A panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio is urging New York City schools to eliminate gifted programs that contribute to school segregation. 

Panel in New York recommends getting rid of gifted programs

Group appointed by mayor says the classes segregate students by race and socioeconomics

Among the most contentious issues in k-12 education today are gifted programs and who gets into them. New York City is about to roil those waters further after a desegregation panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended the city eliminate most gifted programs because they disproportionately serve white and Asian students and create two parallel school systems.

Instead, the panel calls for magnet programs that are less exclusionary and open to students with a range of abilities. Made up of educators, child advocates and researchers, the panel recognizes its recommendations will create controversy, but contends:

There are better ways to educate advanced learners than most of the current Screened and Gifted and Talented programs, which segregate students by race and socioeconomic status. Today, they have become proxies for separating students who can and should have opportunities to learn together.

The recommendations released Tuesday say the current approaches “often fail to serve disadvantaged students and Black and Latinx students and have often failed to take advantage of some of the research and innovations that have developed since their inception. Research has demonstrated the benefits of contemporary education models that serve all students and prepare them to participate in a diverse, global society.” 

The New York Times reports, “About a quarter of the city’s middle and high schools require that students be screened — through exams, attendance rates and grades — for admission. New York screens more students for its schools than any other city in the country, and those screened schools tend to have a disproportionately white and Asian enrollment.”

In 1994, the AJC did an investigation into the segregation within Georgia’s gifted programs, which then relied solely on IQ scores for admission. Georgia had some of the most racially skewed gifted classes in America, with whites five times as likely as blacks to be admitted. 

That series, along with the advocacy of parents and educators, led to changes in how Georgia admitted children to gifted and talented programs. Instead of a single score, schools now use multiple criteria, including student achievement, creativity and motivation.

However, despite efforts to erase the gap between the races, the AJC found in a second deep dive in 2014 that white students are still about three times more likely than black peers to be enrolled in gifted programs. Many possible reasons were cited including subjective judgments by teachers on which students are creative and motivated.

Poverty undoubtedly plays a role in which kids are labeled gifted. Low-income students – whether black, white, Hispanic or Asian -- are admitted at lower rates into gifted programs than richer peers. That’s because more affluent parents are willing to lobby for their children and invest in expensive test-prep to provide them more of an edge. 

Because New York City provides gifted classes as early as kindergarten, parents even enroll 4-year-olds in prep classes. Not surprisingly, of the 16,000 kids last year in New York elementary school gifted classes, nearly three out of four were white or Asian, according to the Times. 

The de Blasio panel criticized gifted and talented sorting in early elementary schools, saying that children who are 5, 6 and 7 “should not feel as though their path to academic achievement is stifled or predetermined. In addition to the emotional and social risks posed by the existence of Gifted and Talented, these programs have been repeatedly proven to enact inequity and have failed to embrace students of all backgrounds. As such, we think elementary school enrichment requires creative alternatives.”

In essence, the New York panel comes down on the side of gifted program critics who have long maintained that more students would benefit if the funding for such programs went instead to lowering all class sizes and deepening all instruction. 

At a north Fulton high school a few years back, I observed two language arts classes in a row taught by the same teacher. The class of gifted students had 17 teens who won their seats by scoring at a certain level on standardized tests; the general class had 27 kids. Yet, the teacher told me only a few test points separated most of the kids in the classes. Wouldn’t it be smarter, the teacher said, for Fulton to simply have two classes of 22 kids each? 

In making its case, the New York panel concludes: “Exclusionary admissions models often unfairly sort students by their resources rather than interests and opportunities for developing their interests and abilities. They also miss the benefits of classrooms that are more diverse and allow more individualized education to students who are advanced learners.”

I have been looking at the thousands of comments on social media about the New York recommendations and wanted to share just two of them to show the wide divide on this issue:

Here is one of them:

There is a contamination theory that having your genius in a classroom with a "normal" (yes, this is a term the G&T cult uses; I have heard it) kid will ruin the "gifted" child in some way This is the twisted mindset of "G & T" parents -- they think their fragile geniuses will be contaminated by "normal" children. This kind of thinking is corrosive to our society and to NYC. I have to ask; how does it damage a 5-year-old who can add fractions to be around a "normal" 5-year-old? 

And do you think the "normal" kids are a monolith, all the same? I wonder how all the geniuses managed before G & T programs? It's a wonder there was ever an Edison, Curie, Jobs or Gates. How were they not crushed by a system that didn't see them?

Here is another:

This proposal is incredibly stupid and harmful. It's along these lines: "I have an idea to end segregation: let's create a drug or medical procedure, whatever, to make smart people less intelligent and make the skillful less skilled. That'll teach ya." The leaders of the future are the gifted students, not the mediocre ones. This proposal conveys the incredible hate that's at the base of identity politics: it's not enough anymore to try to create equal opportunities for all. 

Now, according to its dogma, those who are white must be hated, those who succeed have to be destroyed, to make room for those who are less intelligent, less successful, less gifted, less skilled, and apparently, more hateful and destructive.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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