Is eliminating gifted programs a good idea?

Students in a classroom.
Students in a classroom.
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

Is eliminating gifted programs a good idea?

Experts weigh in on the proposal to reduce segregation in public schools.
August 28, 2019

Despite its reputation for liberalism, New York City has one of the most racially segregated public school systems in the country. Black and Latino children make up about 70 percent of the student population, yet multiple measures show that white and Asian-American students disproportionately receive the best that the public school system has to offer. White and Asian-American students make up the overwhelming share of the student body at the school’s elite specialized high schools, while nearly three out of four black students attend a school with less than 10% white students, according to a 2014 report by the UCLA Civil Rights project.

A new report from the School Diversity Advisory Group, a body appointed by de Blasio, offers new recommendations to promote racial integration in the city’s public schools. The idea is basically to end the gifted programs and school screening policies that disproportionately benefit white and Asian-American students. This includes “all elementary school gifted programs, screened middle schools, and some high schools,” while the specialized high schools would be exempted, The New York Times reports. New magnet schools would in turn be built as a way to bring students of all backgrounds together based on their interest in particular subject areas. 

De Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have yet to announce whether they will push for the recommendations to be adopted. But in this week’s “Ask the Experts” feature, we checked in with a group of education experts, who offer their thoughts on the recommendations and whether they can succeed where past efforts have failed. We spoke to David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College; Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank; Stephen Brier, professor of urban education at CUNY Graduate Center; and Ujju Aggarwal, an assistant professor of anthropology and experiential learning at The New School. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What is your reaction to this proposal?

David Bloomfield: The report is a strong, thoughtful effort that, if implemented, will make a real difference not just to desegregating our schools but, more importantly, improving their overall educational quality. Frankly, I was not impressed by an earlier report that seemed over-reliant on farming out desegregation efforts to community school districts that are ill-equipped in structure and resources to undertake broad educational reform. But at least that report called for naming a chief diversity officer at the city Department of Education to coordinate these efforts – a recommendation tellingly rejected by the mayor and chancellor.

The new report goes so far as to call for redrawing school district lines, an unnecessary distraction (cross-district enrollment does the trick), but an indication of the boldness of the advisory group’s approach. At the same time, the report is not as radical as some headlines indicate. Ending the idiotic gifted and talented test for 4-year-olds to determine their educational futures is hardly extreme, and the report would even maintain our system of specialized high schools like Stuyvesant, a bow to political realities that reflects the advisory group’s moderate, research-based approach.

Halley Potter: This proposal is a huge step forward for school integration and equity. New York City’s current practices with regard to academic screening are far out of line with other districts and with the research-backed best practices for promoting academic achievement among all students, including high achievers. At the elementary school level, New York City approaches gifted and talented education by identifying students using a single standardized test, a practice that is not supported by the National Association for Gifted Children and that has led to the creation of a test-prep industry for 4-year-olds. These “gifted” students are then placed in separate classrooms and schools away from their “non-gifted” peers, with few opportunities for children to switch in or out of these tracks, despite extensive evidence on the benefits of inclusive classrooms for all students. Nationwide, academic screening is very rare in public schools, as it cuts against their basic charge to serve all students. And yet, fully one-fifth of all middle and high schools in the city currently use selective admission criteria – a far higher rate than in any other district. The advisory group’s recommendations to roll back these exclusionary screening practices would create more equitable access to high-quality, diverse learning environments.

Stephen Brier: The recent proposal by the advisory group to close the gifted and talented programs to promote racial desegregation in New York City’s public school system is the bitter fruit of the decades-long failure, going back the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, of the city Board of Education (now the Department of Education) to confront the issue. As wonderful as the gifted programs and specialty high schools are for those who get in to them (and my daughter went to one in the 1980s), I would sacrifice them if it meant that the city would finally begin to make good on its long-ignored and broken promise to create equitable access to quality education for all of the 1.1 million public school students and not just its “gifted” ones.

Ujju Aggarwal: The advisory group’s recommendation to eliminate gifted and talented education is long overdue and welcome. For too long, public schools have made clear that some students are more valuable than others, and gifted and talented programs are one example of how that plays out. We must also recognize that this recommendation, and the growing call to eliminate screened schools, results from many decades of organizing and, in particular, the demand from poor and working-class parents and students of color for a public that is truly public – and not mired by exclusion and inequity. I agree wholeheartedly with the advisory group’s recommendation that the elimination of gifted and talented programs be tied to increased resources across the board, to ensure that all classrooms are essentially assuming that all children are gifted. However, we have to make sure that as these programs are eliminated, we don’t allow for other siphoned-off spaces to grow. For example, we must make sure that dual-language programs, which grew out of traditions of progressive and radical organizing, don’t become yet another bastion of segregation or exclusion, and must demand that they, too, serve and reflect the communities they are part of.

