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A fight over gifted education in New York is escalating a national debate over segregated schools

The issue pits people who believe bright kids need special programs against those who say such programs make schools less equal.
Protesting New York City's segregated school system
Students from New York City's public high schools demonstrate against segregated schools in May 2019.Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images file

When a school diversity task force in New York this week issued a stunning report recommending the elimination of the city’s popular gifted and talented programs, the shock waves rippled far beyond the nation’s largest school district.

The proposal calls for the city to gut most selective programs that use test scores and other screening criteria to determine admission, and to replace them with programs that would instead attract and serve a broader range of students. The goal is to reduce inequities that have persisted as white and Asian students have largely dominated selective programs, leaving black and Hispanic students in highly segregated schools that face additional challenges without sufficient resources.

New York’s mayor and schools chancellor are now reviewing the recommendations. But regardless of what they ultimately decide to do, the proposed change in New York has captured the attention of parents and educators across the country at a time when court rulings and suburban sprawl have made American schools increasingly segregated.

The debate pits people who believe that children who are academically or intellectually advanced need special programs that challenge and engage them against those who are alarmed by evidence that such programs favor students whose parents have the resources to help them prepare for admissions tests, or who might benefit from the racial biases of teachers who make enrollment decisions.

“It opens up a very important conversation that needs to be national,” said Sally Krisel, president of the National Association for Gifted Children, which advocates for gifted and talented programs. “It’s a great opportunity for educators and parents to reflect … Are we doing the best we can for all of our children?”

If programs only serve students who can pass a test, or those whose parents know how and when to apply, they’re not effectively serving all kids, said R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, professor of sociology of education at New York University.

“Selective schools take a public thing, a public good, and make it private,” he said.

But dismantling such programs or altering them to be more equitable can be risky for school districts. In many parts of the country, parents have more options for school than ever before; they can choose among traditional district schools, charter schools, private school vouchers and programs that let them send their children to neighboring districts.

That’s created competitive pressures that have encouraged districts to hang on to programs that are popular with parents, said Erica Frankenberg, an education professor who directs the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State University.

“It’s important not to just pick on New York here,” Frankenberg said. “There has been a rise since the early 21st century of these programs that stratify within schools as a way to get white and wealthy parents to opt into the school district.”

Some of those programs were created with good intentions to better serve children who learn differently, but gifted classes or honors classes also have a dubious history rooted in racism, experts say.

“It’s not a coincidence that the emergence of advanced science and math tracks, which were often referred to as being triggered by Sputnik and the space race with the Russians and reports that we were falling behind, happened right as the civil rights demand for desegregated schools was emerging,” said Jerry Rosiek, an education professor at the University of Oregon.

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision led courts around the country to order schools to desegregate, putting black students into historically white schools, one response was to create advanced classes that primarily served white students.

“You put all the students in the same building together, and then what happens if there's a segment of the population that doesn't want to see that kind of social racial mixing?” Rosiek said.

Programs that separate children into tracks aren’t necessarily designed to racially segregate children, said Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and equality in education at Stanford University.

“You want to give all kids instruction that’s tailored to where they are in terms of their current skills, so it’s not foolish in some ways to have a differentiated instructional system,” Reardon said. “What’s troubling about it is when the quality of instruction or the extent of the resources and the kinds of support kids get depends on which track they're in.”

“On its face, it’s not a terrible evil thing,” he added, “but the way it’s implemented generally tends to be aligned in some way with inequity.”

The challenge of deciding who is gifted

The recommendations from the New York task force, called the School Diversity Advisory Group, have already prompted significant pushback.

Political and community leaders, including the city teachers union, have called on Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, to keep gifted and other selective programs intact.

But even many of those critics acknowledge that there are serious problems with New York’s practice of admitting children to elementary gifted programs based entirely on an exam given to 4-year-olds before they enter kindergarten.

Few school districts make gifted admissions decisions solely on young children’s test scores, said Krisel, of the National Association for Gifted Children, who is also the director of innovative and advanced programs for the Hall County schools in Gainesville, Georgia.

