The Gifted Student Quandary

Don't let political gamesmanship interfere with a real opportunity to improve our schools and society

Sep 16 2019 | 02:44 PM

Recent recommendations by the Mayor's School Diversity Advisory Group to change how we identify and teach the city's brightest children could have been decided on Bill de Blasio's first day in office. Commissions like this are number one in politicians’ playbooks to defer decision-making. The group either parrots administration views, giving the policy a semblance of independent support, or provides the appearance of action before being disbanded.

Here, the Mayor accomplished both. By its makeup and mission, the SDAG was packed to reduce racial separation in our schools, especially the egregiously low representation of Black and Latino students in selective programs. He thus gets immediate progressive talking points on the presidential campaign trail while dithering on adoption. The Chancellor has been equally evasive, asking for time to engage in “an ongoing conversation.”

So you may as well keep tutoring your toddlers for the Gifted & Talented test, given to four-year-olds prior to kindergarten admission. With just 2 ½ years left in the Mayor’s final term, little is likely to change under his watch. Already there’s been strong pushback against G&T test elimination, including a call by the Upper East Side and Tribeca District 2 Community Education Council to roll back the recommendations.

Multiple Measures Instead of a Single Test

But you might think twice before snagging a pre-natal spot in Test Prep for Tots. The SDAG report provides an opening for change. Few experts and no other school district in the country seem to support a single standardized test at that age for self-contained G&T elementary schools, with subsequent funneling into selective middle and high schools.

Other selective schools here and around the country use multiple measures to ascertain giftedness. Highly sought-after seats at Hunter College Elementary School require multiple rounds of testing and observation. The Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York recommends a similarly comprehensive admissions procedure. The National Association of Gifted Children also opposes using a single test. Test prep, earlier school experience, and developmental mutability are among the factors that make the test a poor gauge of innate talent at such an early age. English proficiency and student mobility add to the randomness of enrollment.

Even as strong a proponent of G&T programs as the Manhattan Institute's Max Eden condemns the current process. While accusing de Blasio of "a war on excellence” in a New York Post op-ed, he insists we "stop sorting four-year-olds with a standardized test. De Blasio’s panel is surely correct that differences in performance on these tests stem too much from helicopter-parent-sponsored test prep, and too little from genuine cognitive ability. This isn’t just bad for disadvantaged kids but for privileged kids, too."

Eden goes on to echo the SDAG recommendation that Gifted and Talented students not be separated but receive specialized instruction within general education schools. "As students make their way through their elementary years, schools should have the flexibility to engage them through special classes or by providing advanced tutoring," he states. "One size should not fit all. De Blasio’s stated commitment to 'diversity' should extend to allowing different schools to identify and serve gifted students in different ways."

Inclusive Gifted & Talented Programming

This is where the progressives and conservatives diverge but the gulf is narrower than might be apparent. Though the SDAG expresses a preference for a school-wide enrichment model where "more advanced students learn alongside their peers of all academic abilities," it also recommends, even at the elementary level, "adequate resources for community school districts to implement enrichment alternatives," thus providing the accelerated learning opportunities G&T advocates demand.

Models for inclusive G&T programming abound. The SDAG report details the work of San Antonio's Office of Innovation in creating multiple high-performing, diverse magnet schools using "controlled choice" to assure that degrees of income, housing stability, and other non-cognitive factors don't pre-determine selection. Montgomery Co., Maryland's Centers for Enriched Studies "integrate advanced English curricula into general education classrooms," according to the report. Successful de-tracking efforts to reduce classroom stratification are in operation in multiple districts including Cambridge, MA; Stamford, CT; Rockville Center, NY; Evanston, IL; and Stamford, CT, to name a few.

An Opening for Real Change

Our penchant as a nation of scorekeepers prematurely declares winners and losers in life’s academic contest. As someone who has taught from elementary through the doctoral level, I know the realities of classroom life. The math whiz may falter in social studies; the poor writer proves to be strong verbally. Time changes trajectories. The current binary system defeats this reality while also artificially favoring English speakers whose abilities comport with standardized testing and pedagogy.

Despite de Blasio's political gamesmanship, the SDAG has created an opening for real change away from simplistic notions of Gifted and Talented that any parent, upon reflection, knows are nonsense. We have many functional models of structural and pedagogical diversification to choose from. We should seize this opportunity for improvement of our schools and society.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Educational Leadership, Law & Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

"Our penchant as a nation of scorekeepers prematurely declares winners and losers in life’s academic contest."