Education

In New York City, an Attack on Programs for Gifted Students

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)
Ideologues co-opt ‘equity.’

America’s schools are today consumed by a push for “equity.” Unfortunately, it’s looking like some of those who claim to be champions for equity may be more focused on mounting an ideological campaign against educational excellence. Take last week’s development in New York City, where a panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote “diversity” issued a report that publicly called for the elimination of the city’s programs for gifted and talented students.

The 39-page report, by de Blasio’s hand-picked “School Diversity Advisory Group,” offers a stark reversal from former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to expand choices for families by, in part, dramatically increasing the availability of programs for gifted and talented children ill-served by conventional classrooms. In New York City, students as young as four can register to take the gifted and talented assessment. Any student who scores above the threshold is eligible to apply for gifted programs.

Taking aim at gifted programs, the Advisory Group’s report thundered, “The existing use of screens and Gifted and Talented programs is unfair, unjust and not necessarily research-based. . . . These programs segregate students by race, class, abilities and language and perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement.” The report called for the dropping of admissions screening tests on the grounds that they unfairly favor children whose families have more resources. The panel recommended phasing out the city’s gifted programs by placing a moratorium on new programs and not allowing existing ones to admit new students or to group by academic ability. It would bar programs from taking even student attendance into account when determining admissions.

This proposal has encountered substantial pushback, including opposition from New York City teachers’-union chief Michael Mulgrew. City Council speaker and potential mayoral candidate Corey Johnson blasted the report, opining that he didn’t believe “eliminating gifted and talented programs outright is the solution.” Leaders of the city’s Asian-American community have been particularly outspoken, with Queens assemblyman Ron Kim asserting that this proposal was a recipe for “pitting communities against each other.” Even de Blasio had a lukewarm reaction, and has yet to commit to supporting his panel’s proposal.

To replace gifted programs, the report calls for “pro-integrative programs . . . that affirmatively attract students of all backgrounds and make sure that all students are challenged.” What a lovely image that paints. If only it were that easy. The reality, of course, is that students are different and have different needs. They learn differently and have different gifts and abilities. All of this can overwhelm even a talented teacher.

Unfortunately, most schools and classrooms have little success accounting for that complicated reality. As Harvard scholar Todd Rose explains in The End of Average, one pitfall of the equal-access movement is that “it aims to maximize individual opportunity on average by ensuring everyone has access to the same standardized system, whether or not that system actually fits.” Despite brave talk of “differentiation” and “personalization,” Rose aptly notes, “almost everything about traditional education systems remains designed to ensure students receive the same exact standardized experience.”

Now, there are legal and instructional protections in place for children with special needs, so long as those special needs are understood as handicaps. There is nothing similar in place for children with special gifts. Yet, anyone who has ever seen a gifted child ignored by teachers who are focused on the children “needing assistance,” seen that child bullied and mocked in the hallway, and watched exceptional academic ability curdle into boredom and a contempt of school knows that these children have unique needs, too.

It’s generally uncontroversial to suggest that gifted child violinists or athletes are well served by access to the support, coaching, and opportunities that help them cultivate their gifts. It should be obvious that it’s equally wrongheaded — and probably a greater societal loss — to deny academically gifted children the same things. “The teachers and administrators . . . nurtured my curiosity, and provided me with additional, more challenging schoolwork to keep me motivated,” Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., an alum of a gifted Bronx elementary, noted in denouncing the panel’s proposal. “I would not be where I am today without the jump-start provided to me by that gifted and talented program.”

Even as equity-minded reformers insist that schools must be more attuned to the unique needs of every child, some are embracing a crusade that does just the opposite. As Johns Hopkins professor Jonathan Plucker, a respected scholar of gifted education, has observed, the “research is clear that the academic needs of the most talented students are rarely met in regular classrooms.” Indeed, there is evidence that many teachers feel pressed to devote less time than they think appropriate to gifted students. For instance, a national survey of educators conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has found that more than 70 percent of teachers believe that “too often, the brightest students are bored and under-challenged in school — we’re not giving them a sufficient chance to thrive.”

Now, none of this is to deny that there appear to be real problems with New York City’s gifted programs. The identification of gifted students is flawed, and student selection can suffer owing to biases, parental connections, and family resources. Fair enough, and undoubtedly these are all problems worth doing more to address. America’s schools can and should do better by all our students. But we won’t get there by embracing grievance-fueled attacks on excellence. The irony here is that, in opting to provoke another clickbait culture clash, de Blasio’s advisory board has encouraged all the parties to dig in and therefore made it more difficult to find workable ways to make gifted programs more inclusive. When “equity” is co-opted by ideologues, such an outcome is all too predictable.

Editor’s Note: This article originally misattributed a quote to City Council speaker Cory Johnson. It has been corrected.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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