Should NYC Ax Gifted Programs to Integrate Its Schools?

Desegregation now?
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City’s public school system is among the most racially segregated in America. It is also one of the few school systems that uses standardized tests to sort incoming kindergarteners into separate “gifted” and non-gifted educational tracks.

This week, Bill de Blasio’s school-integration advisory group suggested that these two facts are related. In fact, the mayor’s advisers argued that gifted programs are a leading driver of segregation in the city’s schools, and should therefore be phased out. Much of the city’s (famously liberal) public responded with incredulous outrage.

On one level, it’s difficult to see why. Recent national surveys have found that a large majority of American voters see school segregation as a problem, and believe more must be done to combat it. In deep-blue NYC, that percentage is surely even higher. Meanwhile, it isn’t hard to discern why sorting students into separate programs based on their test scores at age 4 would exacerbate the problem. Public resources for early childhood development are limited, while the private resources that affluent families can invest in their children’s development (and/or test prep) are extensive. Thus, assessments of a child’s academic aptitude before entering kindergarten are bound to function largely as an index of their parents’ socioeconomic status. And since class position and race are closely correlated in the United States (due to the legacy of centuries of de jure and de facto anti-black discrimination), one would expect the city’s “gifted” program to bring its classrooms into closer alignment with George Wallace’s ideal. And one would be right: Black and Latino students comprise 65 percent of all NYC kindergarteners, but just 18 percent of those enrolled in gifted programs.

Waiting until later grades to separate gifted and non-gifted pupils might mitigate this inequity. But racial and class-based disparities in admissions to selective middle and high schools makes clear that merely delaying the onset of tracking would not prevent it from exacerbating segregation.

Thus, if the city genuinely wishes to integrate its schools, the mayor’s advisers say that it should phase out the selective gifted and talented programs altogether, while also curbing the use of exclusionary admissions criteria at public middle schools (notably, the report declines to call for eliminating the city’s selective high schools). Instead of relying on these screening mechanisms to cultivate students’ individual gifts — and cater to their disparate paces of learning — the group recommends the adoption of “equitable enrichment alternatives.” Local districts would be empowered to work out the precise details of such alternatives, but Chalkbeat summarizes the basic concept:

Schoolwide enrichment “is really flipping the whole idea on its head,” said Allison Roda, a professor at Molloy College who has studied the city’s gifted programs. “Instead of sorting students based on perceived ability and whether they can pass a test when they’re 4 years old, the school’s job is to find out what those gifts and talents are and to develop them.”

For younger children, that could mean setting up small groups of students who are pulled out of their classrooms to learn the basics of photography. In middle and high school, staff can give students questionnaires about their interests and use that information to set up electives that could include topics ranging from robotics to journalism.

These breakout electives could be complemented by the “open honors” model used at many charter schools in California, a model that enrolls students of all performance levels in the same classes but allows the fast learners to earn honors credits by completing bonus assignments. As the Century Foundation’s Halley Potter notes, San Diego’s High Tech High has become one of that city’s top-performing schools, while simultaneously eliminating the racial gap in honors enrollment, by embracing “open honors.”

Although there have been a few instances in which poorly designed de-tracking schemes have corresponded with declines in student achievement, this is not the norm. And the broader research suggests that tracking and selective admissions do significant harm to “non-gifted” students, while providing little to no discernible benefit to “gifted” ones (for example, multiple studies have found that attending a selective high school populated by “high-achievers” does not actually make a student more likely to graduate from college, or attend a higher-quality university). Which is to say that tracking and selective admissions reliably segregate schools along socioeconomic and racial lines, and damage outcomes for the disproportionately low-income and nonwhite students consigned to lower levels, while accomplishing little else.

All this said, it isn’t actually difficult to understand why the panel’s proposal has already inspired vehement opposition from a diverse array of city officials and interest groups, from the Bronx Borough president (whose constituents’ children are almost all shut out of gifted programs), to the teachers unions, to likely 2021 mayoral candidates. Simply put: New York City can de-track its schools, but it can’t de-track a neo–Gilded Age economy in which economic security is rationed through an elaborate system of competitive credentialing. In an age when wage growth for noncollege workers is tepid — and the costs of health care and housing are soaring — those who wish to escape financial precariousness — let alone attain upper-middle-class affluence — must separate themselves from the (disproportionately black and brown) ranks of the unchosen at some point.

The stakes of separating your child’s fate from that of her median peer, by steering her onto the path to a diploma from a respectable university, are objectively high. And for the typical professional-class family, the subjective stakes are even higher; to allow one’s children to stumble down the socioeconomic ladder is to have failed as a parent. Middle-class parents are willing to make enormous sacrifices, and take on massive debt, to avert such failure. In this context, a program that marks one’s child as gifted — and expedites her elevation from the doomed majority that lacks that which “the knowledge economy” requires — is a vital source of reassurance that all is going according to plan. Some bureaucrat’s white paper might say that selective high schools do not outperform nonselective ones once you control for the composition of the student body. But for the typical parent, peer-reviewed studies are less compelling than the knowledge that their kid is “on track” or the sight of her walking the halls of the “good” school, surrounded by the “right” crowd.

Add to this the reality that optimizing instruction for a mixed-aptitude classroom is genuinely challenging and can be done in a manner that frustrates more advanced students, and that many high-performing middle-class students will feel more comfortable in classrooms populated by people like them, and it’s easy to see why the mayor’s office’s plan would strike a nerve. While there is broad consensus against race-based segregation in schools, affluent parents feel little shame in seeking out socioeconomically segregated learning environments for their kin. Part of why New York City’s gifted programs were established in the first place was to offer upper-middle-class families an alternative to moving their kids to affluent suburbs or private schools, which is to say, to forestall them from using an alternative means of keeping their children’s learning environment from being excessively socioeconomically diverse.

Critically, the appeal of screening is not limited to parents anxious to keep their children ensconced in the middle class; it is also prevalent among those most committed to seeing their progeny escape the precariousness of their own circumstances. Many black and Hispanic working-class parents who are highly involved in their children’s educations (and thus, more likely to pay close attention to education policy and vote in elections) desperately want their children to have the opportunity to distinguish themselves from their peers, and claim membership in the elect, for much the same reasons that more-privileged parents do. Thus, many lawmakers who represent nonwhite, working-class areas are much less interested in eliminating gifted programs than expanding (without universalizing) access to them. As the New York Times reports:

Over the last few years, Robert E. Cornegy Jr., a councilman from Brooklyn, has fought to have gifted programs restored in largely low-income and black neighborhoods, like Bedford-Stuyvesant.

He said he would resist any effort to eliminate gifted programs because “the segregation argument doesn’t equate in communities of color.”

The proposals, Mr. Cornegy said, sound like they came from a group of “uber liberals.”

“If you eliminate the gifted and talented program it eliminates the chances of getting into specialized programs and institutions of higher learning,” he said. “Just like there’s a pipeline to prison, there is a pipeline to higher academic success and college.”

The mayor’s office’s recommendations are worthwhile. And it is difficult to see how the city’s schools can be desegregated unless tracking is scaled back. But so long as acquiring select credentials — and social distance from working-class people — are prerequisites for getting ahead in our economy, many parents are bound to demand that their children have the opportunity to acquire such distinctions in their schools.

Should NYC Ax Gifted Programs to Integrate Its Schools?

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