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How NYC’s Gifted Programs Make Segregation Worse

School Hallway
By: Johanna Miller Director, Education Policy Center, Education Policy Center

A proposal from a task force created by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio thrust the city’s gifted and talented programs into the news cycle.

The School Diversity Advisory Group was charged with coming up with ways to desegregate one of the most segregated school systems in the country. As part of its nearly 70 recommendations, the group proposed eliminating the city’s current, highly segregated method of delivering G&T education.

But the recommendation was not a call to stop nurturing or cultivating students’ academic strengths, as some have suggested. Instead, it offers an opportunity to look at how coveted educational programs became so segregated and whether there is a better way to deliver enriched curriculum.

Prior to the 2007-2008 school year, community school districts were able to utilize a holistic system for evaluating admissions to neighborhood G&T programs. Generally, admission required a privately-administered IQ test, and could also include teacher recommendations and classroom observations. That year, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein eliminated the holistic admissions model, replacing it with a single standardized test and a single cutoff score, under the auspices of making the system more objective.

In order to gain admission into a district G&T program, children as young as four now had to achieve a score in the nationwide 90th-percentile on the exam. Essentially overnight, there was a catastrophic drop in the number of Black and Latinx children admitted to these programs, from 31 percent Black students in 2007 to 13 percent Black students in 2008. The children who did best on the tests often had access to expensive prep courses and private preschools.

We need to move away from a system where children are labeled and sorted into cohorts, and toward one where each student’s individual needs are met

New York’s extremely racially-segregated housing patterns multiplied the effects of this change to admissions. In districts where too few children scored high enough, G&T programs were eliminated, so even if children did qualify they would have to travel across neighborhoods or even boroughs in order to enroll.

This domino effect meant that some districts in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn, for example, had no G&T programs, reducing parents’ familiarity with them and knowledge of how to apply, even if they would be willing to send their kids to a school across town. And parents’ understandable unwillingness to send their young kids to faraway schools meant that surviving G&T programs became less and less diverse.

Fast forward to today, when more than 75 percent of students in G&T programs are white or Asian, and it’s obvious the status quo is unacceptable.

Some elected officials have pointed to the shuttering of G&T programs in communities of color and suggested the city should add more programs instead of rethinking G&T altogether. But there is compelling data that any increase in G&T just increases racial isolation. The history, and some would say the purpose, of G&T education in New York City is to segregate students by race and affluence. As long as we maintain the programs, the programs will be segregated.

This is not to say we should reduce any student’s access to rigorous, challenging, or enriched curriculum. In fact, there is no G&T curriculum; most students receive merely an accelerated version of the same lessons used in the majority of New York City schools. That curriculum has been criticized for being too narrow, Euro-centric, and test-obsessed. So why not enhance it for everyone?

Every kid is more engaged when they see themselves and their culture reflected in school, when they are allowed to be creative, when the work challenges them, and when they are well-supported to meet the challenge.

We need to move away from a system where children are labeled and sorted into cohorts, and toward one where each student’s individual needs are met, speed of learning is respected, and talents are cultivated.

New York City kids deserve an education system that makes room for enrichment in any area where they excel, without discounting that they may struggle in other subjects, or even have a disability that requires more support. They deserve to learn with and from all their classmates.

We don’t have to look far for examples. In 2017, District Eight in the Bronx began offering enriched curriculum to all students, not just those who qualify for a designated G&T program, and demonstrated benefits across their student body. The education professor who designed the curriculum used in D8 said the main tenets were engagement, enthusiasm, and enjoyment. The curriculum helped students learn by getting them excited to be in school.

The City should work with the Department of Education to explore ways to provide enriched and advanced curriculum to all students, rather than continuing to label and segregate kids.

Read more of the NYCLU’s recommendations for ending high-stakes testing in our City Council testimony from September 24, 2019. 

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