As a member of New York City’s School Diversity Advisory Group, I feel compelled to say something blunt about those attacking one of the core recommendations of our recent report. Criticisms of the panel’s call to rethink gifted education in the city are not about children. They’re about race.
The plain fact is that, in a city where the predominant student population is black and Latinx, enrichment opportunities are skewed against children in these groups. Last year, 17% of kindergarteners in the city’s public schools were white; 39% of kindergarteners in the city’s gifted and talented education programs were. By contrast, 65% of kindergarteners were Latinx or black; just 18% were offered seats in G&T programs and schools.
Yet some white commentators see this statistical disconnect as somehow natural, and the desire to confront it as somehow contrary to the notion of a meritocracy.
In its desire to address “the legacy of racism, together with a false meritocracy in America today that keeps children trapped where they are,” George Packer, a staff writer for the Atlantic, accused the Department of Education of playing identity politics. Though sensitive to the idea that racism is “the root cause of the inequities in the city’s schools,” Packer suggests that “calling out racism…[might drive] out families of all races who cling to an idea of education based on real merit.”
When you read his article closely, you realized that, by “families of all races,” Packer really means white families.
This is consistent with much of the opposition to the advisory group’s recommendation to rethink gifted education and otherwise do away with screened admission that limits choices for black and Latinx people. Though cloaked in language that attempts to make the focus on race less obvious, it boils down to a defense of systems that have unfairly and disproportionately benefited whites for generations.
For example, New York Post staff writers Julia Marsh and Selim Algar quote a parent named Lianne saying, “I’m one of those middle-class families that’s on the fence about moving out of New York because I have a son that I’m now applying to middle school and I have no faith that he’ll get into a good school…Do you want to lose families like me?”
Why would a school system value retaining families at the expense of families in the system who have nowhere else to go? This concern suggests that white children naturally deserve exception and, by virtue of that exceptionalism, separate spaces in which to learn.
It also plays on stereotypes that black and brown bodies, in contrast to a middle-class white norm, somehow lack virtue and merit or other fictive devices employed to legitimate the lies that uphold separate and unequal education.
There is no way around the fact that as it is implemented in New York City today, gifted education means separate and unequal. It is built on a regime of testing 4-year-olds, using a test many parents pay to prepare their children for, and using the results to sort kids, sorting that correlates heavily by race. This amounts to a private school system for the few, paid for with public funds.
This is not about identifying merit or talent; those are code words. Many of the children who wind up qualifying for New York City’s gifted education programs begin the process of racial sorting as early as 2 and 3.
We should stop sugarcoating reality. The gifted and talented programs in New York City today reinforce racial hierarchies by sorting children by race under an illusion of objectivity.
Others may dance around saying it, but I won’t. This is a modern-day-eugenics project — one manufactured based on spurious science and reinforced by institutional consent. The price is heavy; some parents pay up to $10,000 to effectively purchase a seat for their children in gifted programs. But that’s nothing compared to the mounting price Latinx and black children will pay for the rest of their lives.
I am glad to support our committee’s recommendation to reimagine a better system of public education for all children, especially for our children who depend upon the system the most.
Kirkland is the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and professor of urban education at New York University.