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Gifted programs worsen inequality. Here's what happens when schools try to get rid of them.

Districts are eliminating gifted classes and instead trying to teach all students together. In some places, it's working — but schools also face challenges.
Around the country, gifted and talented programs have come under fire for exacerbating school systems’ already stark racial and economic segregation.
Around the country, gifted and talented programs have come under fire for exacerbating school systems’ already stark racial and economic segregation. Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

This article about SEM schools was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This is part 2 of the series “Gifted Education’s Race Problem.”

ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y. — It was 7:58 a.m., and Bruce Hecker’s 12th grade English class at South Side High School had the focused attention of a college seminar, with little chitchat or sluggishness despite the early hour. Students discussed the relevance of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” to the McCarthy hearings and to current competing fears of terrorism and technological surveillance.

The conversation that morning in December 2019 followed the lead of the seven or eight most vocal students. Occasionally, Hecker interrupted to encourage participation from a handful of students who receive support services to keep up with the class’s rigorous curriculum.

The students Hecker called on hesitated, cleared their throats and said “um.” But when they did speak, their comments were clear and cogent.

“If you’re a kid and you break a vase,” one student reflected on the theme of scapegoating in Miller’s play, “you don’t get these concepts. But your first thought is still to blame the dog.” His peers laughed in appreciation.

South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., eliminated many of its tracked classes.
South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., eliminated many of its tracked classes. Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

More than 30 years ago, Rockville Centre began a gradual but determined effort to do away with gifted classes in its elementary schools as well as many of the tracked classes at the middle and high schools. The goal wasn’t to eliminate all tracking, South Side Principal John Murphy said. Upperclassmen can still choose to take more challenging math, science and foreign language classes. It was, instead, to avoid creating a caste system by assigning students to remedial, average or advanced classes before they’d had a chance to develop their academic potential.

Those assignments often became self-fulfilling prophecies even though they didn’t always accurately reflect students’ abilities. This can have a long-term impact; the rigor of high school courses has been found to be the No. 1 predictor of college success. In Rockville Centre, tracked classes also led to racial and economic segregation in a high school where a fifth of the nearly 1,100 students are Black or Latino and the rest of the student body is nearly entirely white.

Early on, administrators found that many Black and Latino students and students from low-income families avoided the most challenging classes even after being given the option to enroll in them. So now, some of South Side’s college-level classes, like Hecker’s 12th grade English, are not only open to all, but also required.

Students in Bruce Hecker's 12th grade English class at South Side High School all study the same advanced curriculum.
Students in Bruce Hecker's 12th grade English class at South Side High School all study the same advanced curriculum. Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

Around the country, gifted and talented programs have come under fire for exacerbating school systems’ already stark racial and economic segregation. In 2019 in New York City, a group commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, The School Diversity Advisory Group, recommended doing away with all gifted and talented programs, while that same year Seattle attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate its programs as a way to alleviate school segregation.

Screens used to select students for high performing schools and advanced classes based on grades and test scores also face mounting criticism for exacerbating segregation. Last winter, a district near Philadelphia agreed to reduce its number of tracked classes at the middle and high school levels and increase access to Advanced Placement courses in response to a discrimination lawsuit brought by parents.

But some educators, parents and students worry about what might replace screened classes and accelerated programs. Is it possible, they wonder, to teach all students at all levels together in one class? And, if it is, will teachers receive the support they need to succeed?

Related: Gifted classes may not help talented students move ahead faster

Even when school systems do have a plan for how to bring students at different academic levels together while supporting and challenging each student, those plans don’t necessarily succeed at undoing long-standing racial and economic segregation.

In Washington, D.C., new magnet schools based on the University of Connecticut’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which aims to provide special programming for students at all performance levels, have been met with enthusiasm, but so far have produced uneven outcomes in terms of improved school test scores, and have had little impact on school diversity. And while educators at South Side have good reason to point to their school’s academic success, students and parents say that pushing students so hard to excel takes an emotional toll, and have demanded less rigor. Some have even asked for a return to more tracking.

As school systems around the country work to address entrenched educational inequities, these experiments provide insights into the benefits and challenges of doing away with tracked classes and gifted programs.

Removing tracked classes in Rockville

It was 1989, and as a new Spanish teacher in Lawrence, New York, Carol Burris was assigned an eighth grade class called Language for Travelers. Its students weren’t fooled by the elegant name. All had taken a foreign language the previous year and failed, and they knew that ending up in Burris’ class meant expectations had been lowered. “There was a real culture that ‘We hate school and we hate language,’” Burris said. Out of 29 students, 27 were boys. Most were Black and Latino kids living in poverty.

The experience stayed with Burris, and when she became South Side’s principal in 2000, she found like-minded educators worried about the damage tracking could cause and who, over the past decade, had started to dismantle it.

