REPORT CARD: Drama of the “Gifted” Program

Parents all over Brooklyn are now learning how their preschoolers performed on entrance tests for the city’s Gifted & Talented program. (Yes, we do test children who are too young to tie their own shoes.) The children’s scores will determine whether they are eligible to apply for a range of advanced tracks and special schools throughout the city. You may already be getting the idea that this is not a smart way to deal with children’s widely varied learning styles. The system creates immense frustration for parents, whether or not their kids qualify.

Most of the children tested—despite ample gifts and talents—won’t qualify for the program. Of those who qualify, many will not get a spot; with so many more affluent parents in the system than ever before, it is now common practice to have children coached for the test, with the result that too many children now receive qualifying scores, as the NewYorkTimes reported last year, and there is not enough room for all of them. Those who do get spots often find that transportation is not provided by the city—when a Brooklyn child is placed in a school in Queens, for instance, there is no school bus, so unless mom owns a car, and wants to spend her most productive work years sitting in traffic on the Kosciuszko Bridge, the child must forgo the opportunity.

But the problems with the Gifted & Talented program run much deeper than these glitches.

Unlike the general public-school population—which is 73.4 percent black and Hispanic—kids who pass the G&T test are overwhelmingly white. And the kids passing the G&T test are affluent. In 2008, CUNY demographer extraordinaire Andrew Beveridge reported in his GothamGazette column that 15.2 percent of kids in Manhattan’s District 2 (Midtown, as well as parts of Upper and Lower Manhattan) and 22.3 percent in District 3 (the Upper West Side) qualified for the program, compared to under 5 percent in most of the city’s other districts.

Beveridge did not have access to the city’s data on G&T racial demographics. But based on his analysis of racial disparities on similar tests nationwide, he estimated that white kids were way overrepresented in the program—that is the percentage of white children qualifying for G&T programs was three times the percentage of white children in the general New York City public-school population.

While there are many G&T tracks in neighborhood schools in Brooklyn, our borough has only one stand-alone G&T school, the Brooklyn School of Inquiry: 69 percent of its students are white, and 13 percent black or Hispanic. (12 percent are Asian.) That’s almost exactly the reverse of the public school population as a whole.

So the effect of the G&T program is to redistribute city resources to the well off, and worsen the problem of racial segregation. Why would anyone participate in this unfair and regressive system? Partly because some children are in urgent need of academic challenges, and partly because many parents—whether or not they believe their kids are exceptional—figure they’ll try anything to get a better education for their children.

In District 13, where I live, a couple of our school principals oppose the programs for laudable reasons. “All kids are gifted,” said the principal of P.S. 11, or Purvis Behan Elementary School, when I toured last year. Officials at P.S. 20, or The Clinton Hill School, which is phasing out a G&T program, have made similar comments, and it’s hard to disagree.

But the Department of Education (DOE) seems adamantly opposed to another option for fast learners: grade-skipping. Research shows that—

although, as with so many matters of education policy, everyone thinks he knows otherwise and has an anecdotal story to prove his point—grade skipping works well for most kids. In their report “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back Our Brightest Students,” researchers funded by the Templeton Foundation found that most children who had skipped grades benefited tremendously. (Those who had regrets mainly wished they had been promoted earlier or more often.) Very few suffered either socially or emotionally. The researchers also found that, despite the demonstrable advantages of the practice, most school systems ignore the research and refuse to let students skip grades.

Compared to “gifted” programs, grade skipping is (obviously) cost-effective for school systems. More importantly in the long run, it’s also more democratic: Fast-learning kids can do it even if they lack the extensive family resources—for test prep, transportation—that admission to a gifted program can require. The “Nation Deceived” authors point out that poor kids who are “gifted” are the ones who need these sensible policies the most—as their parents can’t afford private school, after-school activities, or enriching summer camps.

We seem to have a shortage of sensible policies for educating fast-learning kids. We either segregate them so they do nothing to raise the floor for everyone else, or hold them back so they won’t get too smart.

When I called the DOE to inquire about how my son—who is only one day too young for first grade and already reads—might skip kindergarten, the official I spoke with—let’s call her Ms. Timeserver—had a winning suggestion for me along these lines: I should keep my son out of school altogether this year, and send him to first grade next year. Presumably she reasoned that if he stayed out of school, he would learn nothing, and would then slow down to his appropriate grade level. In Ms. Timeserver’s world, the existence of a bright kid was a problem, and her solution was to let him stagnate for a year so that he wouldn’t have these troublesome abilities. She did not view my kid as a social resource—whose intelligence might, if cultivated, have some value to the world.

More compelling, though, than the question of whether the city should let “gifted” kids skip grades or should create special programs for them, is the possibility that all schools should be so good none of these remedies are needed.

Besides being another scheme to keep the upper-middle-classes in the public schools (see last Report Card column), G&T seems to help the city avoid providing better schools for everyone. The things that we claim “gifted” kids need are the same things that all kids need: challenges, individual attention, thoughtful curricula, and studious, well-behaved friends. To give everyone that would entail, for starters, hiring more teachers—personal attention is almost impossible with 30 kids in one classroom—instead of pink-slipping thousands of them, as Bloomberg is currently proposing. It would require giving all the schools the resources for arts, science, social studies, and other essentials of a well-rounded education.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking. Of the best public schools in Brooklyn—P.S. 321 or The William Penn School in Park Slope, Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene, P.S. 29 or P.S. 146 in Carroll Gardens, to name a few—almost none have G&T programs. The best private schools don’t have special tracks for the “gifted,” either­—and that’s not because privileged children are all equally academically capable. Of course they are not: Anyone who’s hung out with rich people knows that—just like the rest of us—some of them are appallingly dim, and some quite bright. But segregating the “gifted” is not something that the best schools need to do. Why? Because the advanced kids are not bored if the school is not boring. The very existence of the G&T program may signal that the system is failing to create exciting learning experiences for all kids. 

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