Last week’s announcement from Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks that the city plans to add 1,100 seats to gifted-and-talented programs in time for the start of the school year in September is a welcome shift from Bill de Blasio-era attempts to dismantle such initiatives. We can expect more positive news on this score in the coming year.
“Gifted and talented” refers to a program involving six elementary schools that serve only students who meet the citywide entrance requirements, as well as similar programs in other classrooms within elementary schools that serve the general population. Concerns about the racial and ethnic makeup of these schools and programs led to former mayor de Blasio’s attempt to gut them by eliminating the use of a single test for admission. Adams and Banks are reversing course—though this year, students will be admitted to these programs based on teacher recommendations. That admissions method became necessary because in January 2021, the Panel for Educational Policy refused to extend the contract for the long-standing process of testing four-year-old students individually for entrance to gifted-and-talented programs.
One thousand of the new seats will be for programs beginning in third grade, and the remaining 100 for kindergarteners in local school districts that don’t have gifted-and-talented programs. “Thanks to this expansion,” said Mayor Adams, “for the first time ever, there will be a Gifted and Talented program in every school district in this city.”
Last week’s announcement is important not just because it signals an end to de Blasio’s efforts to dismantle these popular programs but also because it marks the beginning of a new effort to maintain and diversify them through growth and modification. Banks was explicit about the administration’s goals: “Today we move to end the era of scarcity—the era of making families fight amongst themselves for limited Gifted and Talented seats in far off schools.”
We can expect more changes to these programs in the coming year. The administration has already shown that it has the right approach: expand, don’t end gifted and talented programs. The thousands of New York families who care about merit-driven educational opportunities for their children will be eager to see how the program evolves under Adams’s and Banks’s leadership.
To get a sense of what’s to come, it’s worth understanding the history of recent battles over gifted-and-talented programs. Past efforts to change the rules governing these initiatives were hard-fought, with strong language exchanged between those who called them discriminatory and those wanting to prevent any changes to them. De Blasio’s parting shot at gifted-and-talented programs, the 2021 Brilliant NYC Report, made clear his administration’s disdain for gifted education: “The inequalities of our system laid bare by the pandemic are the most stark and apparent in our Gifted and Talented (G&T) program.” Disregarding the reality that some students need accelerated learning to meet their full potential, the report painted the program as deepening inequality simply because it separated one group of students from others based on some measure of achievement or ability. That’s putting a lot on a program that served only about 16,000—or fewer than 2 percent—of the city’s more than 820,000 students.
Still, the critics had a point—to an extent. Much of their animus for the kindergarten gifted-and-talented program focused on its use of a single test, given in a one-to-one setting, to four-year-old students. Only those who scored at the very top of this assessment were offered a seat in one of the six citywide gifted-and-talented elementary schools. These schools serve about 2,500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, admitting about 420 students each year. I have always believed that four-year-old children are simply too young to be reliably assessed for a program that will separate them from all other students for years to come. (I explained why in an earlier City Journal essay.) While pledging to continue the programs, Banks has questioned the testing of students at such a young age: “We’re not going to eliminate the G&T at the kindergarten level. But I will tell you—I’m not a big fan of testing 4-year-olds.”
But the de Blasio administration’s distaste for merit went too far. Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE) issued a report last November calling for the universal screening of “all students at DOE-run and -funded NYC schools from PreK to 2nd grade for academic giftedness using a national standardized measure (with the right to opt out) to ensure continued enrollment under existing G&T district and citywide programs.” At the same time, PLACE endorsed the use of local norms “to ensure academically gifted kids from disadvantaged, ELL and Special Needs backgrounds are fully identified,” and it advocated for a “multimeasure identification process so screening is one, but not the only part of identifying accelerated learners.”
The use of multiple admission measures and “local norms” has come up in conversations I’ve had with experts in the field of accelerated learning, and it appears to be the most workable solution for New York. A small number of students—about the same as the number served by the city’s current system of six fully gifted and talented elementary schools—would be admitted solely based on the screening instrument; only those scoring at the very top would be admitted to these schools. The expansion of the programs across the city, however, would incorporate local norms, meaning that seats would be offered to students scoring highest in their local district or school, regardless of their standing relative to all students in the city. With programs beginning in both kindergarten and third grade, teachers would have the opportunity to recommend students for admission based on skills and aptitudes not revealed by the single test.
New York City is losing students. It can’t afford to drive away parents who seek accelerated learning opportunities for their children. Nor should the city alienate those parents while opening up chances for other kids. Our school system is big enough to expand opportunities by means of growth, not redistribution. Fortunately for students and their parents, New York City now has leaders who appear to understand this.
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