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Lessons to Be Learned from the New York City School System Gifted Dilemma

When word broke that NYC schools were considering 86ing all of their gifted programming, I was livid. After all, I have spent my entire career fighting for the rights of gifted students and making sure they have specialized services for their unique abilities. Then I began to read some of the articles debating the topic and like most things in life, found that things were not so cut and dry.

The major problem is that there is no good guy or bad guy in this situation. Both sides have very legitimate arguments. On one side of the argument are those who would seek to discontinue gifted programming. The rationale is that the programs are predominately white and Asian, even though the NYC school system is 75% black and Hispanic. These programs have created a very “have and have not” atmosphere, with those who can afford it getting help in being accepted (a la college admissions scandal), or who are just more knowledgeable about the system and know how to play it to give their child advantages over others.

The problem is not in their argument but in who they are arguing against. They are pointing the finger at the programs themselves and want to discontinue them. The problem is the admission policy to get into these programs. NYC uses a multitude of criteria, an exam, attendance rates, grades, all of which are fairly subjective. NYC school has its own gifted exam which includes portions of the OLSAT and Naglieri, nationally recognized gifted tests. I know this because it was explained on Bright Kids, a tutoring service whose claim to fame is they can help kids score well on the test. I got sick to my stomach when the lady on the video bragged that 90% of their clients have qualified. This is a humongous problem. Gifted testing should be evaluating talent and ability, but instead, students are getting in based on resources and wealth. After all, talent is equally dispersed, but resources are not. Add to this the fact that attendance and grades play a factor. All this is doing is putting up artificial barriers that create inequity.

A student cannot help it if his parent will not get him to school. Grades, on the other hand, can be very subjective. Kids who are compliant by following directions and behaving tend to get better grades than discipline problems or those who go against the grain. This does not indicate which student has the higher ability, however. This might come as a shock to most, but not all gifted students are well-behaved, model pupils. In fact, their predisposition is to challenge and question, which can cause a lot of problems with teachers who expect students to raise their hand or quietly work.

On the other side of the argument are the gifted pundits who want to protect their programs because they believe they are what is best for kids, and in my experiences in gifted education, this is absolutely correct. Gifted programs offer a specialized service to a unique ability that is going to do a better job of helping these students reach their potential than if these services had not been available. That does not take away from the fact that the tests we give students to qualify them for such programming have a certain amount of bias to them. A student coming from an educated, middle-class family is given a huge advantage over a child who comes from an impoverished home where there are bigger fish to fry than schooling. This does not take away from the fact that there are students out there who need a different education. We just need to do a better job of identifying them. Having policies such as universal screening, using multiple nationally normed tests to provide a clearer picture, and eliminating subjective measures such as teacher recommendation or elements outside of the control of the student would be a start, but much more needs to be done.

What this ultimately comes down to is the difference between equity and fair. Is it equal to get rid of gifted programming in NYC and offer opportunities to everyone in the district to participate in specialized programs? Yes, that would certainly make things more equal, but it is not fair to students who have a specialized need that is not going to be addressed by trying to teach everyone equally. There is an issue here but not the one they are currently addressing. We need to properly identify what the issues are before we can make blanket statements such as eliminating all gifted programming.

Here is a suggestion you would never hear. NYC schools determine that its’ special education programs are predominantly one race and so in order to make things more equal, they decide to get rid of those services and offer the same education to everyone. That would be nuts not to mention illegal since special education is federally protected under IDEA. But because there is no federal law protecting gifted education and those who qualify for it, it is up to the discretion of the school district. This, of course, is beside the fact that you would not consider doing this to special education students because we recognize they have specialized needs that must be addressed. Gifted students have specialized needs as well; they are just at the other end of the spectrum. So why is it alright to discontinue their services?

Like most things, the adults need to get their s**t together and figure things out because the only people who are going to be affected by this are the children. No matter what decision is made, all that I ask is that they not take the easy way out. It is easy to completely cut something rather than trying to make it more equitable. It is easier to deny students a specialized education rather than trying to fix the system that created this mess. If we truly believe in the benefits a gifted education provides, we need to be willing to do as we often ask of our gifted students; we need to think outside the box.

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