Can axing gifted programs desegregate New York schools — without triggering 'bright flight'?

The city is right to want to abolish its tracking system, but it must be replaced with models that improve education for students at both high and low levels.
Image: Beacon High School, where applicants must pull high grades to be accepted, in New York in 2018.
Students must earn high grades to be accepted at New York City's Beacon High School.Sara Naomi Lewkowicz / NYT via Redux file
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By Halley Potter, senior fellow at The Century Foundation

A basic tenet of public education should be that public schools are open to all students. But in New York City, 1 in 5 middle and high schools currently decide who is in, and who is out, based on selective academic criteria. This academic sorting creates a system of separate and unequal opportunities that begin even before elementary school, and it’s why a panel convened by the mayor this week proposed the elimination of this practice entirely in elementary and middle schools.

In New York currently, city officials determine which children are identified as “gifted” by administering a standardized test to 4-year-olds and then using that single test score as the basis for entry into a rigidly tracked gifted and talented program that sets up separate classrooms and schools to educate these students apart from their so-called nongifted peers. This separation by academic criteria in turn contributes to racial and socioeconomic divides. Black and Latino students make up 65 percent of kindergartners overall, but just 18 percent of those admitted to gifted programs.

Successful detracking that maintains high levels of achievement for top students, while boosting performance overall, is indeed possible.

In some ways, New York City is an outlier. No other school district in the country uses such extensive academic screening in school admissions. But the broader practice of placing students in different academic tracks or programs, often within the same building, is commonplace in public schools. Moreover, we see the same racial pattern nationwide: White and Asian students are more likely to be identified as gifted and participate in gifted education programs or high-level tracks than black or Latino students.

Moving away from a system based on academic segregation is not easy. Achieving the dual goals of integrating students from all backgrounds and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of students at all levels is challenging work that can fall as an unsupported burden on teachers without the right resources in place. Furthermore, detracking done badly can result in dumbing down content rather than leveling up. The fear of losing rigor — and perhaps other anxieties about learning in a racially, socioeconomically and academically diverse setting — can also push high-achieving students from advantaged families to flee to private schools or move out of the district.

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These patterns of segregation, however, could soon begin to change in New York — and other cities might follow the lead of the country’s trendsetting largest school district. Mayor (and Democratic presidential candidate) Bill de Blasio is now weighing whether to implement the recommendations made this week by the appointed panel of community leaders, researchers, parents, teachers, students and advocates.

The advisory group has called for ending the practice of rigid gifted and talented tracks that are based on a single test beginning in elementary school, and in contrast to some misleading headlines, would replace those programs with “enrichment alternatives.” The recommendations also include eliminating academic admissions criteria in middle schools and retooling high school admissions with clear goals for racial and socioeconomic integration. But they stop short of calling for an end to all selective high school admissions and do not specifically address the specialized high schools including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

Earlier this year, the advisory group made preliminary recommendations that set diversity goals and outlined real resources needed. These combined reforms, if implemented, would represent the most ambitious school integration efforts ever undertaken in New York City. They are, predictably, already receiving pushback from parent advocates and elected officials who are satisfied with the status quo or who hope that creating more seats in selective programs could help address equity issues — an appealing idea that does not work, as demonstrated by the backfiring of previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to do so.

A large body of research and experience on academic tracking and gifted programs has documented the ways in which sorting students into classrooms by perceived ability is inequitable and educationally ineffective. First, the tests and criteria used to identify students for gifted programs and other academically selective offerings are heavily influenced by students’ degree of social privilege, in the form of access to resources such as test prep and sometimes also the implicit biases of educators.

Second, tracking harms students assigned to lower levels. Students with similar initial achievement levels assigned to lower-tiered classes show reduced performance over time compared to peers who received higher-level courses. Students in upper levels do not experience academic harm from tracking, but they do miss out on benefits that are fostered in racially and socioeconomically diverse settings— from reduced racial bias to improved critical thinking skills.

Third, successful detracking that maintains high levels of achievement for top students, while boosting performance overall, is indeed possible. Unlocking these benefits in a particular school district requires smart program design and professional development; there have been examples of detracking efforts that did not incorporate adequate teacher training and saw dips in student achievement. But when districts roll out changes gradually and support teachers, the results are astounding. For example, the Rockville Center School District on Long Island expanded its International Baccalaureate (IB) program beyond just a select group of top-track students to open it to all high school students, which increased the overall proportion of students scoring at the highest levels on IB exams while avoiding the “bright flight” of high-achieving students.

To root public education in academic separation, as New York City and too many other school districts have done, is therefore at best lazy and at worst willfully damaging. Hand-picking the best and brightest may be an easy way to create a school or program that will hit its benchmarks for success — perhaps even if the school itself does nothing. But to do so means accepting known harm to other students by relegating them to lower tracks or schools. It also means avoiding the essential work of ensuring that high-achieving students are challenged in integrated settings, simply because such work is hard.

To meet the challenge of continued academic growth for high-achieving students in mixed-ability classrooms, it is essential that New York City and other districts replace separate gifted classes and other selective programs with inclusive approaches to enrichment. The panel’s recommendations stipulate that community school districts should be given resources to develop new enrichment models — but more guidance about the steps for identifying and implementing these new models is currently missing because it’s so early in the process.

The strategies used in other schools and districts could provide a roadmap. In an effort to provide additional academic challenge and keep families in the district without exacerbating inequity, Washington, D.C., implemented the Schoolwide Enrichment Model in roughly a dozen public elementary and middle schools. The model applies the pedagogy of gifted education, including a focus on individual talents, to all students in a school, while grouping students by interest across ability levels for enrichment clusters. More than 40 studies have shown that it is an effective model for boosting achievement and increasing creativity for all students. In D.C., it has also increased enrollment at the schools where it has been implemented.

In high school, an “open honors” model, such as the one used at High Tech High, a charter school network in California, works by enrolling all levels of students in a class together but allowing some students to take the class for honors credit by completing extra assignments. High Tech High’s flagship high school is one of the top-performing schools in San Diego, and it has eliminated the race-based gap in honors enrollment.

Gifted programs and other forms of academic tracking are some of the central mechanisms that cause school segregation to rage on.

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education ended, the legal separation of students by race, gifted programs and other forms of academic tracking are some of the central mechanisms that cause school segregation to rage on. The fear of losing high-achieving students to private schools or other districts frequently holds educational leaders back from reforming a broken and segregated system. This is certainly the case in New York City, where gifted and talented programs have historically been used explicitly as a tool to draw upper-middle-class families to public schools.

However, there are better ways to attract families than with the lure of exclusivity. The concerns that parents with “gifted” children have about rigor and deeper learning should become launching pads for district- and schoolwide changes to support enrichment opportunities and magnet programs that are open to all.

New York City has the chance to shed its shameful distinction of having the school district with the most exclusionary admissions policies. But even districts that are not the worst offenders should take a hard look at their practices. The primary job of public schools should be to educate students, not to sort them.