New York City’s Radical Proposal For A Troubled Program

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New York City schools have been a prime example of what happens when the problems of segregation intersect with the problems of gifted programs. Now it appears they are prepared to throw up their hands and untie the Gordian knot with a flamethrower.

In 2014, the UCLA Civil Rights Report found that New York schools were the most segregated in the nation. Like most things about the New York City system, the situation was complicated. The Bloomberg administration was supportive of school choice, and like many choice advocates, believed that choice could be a solution to equity problems. In NYC, as in the rest of the country, that has not turned out to be true. School choice’s effect on segregation remains highly debated, but choice advocates can’t point to any clear successes.

Gifted programs have been seen as a route to desegregation in many school districts. The theory is that selecting students for a school or program based on giftedness rather than address should bring together students from across all lines–geographic, racial and economic. In theory, gifted programs should also better meet the needs of high-functioning students who might be bored and unproductive in regular classes.

But gifted programs have problems of their own. In 2013, Andy Smarick of the reform-minded Bellwether Education Partners put together a report about gifted programs in the US. He points out that there is no real federal guidance or support for gifted education, and that states are largely left to their own devices. In many states, that means no program at all. He found only seventeen states that have one or more employees working full time on gifted education. Many states spend little or no money on gifted education (Smarick found that New Hampshire spent $0.03 per gifted student).

In the end, local districts often carry responsibility for creating, maintaining, and financing gifted programs, as well as deciding which students qualify. There is an official federal definition of gifted students:

Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.

Not only is that definition not very helpful from a practical program point of view (“evidence of high achievement capability” could mean almost anything), but districts are not even under any obligation to use it.

Some districts, purposefully or not, reduce interest in gifted programs by making them unappealing (“Congratulations– since you are smart, your reward is extra homework” seems to have limited appeal). Some gifted programs operate as “pull-outs,” in which students have to miss sessions of their regular classes in order to “go to gifted” and that creates its own set of problems. But a good gifted program gives students a chance for extra enrichment and the opportunity to spend time in school around other students who think it’s okay to excel. The problem, always, is the question of who gets in. Where the program is in demand and gatekeeping is required, schools invariably resort to some sort of “objective” measure of giftedness. Administrators would rather respond to disappointed and angry parents (and their lawyers) with “I’m sorry, but your child’s test scores were just too low” than “Our team just decided that they don’t think your child is gifted.”

So now we decide that the “fair” way, the “meritocratic” way to run a gifted program is to make everyone take a test. But standardized test results tend to correlate strongly with socio-economic background. Even the widely used and trusted IQ test has been found to be racially biased. In short, using a test as the entrance requirement for a gifted program increases the likelihood that your gifted program will exacerbate your system’s segregation, rather than breaking it down.

That seems to be what has happened in NYC. NYC has roughly 16,000 students labeled gifted; 75% of those are White or Asian, in a system in which 70% of the students are black or Hispanic. The test has resulted in a steady stream of shocking numbers like those highlighted last spring, with few black students gaining admission to the city’s most selective programs. Students from schools that have fewer resources, where students are underserved by the system, don’t produce as many students who can score well; in fact, Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times found that many of these students are not even aware that the test exists. In New York City, the gifted testing system was supposed to break segregation; instead, segregation broke the testing system.

The obvious answer is to create a gifted program that uses criteria other than a standardized test. After all, beyond the built-in bias of such testing, what can really be learned about a student’s creative, artistic or leadership potential from a standardized test? But attempts to use special programs to promote equity also, unfortunately, can run afoul of privileged families who fight hard to keep “those people’s children” from getting in and “hurting” the program. In New York, that resistance took the unusual form of getting the state legislature to make test-based admissions to some select programs cemented in state law. NYC’s selective schools have been called a “last bastion of absolute meritocracy,” but they are not–they are bastions of test-taking.

That brings us to the radical solution proposed this week by Mayor de Blasio’s school diversity panel–phase out the city school’s gifted program and screened schools entirely. Instead, they recommend magnet schools (schools that are attractive enough to draw students from many different neighborhoods and backgrounds) and an end to much of the academic tracking, a move that would have effects far beyond the gifted program itself. Exams for elementary admission should be scrapped, and high schools admissions should be reconfigured so that high school populations more closely resemble the population of their boroughs. And the panel notes that all of this needs to be accomplished carefully, so as not to result in the wide-scale defection of middle-class families.

It is hard to imagine a system the size of New York City’s without a program to address the special needs and aspirations of its gifted students, particularly when it once had one of the most ambitious gifted programs in the country, but it’s also hard to imagine such a system seeing its own attempts to improve lost under a suffocating culture of segregation. Segregation doesn’t just happen; people with power make it happen, and that’s a hard obstacle to overcome. The mayor has said he wants a system where there’s no talk about “good schools” and “bad schools,” but it’s hard to see how a proposal to end selective gifted programs will help. Better to ask why there are schools where students are not prepared for the big gifted test, why there are schools that are underfunded and undersupported and generally perceived as “bad” and then fix it. Better to do away with the single-standardized-test criterion for giftedness. Best to address the segregation of resources that too often follows the segregation of actual students.

In the world of gifted education, there is one argument for doing away with gifted programs that makes sense. Often, parents of non-gifted students (there’s a troubling label) look at the gifted program extras–the field trips, special projects, enhanced learning opportunities, extra resources–and ask, “Why can’t my child have that? Why shouldn’t every child have that?” Why are those gifted resources so scarce that only a select few can have them? But in some schools, parents of students labeled gifted feel that these are privileges that their child has earned, and they will fight to protect those exclusive rights. It looks like Mayor de Blasio is about to see just how hard they will fight.

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