Mayor Bill de Blasio’s apparent decision to end the screening of four-year-old children for admission to gifted and talented kindergartens is likely to draw strong reactions—both from parents who treasure these programs and from those who oppose them. Partisans on both sides should step back and encourage New York’s next mayor to develop a workable plan that is both educationally sound and fair to all.
Such a plan will need to be grounded in an understanding of the path that different students follow through New York City’s sometimes-troubled, sometimes-excellent public school system. It must also seek to improve opportunities for those left out of the enrichment offered in the current gifted and talented programs, without harming those who would have gained entry to those programs if not for the changes that the mayor has proposed.
First, the next mayor must insist that the school system reinstitute an annual school accountability review. Schools that fail to produce acceptable results should be closed. No child should have to attend a school that has shown consistently low performance.
Second, the reality that young children develop at different speeds—that their true talents emerge over the course of their childhoods—needs to be respected. All parents have known slow starters and late bloomers. The biggest failure of the city’s current approach to advanced students is that it begins tracking students too young. It is a clear pattern that certain elementary schools provide the path to certain middle schools, which in turn act as feeders to the selective high schools. Mayor de Blasio is right to call for the end of screening four-year-olds for entry to this track. He is also right to delay the beginning of academically screened schools and programs until late elementary or middle school.
At the same time, the most vocal opponents of gifted programs need to accept the reality that by middle school, and certainly before entry to high school, students demonstrate their interests, abilities, and true achievement levels. It is therefore appropriate that high schools and a select number of middle schools reflect those differences in students. High schools that admit students using the SHSAT should be preserved, and the smallest should probably be expanded. At the middle school level, the city should designate a small number of schools that offer advanced coursework and admit advanced students using multiple measures of achievement.
Third, for entry to whatever enrichment programs the city offers in late elementary school and middle school, these programs need to exist in each of the city’s 32 local school districts. Each district should offer these programs to their highest-achieving students, without regard for a uniform city-wide standard. This was the practice before the mid-2000s, and it resulted in more gifted and talented programs across the city and was associated with a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students earning entry to the selective high schools than is now the case.
Finally, while doing all that is appropriate to increase educational opportunity for advanced students in all communities, the city must recognize that the racial achievement gap observed on all standardized tests has been a thorny problem for school districts around the country. Opponents of gifted programs should not be surprised if any changes implemented by the next mayor end up benefiting some Asian and white students as well as black and Hispanic ones, resulting in a mismatch between the racial makeup of these programs compared with that of the general population. The goal here should be to increase the number of black and Hispanic students in the advanced programs, not to dictate the percentage of each racial group in these programs and schools.
Given the complexity of closing the racial achievement gap, the next mayor should embrace and promote educational choice in all forms—particularly the city’s charter schools, which yield a much higher percentage of black and Hispanic students scoring at the highest levels on the state’s annual examinations. An analysis of the most recent state tests from 2019 indicates that black students in the city’s charters were twice as likely to score at the highest level (four) than black students in the Department of Education’s schools. In math, black charter school students enjoyed a more than threefold advantage. Hispanics in charters were also much more likely to achieve at the highest level than their counterparts in district schools. It’s unconscionable that the state legislature continues to impose a cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the city, thereby denying opportunities to black and Hispanic students.
Some parents will adamantly oppose these changes. Rather than trying to preserve the status quo, they should consider holding the new administration’s feet to the fire on the composition and staffing of whatever enrichment programs for late elementary and middle school emerge. These programs must be staffed with teachers who can truly guide their students through advanced material, and they must be sufficient in scope to help these students reach their potential. These parents should also push for the protection and growth of the specialized high schools.
Recognizing that no system’s approach will work for all students, proponents of gifted programs should also support efforts to increase school choice though continued growth of charter schools. New York’s next mayor, along with the governor and state legislature, should lead this effort for the sake of both choice and excellence.
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