Last week, when public school students returned to class, as many as 70% of black students and 60% of Latino students may have walked into an “intensely” segregated building, where 90-100% of their peers are also students of color. For these students, that also means a school segregated by income, where 70% are in families struggling to pay rent and get enough food to eat.
So when over 40 students, educators, community leaders, and academics came together almost two years ago to develop solutions to integrate the country’s most segregated school system, we set out to incite innovation.
We used research and studied models of success in other school districts to come up with recommendations released in two recent reports. The recommendation that has been driving the most fear and debate is our suggested phase-out of gifted and talented programs (or G&Ts) and the creation of new ways to identify and invest in students’ gifts and talents. Change is scary, especially if news headlines make it feel like a scorching-of-the-earth approach, rather than feeding and seeding the soil.
Parents worry that their kids will receive fewer opportunities, but our intention is to offer much more advanced learning opportunities for all our students, including students currently enrolled in G&T. Our proposal is to provide more advanced-learning classes in more schools, and we want to seed new models recommended by G&T experts.
We faced three big lessons that led us to this proposal, rather than just recommending adding seats to the existing form of G&T. First, our current model is flawed. We assess gifts badly: in the form of a single high-stakes test. In fact, the National Association of Gifted Children recommends against using tests as sole measures and encourages more assessment measures. Also, the cutoff for admission is arbitrary. Who says a second grader is gifted at the top 10% of the test score versus the top 15%?
We also start too young. Determined parents walk 4-year-olds into foreign buildings, hand them off to strangers, and sit in waiting rooms, as small children undergo a two-part test that will label them. Some parents pay thousands of dollars for test preparation for 3- and 4-year-olds to take the kindergarten G&T test. In these cases, money is often the “gift” being tested.
Second, the programs that we call “gifted and talented” vary widely across the city. Many assume that it means classes where students get exposed to advanced material. Not necessarily. One program might have advanced math while another just has more math worksheets for content the regular classes cover. This isn’t unique to New York City. A University of Connecticut study surveyed 2,000 schools in three states on the content of their G&T curricula. Out of 26 items of study surveyed, accelerated math was 18th and advanced writing was 19th. This doesn’t suggest they don’t offer some benefit, like more projects or critical thinking opportunities, but these opportunities can be incorporated into many types of classes and programs.
Finally, New York City has far more “screening” through standardized tests and admissions than other cities. G&T is a part of that screening, and the way New York City does it, it drives segregation. Seventy-five percent of G&T students are white and Asian, but white students make up just 15% of the public-school population, and Asian students make up 16%. Those who argue for adding more seats in districts with segregated schools miss the importance of integrated programs, including economic integration. Low-income children in economically integrated schools achieve bigger educational gains.
At a time when employers need a workforce that can think outside the box, work across difference and in teams, and be more ready for a rapidly changing economy, integrated education is a key strategy for all students. And as students of color drive population growth, considering how integrating schools by income and using new models to engage all learners is mission-critical.
Following advice from G&T experts, other school districts are integrating while they challenge students through programs that students want, like dual language learning in San Antonio, Texas. This move is bringing middle-class and white families back to the public system. In Queens, New York, students work in clusters on shared interests, like filmmaking or journalism projects. In Washington, D.C., they are working in groups on math or social action and more.
As the National Association of Gifted Children points out, it’s possible to create advanced learning in a regular classroom or in a regular program with advanced classes. We recommended piloting more of these models immediately and resourcing more advanced classes in schools with high numbers of low-income kids to grow the opportunities for deeper, better learning that meets the interests and learning levels of more students.
The goal is not “separate but equal,” which has always been elusive. It’s “integrated and inspiring.” Segregation isn’t natural or intractable. To fix it and gain the benefits of the kind of education students and the economy demand, we must face our fears and allow facts to guide us in the informed, incremental steps we all take together.
Maya Wiley is a co-chair of the NYC School Diversity Advisory Group and is the senior vice president and professor of public and urban policy at the New School University. She is former counsel to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.