How does the report compare to past desegregation efforts?

David Bloomfield: The big difference here is that the new report is an education-forward document. Too many of our schools concentrate children with high degrees of poverty, special needs, home insecurity and other fraught circumstances, overwhelming staff and other resources, while screened programs are protected to a great degree. In our world of school-based accountability and choice, this leads to labeling of "good schools" and "bad schools" and a cycle of educational inequity. 

The new report takes this on by insisting on diverse schools that meet the needs of all children – really the classic American common school model that has served our country so well and is the norm in most districts, including those surrounding New York City. I have no problem with specialized classes in schools where a kid is truly talented in, say, math, or some need to move more slowly through the curriculum. But few kids are stellar in all subjects, and a comprehensive school that reflects the complex realities of individual students makes a lot more sense than locking them into boxes where individualization is subordinated to pernicious generalized screening, used more to sort than to educate.

Halley Potter: This is a big deal. If enacted, the recommendations about school admissions requirements, taken together with the group’s first report addressing the diversity goals and resources needed to promote integration, would represent the most robust desegregation efforts ever undertaken in New York City. These changes would help reorient our public school system toward differentiated instruction in an integrated setting that gives all students access to a challenging curriculum, which we know is best for kids. In the 65 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, New York City has never taken system-wide action to desegregate schools. If the city does as the advisory group is recommending, it could go from having one of the most segregated school systems in the country to being a national leader on school integration.

Stephen Brier: Parents and civil rights activists organized the largest school boycott in the city’s history in 1964 with more than 40% of the system’s million-plus students staying away from classrooms to protest the city’s glacial response to desegregation demands. And in 1968, a struggle erupted between communities of color and the teachers union over parents’ and activists’ demands to cede control of neighborhood schools to the community in order to allow for racially inclusive access by all students to good schools. The advisory group’s proposal is a tepid, top-down effort to deal with school desegregation rather than a community-generated idea to deal with this pressing issue.

Ujju Aggarwal: Rather than compare, we might think about the current recommendation as part of a long journey toward desegregation and equity – one that has yet to be realized. Indeed, it was Rosa Parks who, over half a century ago, noted that “(d)esegregation proves itself by being put in action. Not changing attitudes, attitudes will change.” Her statement remains true today. For too long we have focused on changing opinions, as if segregation were something sedimented in stone rather than something we make and remake – and might un-make – every day through policies. And for too long, the city’s decisions have been heavily weighted toward families with economic wealth, in fear that they might leave public schools or the city if they don’t get what they want. Over the years, this has resulted in a crisis of segregation and inequity and the only way out is (by listening to) the voices of those who have borne the brunt of exclusionary admissions policies – voices that have for too long, despite tireless organizing and activism, been silenced or ignored by mainstream media and by government officials.

What do you think is going to happen next?

David Bloomfield: While I strongly support most recommendations in the new report, the fact is that it was created by the mayor to delay rather than prompt decision-making. We're over five and a half years into an administration that has avoided even the word "segregation," and it took six months to just name the advisory group membership. The group’s work was to take a year and now it's taken two. 

That wait was worth it, given the quality of their new report, which needs to be read to fully appreciate its nuances. But now this educational document will be fed back into the political process where, like most reports commissioned by elected leaders, it will likely be shelved amid kind words and empty promises. The hope is that some mayoral aspirant will pick up where the advisory group left off and make the new report a meaningful part of their campaign, as de Blasio did with pre-K, so that its recommendations will have legs for at least partial implementation in the next administration.

Halley Potter: Put into national context, the advisory group’s recommendations to reduce academic screening are not radical. They are supported by research and would put New York City more in line with other districts. But the proposed changes would represent a marked departure from the status quo in the city. Shifting policies will require political skill and courage to change the narrative of scarcity that has led to the sorting of students, as well as significant investments of time and energy to change systems across many schools while educating families and school staff about the changes.

I am hopeful, however, that the city will adopt many of the advisory group’s ideas. 

Through groups such as Teens Take Charge, IntegrateNYC and the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation, students and parents are speaking up in support of integration. The Department of Education has already agreed to the vast majority of recommendations from the advisory group’s first report, addressing diversity goals and resources to support integration. In addition, the successful efforts to implement integration plans in Community School District 15 in Brooklyn and Districts 1 and 3 in Manhattan have shown that progress is possible. 

Stephen Brier: Given the de Blasio administration's halting and partial commitment to desegregate the public schools, I fear that it will have no active response to or engagement with the advisory group’s proposal. The proposal will be buried and fade away, which is a shame, since, at a minimum, an active public conversation about it might help spawn a more focused approach to solving the insidious long-term effects of our horribly segregated public school system.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.