“It’s indefensible,” she said, noting that testing children that young not only favors economically advantaged children who have books in the home and access to high-quality preschools, but tests of young children also have wide margins of error, making them statistically unreliable, she said.

Better enrollment systems, which are commonly used across the country, involve teacher observations, portfolios of student work and other ways of measuring performance, creativity and motivation, she said.

Krisel says children who are truly gifted deserve classrooms led by teachers focused on their unique needs. She worries that if New York abolishes its programs instead of improving them by finding more equitable ways to identify gifted children, it could send the wrong message to schools in other parts of the country.

She acknowledged that, with some parents “the drive to get a child in a special program is not necessarily entirely noble.”

But, she said, “I don’t think we can allow that to override the more compelling argument that we have an obligation to provide every child with an excellent education.”

The fight to keep gifted programs

As the practice of separating children into ability groups spread in the second half of the 20th century, some troubling patterns emerged. College prep courses tended to serve white students, while black students were steered to vocational programs, opening up the entire system to criticism that it was fueling racial inequities.

In the 1980s and ʼ90s, research began to make clear that students who were excluded from advanced classes fell behind their peers. (The separate programs also didn’t ultimately stop white flight, as white families continued to flow from urban areas to the suburbs.)

That triggered a “detracking” movement that saw schools across the country taking steps to reduce student ability groupings in favor of classrooms where skilled teachers would aim to adapt lessons to all students’ abilities.

But many of those detracking efforts met with strong pushback from parents and teachers, said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Wells published a paper with a colleague in 1996 that documented the detracking efforts of 10 schools across the country over the course of three years. The pair found that most of the schools that started out with ambitious detracking plans ended up scaling them back in the face of community pressure.

“White parents in a lot of these districts, in these schools, had the most political clout,” Wells said. “They gave the most money to the school. They were the most involved in the PTA.”

Teachers, meanwhile, “didn’t want to let go” of the programs because, she said, they “got higher status from teaching higher status students and teachers weren’t always trained in differentiation,” meaning tailoring a curriculum to students at different ability levels.

The detracking movement largely died down in the early part of the 21st century as federal policies designed to hold schools accountable for education performance normalized standardized testing as a way of measuring and separating kids, Wells said.

Complaints about tracking causing inequity within schools and districts also died down, she said, in large part because schools themselves became more segregated in the last 30 years. White families have continued to move to largely white suburbs, and court desegregation orders have ended. That means that in many communities, even as tracking persists, the resulting racial inequality isn't as stark as it was when schools were more racially diverse.

New York’s story is a bit different because the city itself is racially diverse but students from different racial groups don’t necessarily go to school together. A 2014 report found that New York City had the most segregated schools in the nation.

How to fight segregation?

As the diversity task force that recommended eliminating most of the city’s gifted programs aims to change that, Wells, who serves on the task force, said the pushback she’s seeing today is similar to what she saw while studying the detracking movement in the 1990s. But that doesn’t mean the New York proposal is doomed.

If nothing else, she said, people are talking about serious flaws in the existing system.

“Whatever happens moving forward, we have got to move away from giving kids one standardized test on one day and determining their educational career in that way,” she said. “It’s cruel and inhumane and really ethically problematic.”

Critics of the plan to do away with gifted programs worry that middle class parents will flee the district and either move to the suburbs or send their children to private school. That could potentially make the New York schools even more segregated than they are now.

That’s certainly possible, said Lewis-McCoy, the NYU professor.

“People often operate out of fear of the worst,” he said.

But, he said, many parents in cities like New York value diversity and want to send their children, at least in theory, to schools that serve everyone. If cities can create programs, such as a magnet schools, that give parents a reason to stay without setting a high barrier to admission, then everyone will benefit.

It is those kinds of programs that have succeeded, he said, where some of the desegregation efforts of the past have been hobbled by opposition from white parents.

“When we talk about integration not working and busing not working, we’re usually not talking about whether the schools got better,” Lewis-McCoy said.

“What we’re talking about is the failure of our own political will to value equity.”