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Expand gifted and talented education

A proposal to scrap it would take schoolchildren in exactly the wrong direction

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Daily News on Nov. 19, 2019.]

Problems require solutions, and complex problems require sophisticated solutions.

Consider Mayor de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools. Unlike his predecessor Mike Bloomberg, de Blasio hasn’t closed struggling schools en masse. Across the city, he has invested in wraparound social services for children and families.

In historically underserved neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza worked with the UFT to develop what is known as “the Bronx Plan,” an investment in education designed to attract and retain staff with pay incentives and to provide schools access to more funds and supports to meet their students’ needs.

That’s the kind of approach the city should take to reforming gifted and talented programs.

This fall, the School Diversity Advisory Group, which the mayor formed in 2017, recommended eliminating gifted and talented programs entirely. It’s a terribly misguided approach; while reform is needed, we need to expand and not contract, much less eliminate, specialized programs for high-achieving youngsters.

The advisory group included the recommendations among many suggested reforms designed to increase diversity in the schools, including mixing students better by race and economic status, disability, and English language learner status. Its most recent recommendations include reducing the importance of grades and attendance as screens for middle-school admissions, and putting a moratorium on new “screened” high schools.

We appreciate the group’s ambitions, and we support its overall objective to help redress the racial and other imbalances that characterize so much of the city school system.

Gifted and talented programs are a leading example of this kind of imbalance. Black and Hispanic students make up 65% of all kindergartners but just 18% of students who receive offers to gifted and talented programs. On the other hand, white and Asian students comprise 35% of all kindergartners but receive 81% of G&T offers. Special education pupils, homeless children and English language learners are also seriously underrepresented in gifted programs.

Unless you believe that children of different races, backgrounds and cultures have innately different capacities — and we don’t — this situation is untenable and indefensible.

Where we differ from the advisory panel is on what needs to happen for these elite programs to better reflect the diversity of the city. We believe that every community has children who can learn at an accelerated pace, and who could therefore thrive in gifted and talented programs.

Access to these programs should be expanded, not eliminated, particularly in large parts of Brooklyn and of the Bronx — the parts where black and Hispanic residents mostly live, where gifted programs are now few and far between.

Locating a gifted program in a neighborhood school has a ripple effect. Residents of that community learn about the program and its admission process. Awareness grows. Momentum builds. The idea that city education officials are now thinking about depriving even more communities of color of these opportunities is unfair.

We believe that as part of increasing equity across the gifted programs, the admissions criteria should also change. While we do not necessarily see eye-to-eye on all education admissions policies, on this issue we do: Determining a student’s future education based on a single test at the age of 4 is inappropriate and short-sighted.

We believe any gifted assessments should take into account multiple measures, in third or fourth grade. We believe the Department of Education must come up with a series of multiple measures that better capture and recognize giftedness.

We also appreciate the city’s and administration’s perspective that no one size fits all, and that local districts should have a real voice in what happens in their community’s schools.

We all must work harder to address the racial segregation that affects so many parts of the city school system. Ending gifted and talented programs is not the right approach to solving this problem. We should be expanding, not eliminating, programs to help develop the potential of gifted children in any and every community in New York City.

Related Topics: Op-eds