 10 41
Low Income 23 19 18 19 41
Middle Income 35 28 18 12 48
High Income 33 30 23 16 42
Urban 32 29 36 13 39
Suburban 33 26 9 18 48
Small Town 24 16 8 29 44
Rural 27 26 6 11 45

Source: Morning Consult National Tracking Poll #2310086, October 12–16, 2023

Table 3. Parent-Reported Participation of Children in Specific Non-School-Based Advanced Programs (n = 621)

Group Summer Camp Weekend Program Afterschool Program Online Course College Course
Overall 20% 16% 32% 18% 10%
Black 23 11 23 14 7
Asian 16 0 26 18 18
Non-Hispanic White 19 18 29 18 11
Hispanic 23 17 41 19 11
Low Income 12 4 31 18 4
Middle Income 14 17 29 18 8
High Income 25 21 34 17 14
Urban 27 25 40 16 12
Suburban 16 11 23 21 9
Small Town 2 5 28 12 6
Rural 11 3 29 15 8

Source: Morning Consult National Tracking Poll #2310086, October 12–16, 2023

The demographic breakdown in Tables 2 and 3 also leads to some broad conclusions. Differences by family income strike us as being especially interesting: those for some in-school services (AP/IB, honors) are negligible, yet differences for others (gifted programs, dual credit, and special schools) are considerable and favor high-income families. The same appears to hold true for out-of-school services: Negligible differences for some programs (afterschool, online) and bigger differences for others (summer and weekend programs, college coursework), again strongly favoring higher-income families. Similarly interesting—but more complex—patterns can also be observed for geographic locale (urban, suburban, small town, rural) across both categories of services.

The reasons for these socioeconomic and geographic differences in participation could have tremendous policy implications and are worthy of further research. For example, are there specific policy and educational interventions in place that result in minor socioeconomic differences in participation in AP, IB, honors-course, and afterschool programs that are not used for other services? If so, perhaps those interventions can be adapted to provide more equitable opportunities for advanced students.

One possibility, which has been noted by Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute, is that expanding access to advanced services offered in high schools, such as AP courses, has received significant attention, while advanced services in elementary and middle schools have not. This rings true for us and is worth additional scrutiny.

This survey work causes us to question many of our assumptions about who gets access to advanced education. Are those services primarily available to white, Asian, upper-income, and suburban students, with Black, Hispanic, low-income, urban, small-town, and rural students rarely participating? The results of this ongoing project suggest that the answer to that question is “sorta.” Looking at advanced opportunities broadly, as parents appear to do, the patterns of demographic differences are nuanced, showing clear advantages to some groups in some services but not others. Participation in advanced education appears to be more complex than generally assumed.

Jonathan Plucker is a professor and associate dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and a past president of the National Association for Gifted Children. Jennifer Madsen is Vice President for Advocacy at the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children. Paul DiPerna is Vice President of Research and Innovation at EdChoice.

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