It is widely understood that gifted education is inequitable: since its inception, the vast majority of students receiving gifted education services have been white, middle to upper class, and native English speakers (Ford, 1998; Ford & King, 2014; Ford et al., 2020; Yoon & Gentry, 2009). Such students are often labeled as “gifted and talented” and usually receive exclusive benefits and resources, including access to enriched and rigorous coursework (Callahan et al., 2014; Office of Civil Rights, 2012). Some scholars and social justice advocates have concerned themselves with desegregating gifted education (Brulles, et al., 2011; Castellano, 2004, 2006; Ford, 1995, 1998, 2003, 2010a, 2010b), fighting for equitable gifted identification protocols that would increase access to gifted services among underrepresented student populations. Others argue that gifted education functions as racialized tracking and should be dismantled (Barlow & Dunbar, 2010; Mansfield, 2015; Oakes et al., 2012). Regardless of the stance, gifted education represents a politically polarizing component of public education and a key battleground for equity. Yet the history of scientific racism and eugenics within the field of gifted education has remained both obscure and marginalized, especially regarding its relevance to contemporary inequities and systemic racism. The founders of the field, such as Francis Galton (1865, 1873, 1883, 1922/1869), Lewis Terman (1916, 1922a, 1922b; 1925a; Terman et al., 1926, 1930, 1947, 1959) and Leta Hollingworth (1923, 1926, 1929, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940) established the foundational epistemologies, ontologies, and theories related to gifted education; they also seeded the field with racist, hegemonic and eugenic conceptualizations of human intelligence, academic potential, and educational policy. Furthermore, Terman, Hollingworth, and their eugenicist colleagues designed many of the structures, processes and instructional practices of gifted education still commonly applied today. These include such familiar features of gifted education as the quantification of mental ability through mental testing for gifted identification and services; the provision of separate, tracked spaces for the education of students identified as gifted; and the tacit understanding that giftedness is innate and heritable. Furthermore, the racial hierarchy of intelligence that these founders thoroughly articulated in their many publications continues to be reified through the seemingly intractable overrepresentation of white students and the segregating effects of racialized tracking produced by gifted programming and advanced academics (Ford, 1995, 1998, 2003, 2010b, 2014; Ford et al., 2020; Tyson, 2011, 2013).
These effects were evident in Greenfield Public Schools, a small, suburban school district in the Midwest with a history of racialized tracking in gifted education and advanced academics. This district undertook a racial equity transformation process, which prompted them to interrogate and ultimately, to detrack their gifted services. I conducted research on the local history and racial equity transformation process of Greenfield Public Schools through an interdisciplinary process that combined critical ethnography (Castagno, 2012; Conquergood, 1982; Foley, 2002; Madison, 2020) with critical historical research (Klienberg et al, 2018; Villaverde, 2006). I used a genealogical approach to the history of eugenics and scientific racism in gifted education by relating qualitative themes from the ethnographic context to evidence exhumed from the historical archive. Specifically, I sought to create a history of the present (Foucault, 1995) which encompasses the durability of sociohistorically rooted ideologies in order to interrogate the living presence of the history of gifted education in a contemporary educational context of racial inequity and the struggle to dismantle oppressive systems.