Rockville’s administrators knew that removing academic tracks would be fraught. So, the district started by replacing separate gifted classes in elementary school with individualized, project-based “talent” classes for all students.

Those classes proved popular. Once parents bought into the idea that there didn’t have to be winners and losers, it was easier to move academic integration into higher grade levels.

South Side High School has taken a systematic approach to shrinking the achievement gap.
South Side High School has taken a systematic approach to shrinking the achievement gap.Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

The district also planned how to help students with weaker skills manage accelerated classes. Before Rockville Centre detracked math in the ninth and 10th grades, for example, it added support math classes in middle school so that all students graduated eighth grade having completed algebra.

At each step, the district used outcome data to guide its reforms and convince the community that the efforts were working and, in particular, that the strongest students weren’t being shortchanged.

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Today, the school requires subject teachers in each grade to teach the same content at the same time. Such coordination facilitates support classes that meet every other day during the school day, with one teacher for every six or seven students. Students in these classes are pre-taught material, making them better prepared to understand material in their mainstream classes.

Taking such a systematic approach to shrinking the achievement gap may sound obvious. But around the country, efforts to broaden access to accelerated classes and, in some districts, to mandate Advanced Placement classes for all students have been implemented without ensuring that students have the background material necessary to succeed.

Related: Up to 3.6 million students should be labeled gifted, but aren’t

South Side also turned to the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, a Swiss-based program that offers a demanding high school degree. (Forty-three percent of South Side students earn a full IB diploma, according to the principal.) The model was chosen as South Side’s main honors program in the mid-1990s not only for its rigor, but also for its flexibility. Compared to Advanced Placement classes, which require students to master a large and specific body of factual knowledge, the IB program focuses on depth of analysis.

So, for example, South Side replaced Dickens’ "A Tale of Two Cities" with James Joyce’s "Dubliners," both of which provide students the opportunity to analyze a complex and canonical work of English literature. Russ Reid, who taught English at South Side for more than 40 years, explained: “If you take ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ out of the curriculum, there are those that go, ‘Oh, my God, you’re not teaching Dickens.’ But a reluctant learner sees that 450-page novel and says, ‘The hell with it.’”

“It’s hard to argue that ‘Dubliners’ is an easy read,” Reid added. But each story is relatively short. “If students read 12 stories and blow off the other three, they’re not going to be lost. I don’t think we’re teaching to the middle when we’re talking about ‘The Dead.’ But we have made it more manageable.”

As academic integration advanced, students’ test scores improved — not just for weaker students, but also for students already achieving at a high level.

The Schoolwide Enrichment Model comes to D.C.

Nothing was simple about the experiment undertaken at Rockville Centre, but having only one high school with a relatively low-needs population did make it easier. Just 15 percent of the roughly 1,000 students at the school receive free or reduced lunch, a federal marker of poverty.

By contrast, in Washington, D.C., 77 percent of public school students are economically disadvantaged. Many students from higher-income families go to private schools or move to the suburbs to avoid attending schools where a large proportion of students perform below grade level.

This trend intensified when, in 2005, D.C. Public Schools closed its gifted and talented programs. So, in 2012, the district created an office of advanced and enriched instruction to keep more middle-class families in the system and simultaneously serve the learning needs of its high-performing, low-income students. Like Rockville Centre, the goal was to provide enrichment without exacerbating racial and economic inequity or further segregating an already segregated school system.

To achieve that tricky balance, D.C. turned to the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), used in more than 4,000 schools nationwide, and internationally. Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis, professors at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, created their model to help diversify accelerated classes and gifted programs by encouraging school systems to broaden their concept of giftedness and ferret out student potential beyond what’s measured by standardized tests. The method assesses qualities such as motivation, curiosity, empathy, creativity and self-regulation, and exposes young students to a wide range of enriching experiences to discover what excites them.

Renzulli and Reis are proponents of diversifying gifted programs, not eliminating them. In fact, they believe it’s unreasonable to expect one teacher to teach students at all levels effectively together. “A lot of lower-achieving kids feel even worse about themselves when they’re forced to be in classrooms where the content is consistently above their level,” while the learning needs of higher performing students are regularly ignored, Reis said.

Despite this, Renzulli and Reis do encourage the use of their model in systems like D.C.’s that don’t offer gifted programs because they believe that discovering and deepening students’ individual passions — a mainstay of gifted education — is useful for all students.

To accomplish this in mainstream schools, their model calls for flexible small group instruction within classes — based at times on ability, at times on interest — as well as a focus on project-based learning so students can pursue their passions. They also encourage all SEM schools to have a full-time talent specialist so that the burden of differentiating instruction doesn’t fall entirely on the classroom teacher.

