It’s time to stop putting kids in separate gifted education programs

DATE IMPORTED:September 11, 2015A teacher conducts a German lesson for children during a welcome class for immigrants from Syria, Poland and Romania at the Katharina-Heinroth…
DATE IMPORTED:September 11, 2015A teacher conducts a German lesson for children during a welcome class for immigrants from Syria, Poland and Romania at the Katharina-Heinroth…
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Every winter, thousands of New Yorkers take a standardized test that will determine their future opportunities. Some of them have studied for months, even paid for expensive test prep classes. And after it’s all over, maybe they can go back to playing with blocks, practicing tying their shoelaces, and singing the ABCs.

These aren’t high school students taking the SAT—they’re children as young as four years old, entering kindergarten through third grade, who take New York City’s Gifted and Talented (G&T) admissions test, hoping for a coveted seat in one of the 103 G&T programs across the city’s public elementary schools. Under the current system, this test score is the sole G&T eligibility criterion.

The stated purpose of New York City’s G&T programs is to “[support] the educational needs of exceptional students.” But in practice, they amount to a segregated academic track that benefits mostly White, Asian, middle-class students—namely, the students more likely to have educational advantages to begin with.

How can educators, parents, and administrators create more equitable gifted and talented (G&T) admissions policies in New York City that can be used a model for systems around the country?

Testing is not the answer

To date, NYCDOE policy officials have responded to the problem of G&T segregation by changing the admissions test to make it harder to prepare for. The assumption is that the G&T admissions test is an adequate measurement of giftedness.

But better testing isn’t the answer. In fact, the racial disparities in New York City have only gotten worse over time. This school year a majority (70%) of G&T students in New York City’s elementary G&T programs are White and Asian and a mere 23% are Black and Latino. This is almost a mirror image of the demographics of the larger NYC school system, which enrolls 30% White and Asian students and 70% Black and Latino.

It is commonly known that the reason that G&T programs exist in certain New York City schools is to attract middle-class parents to the public school system and diversify schools. Yet research has shown that relying on middle-class parents as drivers of urban school reform is bad practice because it can marginalize low- income families and create segregation within schools.

In a report out earlier this year, NYU researchers suggest that the way to diversify G&T enrollments is to screen all preschool children. The assumption behind this idea is that if more preschool children are tested, then the DOE will automatically identify a more diverse G&T population.

But more testing isn’t the answer, either. Testing all children in school does fix the problem of outreach: the district would no longer have to rely on parents to apply for G&T screening—a system which clearly advantages those families with better access to information about the program. However, this is only one part of the G&T identification problem.

The biggest issue in New York City is the reliance of a single test score for G&T placements, which we know is related more to socioeconomics than actual intelligence. It is very difficult to identify Black and Latino gifted learners using test scores alone. Low-income children start kindergarten with fewer academic skills compared to their peers of high socioeconomic status—placing them at a disadvantage if and when they take the test. Also, testing all children will not address the G&T test prepping and uneven access to high-quality preschools that select students are exposed to before they take the test.

Annually, only about 4% of students scoring at or above the admissions cut score come from the eight poorest districts in New York City. In lieu of using tests, the DOE just announced plans to change the G&T admissions process for the four poorest districts in the city. “Teachers will hand pick“ students by using multiple measures for third grade G&T placement decisions, including academic and other gifted indicators. But is this enough to enhance equity, when it still results in a system in which some students are labeled gifted and some are not?

Radically rethinking gifted education

The best path to a more equitable G&T education isn’t reforming the admissions criteria—it’s radically reimagining gifted education, and eliminating separate G&T programs altogether.

New York City’s current approach to gifted education is founded on separation. There is no special curriculum or pedagogy required in G&T programs. However, in most cases, G&T students are placed in dedicated classrooms and separated from “general education” students all day long. The students are what distinguish these G&T programs.

But another school of thought is that the teaching methods, not the exceptionality of the students, hold the key to effective gifted education. The Schoolwide Enrichment Model, an approach used by more than 50 schools across the country—including some in New York City—provides all students in a school with access to gifted pedagogy: individualized learning that identifies and enhances each student’s talents and aptitudes. Research has shown that this approach produces strong outcomes for a broad range of students, both with and without the “gifted” label.

New York City schools with G&T programs should switch to this schoolwide model.  This broader approach to gifted education would create new opportunities for thousands of children. Further, by opening up access to G&T certified teachers and curriculum, and not taking those opportunities away, advantaged families who would have chosen separate G&T programs may be more likely to stay in the public system. Most importantly, students of color and low-income students at these schools will no longer be segregated in lower-status general education classrooms.

In a recently published book on gifted and talented inequality, one of us (Allison Roda) interviewed over 50 parents who enrolled their children in a segregated G&T or general education program. She found that the vast majority of the parents advocated for G&T programs to be phased out because they were frustrated with the divisive school culture between the haves and have-nots that these programs created. A Latina mother explained, “It’s New York City, and a kid that doesn’t have blue eyes and blonde hair should not feel out of place [in school]… To me, it’s so strange that only Caucasian kids are in G&T.” Even White G&T parents are critical of the segregation, saying that when the programs are “purely divided” by race and class “it creates too much animosity between two groups, or a feeling of being better because one is in the [G&T] program.” A White mother with children in both programs said she worried about “singling kids out an early age…I wouldn’t want any kids to think they they’re special or that they’re not good enough. I really struggle with the fact that it’s highlighted at such an early age.”

G&T and general education parents alike firmly believed that their elementary school would maintain a great reputation without the G&T program. For example, a White general education mother in Roda’s (2015) study replied, “If the perception was that the entire school was at a higher level, then it wouldn’t matter if there was no G&T program.” Similarly, a White G&T mother remarked, “I really wish the whole thing would just go away, so every kid would be exposed to a normal world environment.” In fact, research has shown that heterogeneous classrooms benefit all students, even high achieving students. There is also a large body of literature pointing to the numerous academic and social benefits of school integration. As Columbia professor Katherine Phillips argues, “diversity makes us smarter.”

This G&T debate is not limited to New York City. Racial and socioeconomic segregation in G&T programs is a problem across the country, from Illinois to Virginia.

By instituting school-wide enrichment models in place of separate G&T programs, New York would become a leader for other districts grappling with similar G&T identification issues. It would prove how committed the city is to opportunity and school diversity at every level and for every child educated within the system—now and in the future.