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Ed in the Apple: Is the Opposition to Phasing Out Gifted Classes Based on Research or Implied Bias?

You wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, a nightmare and you realize; only a few weeks before school opens. No matter how long you’ve been teaching as the first day approaches you get nervous;  everything has to be perfect, you increasingly think about new lessons, you worry: How will I involve the parents? How can I address the needs of all the kids? Will the principal let me do what I know is “right” for my kids?

The Tuesday after Labor Day in my school the staff filed into the lobby, a few right off the plane from trekking across Europe, or, after teaching summer school and a few weeks off, still exhausted. A pile of still warm bagels and an urn of steaming coffee, the principal knew how to buy us off.

In the auditorium, the principal began that Day One speech: introduces the new teachers, who appear to get younger every year. The principal lays out the latest ukases from the overlords; and, if the principal is experienced, after his/her words of wisdom, turns the meeting over the union leadership, and leaves.

Schools have their own cultures and the “new thing” from whomever is leading the school system rarely resonates in schools and classrooms,

This is Year Two of the tenure of Richard Carranza, a tenure dominated by announcements about equity issues. Maybe you’ve spent a few hours in an anti-baas training workshop, or discussion about choosing literature by more diverse writers, the impact of the chancellor on what happens in classrooms has been, to be polite, minimal.

It looked like a benign opening of schools.

The School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released the second of their reports and the education landscape exploded.

What does the Report actually recommend?

A summary of the Report:

Elementary Schools

  •  … the Department resource community school districts to pilot creative, equitable enrichment alternatives to G&T, resource community engagement and implementation appropriately and measure, track and publicize impacts.
  • Discontinue the use of the Gifted & Talented admissions test. Institute a moratorium on new Gifted & Talented programs, while phasing out existing programs.
  • Allow existing Gifted & Talented programs to continue. Programs will be phased out as students age and will not receive new incoming classes.
  • Eliminate rigid academic tracking in elementary school that results in economic and racial segregation of students. (heterogeneous class grouping)

Middle Schools

  • Expand and support the use of inclusionary admissions practices that promote integrated schools and ensure that all students are challenged.
  • Eliminate the use of exclusionary admissions practices that create segregation by race, class, disability, home language, and academic ability. This includes the exclusionary use of school screens such as grades, test scores, auditions, performance in interviews, behavior, lateness, and attendance.

High Schools

  • Institute a moratorium on the creation of new screened high schools.
  • Implement new inclusionary admissions practices which ensure all high schools are reflective of their boroughs’ racial and socio-economic demographics.
  • Eliminate lateness, attendance, and geographic zones as a criteria for high school admissions and enrollment.
  • Ensure that all high school admissions criteria are transparent and designed to reduce the racial and socioeconomic isolation currently prevalent in most high schools.

Systemwide

  • … the Department should redraft district lines to support the long-term goal of having all schools reflect the city population.

The reactions were immediate and intense, the NY Post, in an editorial entitled, “Killing Gifted and Talented Programs is deBlasio’s Next Step in the War on Excellence in Education.” continued their scathing attacks on the mayor and the chancellor.

Elected officials put a finger in the air and made comments to satisfy their constituents. Corey Johnson, the leader of the City Council and a candidate for mayor in 2021 immediately opposed ending Gifted and Talented classes, Mark Treyger, a former high school teacher, who has not announced a run for any position;  the chair of the Council Education Committee, has a more nuanced position.

“Let’s be clear: the School Diversity Advisory Group’s second set of recommendations do not seek to end enrichment programs. Instead, they call for the end of the Bloomberg-era ‘gifted and talented’ admissions model, which has been rejected by national gifted education experts and advocates. This model has failed to live up to its promise of equitable opportunities, resulted in the closure of half of all Gifted and Talented programs which disproportionately impacted communities of color, and increased segregation of all kinds in our schools,” said Council Member Mark Treyger (D-Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Gravesend)

Voices in Urban Education (VUE), in their Spring/Summer 2019 entitled “With All Deliberate Speed”: Reimagining Integration from a Racial Equity Frame,” published a number of scholarly articles supporting integration in schools.

Think, an NBCNews online source wonders whether ending Gifted and Talented programs will lead to “white flight” from the public schools.

Watch Errol Louis discuss the proposal with two panelists who made the recommendation, Amy Hsin of Queens College and Richard Gray of NYU Metro Center.

School opens on Tuesday, over 70,000 teachers will begin another school year.. The SDAG Report will change nothing; it’ll take months before the mayor and chancellor address the report. The mayor is still busy running for president and the chancellor’s new initiatives, announced at the Education Summit have not received any ink, or, any more advocacy by the chancellor.

I was the union representative in a district in which “gifted” classes were a constant source of contention. The district mandated a gifted class on every grade in every K-5 school and required testing for admission. I was recently reminded that at a school board meeting I suggested as an alternative to testing, perhaps a letter from a grandparent attesting to the giftedness of the child should be sufficient. Is testing kindergarten kids a valid and reliable measure of giftedness? And, how do you define giftedness?

Today there are 103 Gifted and Talent classes in grades K to 5 across the city, only one class in District 23, perhaps the poorest district in the city.

Parental class and level of education correlates closely with scores on G & T  tests. are we saying that poor kids aren’t gifted?   Or, are tests biased?

Ronald Ferguson, a highly respected scholar at Harvard reviews the research on giftedness and race and the research supports integrated classrooms and supported the correlation between class, education and supposed “giftedness.”

While research clearly supports integrated classrooms and challenges Gifted and Talented testing and programs, the public, the voting public is strongly supportive of the status quo.

Bottom line: its all about race and class.

We are far from a post-racial world; most of us live in a racially divided world, our neighborhood, our friends, our workmates mostly consisting of our race and class.

Are Gifted and Talent classes surrogates for segregation by class and race?

While parents and teachers of gifted classes, and maybe the general public, would rigorously deny any racist overtones, the reality: race permeates all policy decisions.

I suggest reading Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” a thoughtful and challenging exploration of race and questions we should ask ourselves, from a recent review,

“It’s a mark of the transformative and unsettling power of Ibram X Kendi’s writing that I relaxed into How to Be an Antiracist with the comforting and self-righteous knowledge that the title was not addressing me. After all I am black; I couldn’t possibly be racist, could I? By the book’s end, I wasn’t so sure.”

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Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman is a career NYC high school teacher, education consultant, and district representative for the United Federation of Teachers.