Ida B. Wells Middle School, D.C.’s newest SEM school, opened just last year. Although roughly two-thirds of its students entered the school performing below grade level in math and three-quarters below grade level in English, according to the city, the school said it was able to recruit a small group of high-achieving Black and Latino students, including a handful from private schools and gifted programs in neighboring states. They came for the enrichment, as well as for the school’s low teacher-student ratio, made possible by having all classes inclusive of students in special education, a quarter of the school’s population, and English language learners. The model means that there’s funding for every class to have two teachers, and for English and math classes to have three, with abundant opportunity for small group instruction.

Related: Twice exceptional, doubly disadvantaged? How schools struggle to serve gifted students with disabilities

In addition, Ida B. Wells’ talent specialist Nila Austin provides pullout classes for both struggling and accelerated students, as well as enrichment classes that all students can choose to attend.

A speech elective that Austin offers called Soap Box is open to all. In class last December, each student performed a speech on a topic of personal importance. One sixth grader decried colorism, explaining how darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields while lighter-skinned slaves worked indoors, and described “bizarre tests” later used to determine “how Black” a person was, like the pencil test in South Africa, which judged the kinkiness of people’s hair.

Students in need of extra academic support also receive this kind of personally meaningful enrichment. Before Ida B. Wells’ sixth grade English class began reading Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Austin assigned her small group of struggling readers Kondwani Fidel’s “Hummingbirds in the Trenches,” which explores similar themes of race, class and trauma, but is more accessible in language and setting. They also studied the psychology of trauma, wrote their own trauma narratives and had the opportunity to meet Fidel. When asked if students in her support class feel stigmatized, Austin said, “Students ask me all the time how they can get into that class.”

And yet, eight years in, it’s not clear how much impact D.C.’s SEM program has had on the kinds of outcomes most commonly used to measure academic success.

Students at most SEM schools in D.C. are more likely to perform below grade level than at or above it. A couple of SEM schools have seen striking improvement in their standardized test scores in just a few years, even though most students haven’t reached grade level, but other SEM schools have seen minimal or no improvement. (Ida B. Wells is too new to provide such data.)

The model has also failed to create greater racial or economic diversity in D.C.’s schools. At more than half of D.C.’s 11 SEM schools, nearly all of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Ida B. Wells’ Principal Megan Vroman acknowledges that there are benefits to racial and economic integration, but she said she also sees advantages when students attend schools like hers that aren’t integrated and instead “reaffirm their identity.”

But the schools’ overall low academic performance concerns some in the field. “All education should be enriching. But in some cases, all students getting enrichment may mean that no students are really getting opportunities to take on more advanced work,” said Adam Tyner, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who co-authored a report on ways to increase the representation of Black and Latino students in gifted programs.

Renzulli and Reis themselves have noted that teachers don’t always implement SEM in ways that serve the learning needs of their highest-performing students. Much of the research done on SEM, which has been in schools for decades, has shown positive results, including increased math and literacy skills, increased creative output from students and even long-term impact on college and career choices. But Renzulli and Reis conducted many of the studies, while others were written by administrators who’d had success with the program.

Still, Renzulli and Reis are impatient with the idea that all progress can be measured in a few years by standardized tests. “Creative productivity, which is the ultimate goal of the model, isn’t always something you can measure in achievement scores one or two years in. Students first have to develop interests. They have to develop habits of mind over time,” Reis said.

Matthew Reif, director of extended learning and academic recovery for D.C. Public Schools, believes SEM has helped D.C. create a more engaging and challenging learning experience, even if that’s not yet captured in test scores. The most important SEM outcome to date, he said, is an ever-growing number of D.C. educators who want to bring SEM to their schools.

‘It’s better for struggling students to be in my classroom’

The results in Rockville Centre are more concrete. In 2019, 98 percent of South Side students graduated with a New York State Regents diploma, while 89 percent of all students and 67 percent of economically disadvantaged students earned a New York State Regents with Advanced Designation. Statewide, a third of the students received an advanced designation diploma.

But 10 students interviewed in a group last year at South Side High School also said that the school is a competitive pressure cooker and that they feel pushed to take advanced classes. A white student whose parents both have advanced degrees said she feels stressed, as did a Black student who is on track to be one of the first in his family to attend college.

When the experiment at Rockville Centre started in the late 1980s, Principal Murphy said, it was families of the highest-performing students who were skeptical. Today, resistance comes from parents who believe the academic pressure is not good for their children. In 2018, parents demanded that the school lower its graduation requirements. In response, though every student must still take the IB English and history classes in 11th and 12th grades, this year the school removed the requirement that they sit for the IB exams. Students can also exempt themselves from some of the longer writing assignments that the IB requires.

Hecker, the English teacher, said he sees that requiring high-level classes does have its costs. But he believes the cost of segregating students based on academic performance is far greater. “I think it’s better for struggling students to be in my classroom and not in some other room wondering what’s going on in those classes where the real learning is happening,” he said. “I think that is completely demoralizing.”

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