How to improve, not end, gifted & talented education in New York City
For me, the news that the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group recommends eliminating gifted and talented education in New York City public schools landed like a thud. On the one hand, I thought of my immigrant parents’ multi-year struggle to get me into a G&T program. On the other hand, the memory of being one of very few non-white or non-Asian students in my gifted and talented class is deeply ingrained in my thinking today.
Getting rid of gifted and talented education is not the answer, but calls merely to expand the current system are facile in light of its deep inequities. A more thoughtful approach with a more varied menu of options is needed.
Gifted and talented education has real uses. As a child, I loved pouring myself into biographies, including those written for older readers. I enjoyed being a part of classrooms where my classmates and I could delve deep into engaging topics and move quickly through material that came easily to us. Although I had a longer attention span back then, pre-Twitter, I greatly question my ability to remain engaged with a less-ambitious curriculum.
I didn’t get to be in those classrooms because of my parents’ wealth. My dad has been a New York City public schools maintenance worker for over 30 years, my mom was in middle management for a mid-sized business in Midtown Manhattan, and both were immigrants from Ecuador who didn’t get to finish college. My parents only knew that gifted and talented education existed because my dad heard about it from the teachers he knew at work, and we certainly did not have the money for fancy pre-K programs or any preparation for the admissions test.
After entering the program in a school in a nearby neighborhood in kindergarten, my teacher told my mother that she should look for an even more demanding program, which led to my going to a school in a neighborhood a half-hour away and waiting two years in a general education classroom to re-enter the program then. When I re-entered the program for grades 3 through 6, new doors opened for me. My being in the gifted and talented program set me on a path that began with participating in Prep for Prep and has culminated with my graduating from law school in May. More black and Latino children can stand to benefit from a gifted and talented education.
For some, these disparities merely trigger calls to expand existing gifted and talented programs, to expand free test prep, or do both. These solutions are tired and grossly inadequate. In the context of the SHSAT, expanding free test prep has not budged the numbers of black and Latino students attending specialized high schools; here, there is little reason to expect different results. We must look beyond these simplistic calls to do better.
What, then, are the available options? For one, universal screening of children has been shown to be greatly effective in diversifying gifted and talented programs. Universal screening steers the process away from the know-how of highly wealthy or well-connected parents to broaden the applicant pool.
Additionally, the New York City gifted and talented programs that delay screening until the third grade, but which include teacher recommendations and report card grades, are markedly more diverse, and this observation must be factored into devising an effective screening process.
Universal screening has clear shortfalls: testing kids so early is generally undesirable; there is no viable way to stop parents from paying hideous fees to give their kids an edge; and test makers will have to work to remove bias inherent in their tests. Nevertheless, delayed and universal screenings are concrete and empirically supported ways to identify the achievement of children of every background, especially black and Latino children.
Second, the Department of Education can reverse a Bloomberg-era decision to affix admission to gifted and talented programs to national standards instead of district standards. This shift disproportionately reduced the number of students in black and Latino neighborhoods from qualifying for seats in the program. Reversing this shift can re-open some of those seats in black and Latino communities without opening the floodgates in communities that are overrepresented in the current gifted and talented pool.
Third, schools should use classes like art, music, and gym to mix kids from gifted and general education classrooms in order to build meaningful relationships. And, alongside these efforts, school desegregation efforts should continue aggressively, be they in the form of school re-zonings, instituting culturally responsive curricula and inclusive pedagogies, and otherwise adopting the School Diversity Advisory Group’s recommendations.
Ultimately, our schools can only work if all principals, teachers and parents believe in their kids’ ability to learn and have the resources needed to turn that belief into a reality. Our schools will not work if every child whose parents have disposable time and income flees to alternative models such as gifted and talented programs or charter schools, nor is it acceptable for our city to maintain a segregated school system that makes parents feel as though these are the only options available for a quality education.
Yet taking bold steps to integrating public schools does not require eliminating gifted and talented education wholesale. We can integrate gifted and talented classes just as we can integrate specialized high schools, neighborhood high schools, and general education K-8 classrooms. It is on us to decide whether we choose to do so.
Zevallos (@PabloZevallos) is an Upper West Side Democratic activist and a recent graduate of Columbia Law School.