NYC May Make Dramatic Changes to Its Gifted Program—Should Chicago Do the Same?

New York City’s Bill de Blasio announced recently that the NYC Public School system will phase out the Gifted and Talented Program. Beginning next fall, no new kindergarteners will be enrolled into gifted elementary school classes, which accounts for about 16,000 students. 

Of those students, about 75 percent are white or Asian American (who make up about 25 percent of the total school system.) And the ticket to entry is a single standardized test for 4-year-olds.

New York City has deployed its gifted and talented program in a very different manner than Chicago. However, it’s hard not to look at New York City, knowing that many of the problems that plague NYC public schools are also endemic in Chicago and throughout the country. 

In light of the decision in New York City, Maureen and Kira had a conversation about the future Gifted Ed, and decided to share our thoughts. We’d love to hear your experiences, too, so please leave us a comment with your perspectives. 

Kira: Eliminate Gifted & Talented programming

In theory – I love the idea of differentiated instruction for gifted students as part of a spectrum of differentiated instruction for all students. In practice, however, differentiated instruction for gifted students too often manifests as a way for white families to make sure their students are receiving an education separate from their Black and brown peers. 

In New York City, this segregation effect of Gifted and Talented is extreme and well-documented. This is why, at the end of the day, I think that the decision to drastically transform the Gifted and Talented program in NYC is a good thing.

Chicago doesn’t have the same extreme that New York City has, but the truth is, Gifted Education across the United States has a serious race problem

For me this is a deeply personal issue. I am the product of gifted education. I attended a small urban school in Pennsylvania, where the student population was pretty evenly distributed between white and Black students. In third grade, I was referred by a teacher to the gifted program, subsequently tested in, and from that point on I was pulled out of class once or twice a week to meet with a cohort of other “gifted” students. 

Those “gifted” classes became a refuge, especially in Middle School. I joined an academic decathlon league, traveled with my gifted peers, and pursued special projects that aligned with my interests. For me (and I have heard other people talk about their gifted education in a similar way) those gifted classes allowed me to lower my guard, lean into my “brainy” and really be a nerd in the best possible way. 

The refuge I felt in those classes was a gate that shut my Black classmates out of the same opportunity.

But that cohort was also entirely white. It wasn’t something I noticed at the time, but as an adult, I can look back and realize that the refuge I felt in those classes was a gate that shut my Black classmates out of the same opportunity.

Maureen: Mend It, Don’t End It (and give the foundations of it to all kids)

Philosophically, I’m all for eliminating gifted programming, for all the reasons you outlined, Kira. Pragmatically, my jaded self says this is going to be a total nightmare to implement and NYC will just move from giving some privileged gifted kids good programming to giving no gifted kids good programming. 

I think there are kids who need gifted programs. Though I was designated a gifted student, maybe I wasn’t even the kind of kid I’m talking about. I have met kids who were real prodigies and really asynchronous in their development. Their intellectual development far outpaced their social development, so skipping a grade wasn’t a solution, and neither was hanging around in an average general education classroom, where they were likely to become prey for bullying and harassment. Even though I wasn’t personally that asynchronous, as a kid I did experience bullying and harassment in a way I don’t think a student like me would now in CPS. But I have met other kids who stuck out even more. So, while gifted programs as we know them deserve a drastic makeover, I’m not sure I would throw out the whole idea. 

While gifted programs as we know them deserve a drastic makeover, I’m not sure I would throw out the whole idea.

Here are my thoughts on how to transform gifted education into education that nurtures exceptional talent in all kids, not only kids born into privilege.

Step 1: Dump the classical/gifted testing in favor of universal screening. Broward County, Florida did this, with noteworthy success in diversifying who got access to gifted programs. 

Step 2: A CPS principal friend of mine offers encouragement–he sees the district moving toward a more problem-solving approach to curriculum and more opportunity for students to exercise creativity. He’s confident that teachers and specialists are moving in the right direction when it comes to differentiating instruction within the classroom and meeting children where they are while also challenging them to excel. I hope he’s right.

Step 3: Use what we know about coaching, instructional leadership teams and what excelled professional development looks like to shift deficit mindsets and short-term thinking among teachers, principals and central office administrators. We need to move away from looking for how to bump up NWEA scores and move toward finding the gifts within every student, especially those who are “twice exceptional” (intellectually precocious and dealing with ASD/ADHD/anxiety/sensory processing or other issues).

Kira: Yes, “And”

I think your cynicism about the realities of implementation is warranted. I also think that the only way we get better systems is to first imagine better systems.

I agree wholeheartedly that gifted students should have their educational needs met. But of course gifted students are not a monolith, and gifted and “high achieving” are not always the same. The students you mention (prodigies with asynchronous development) each have unique needs that may or may not be met through the gifted and talented programming offered in their particular school. Many of our current systems, including the selective enrollment programs in Chicago, tend to favor high-achieving students, which may include some gifted students, but also might exclude some, especially those twice-exceptional students. 

(As a side note: from what I can see, it looks like NYC schools are moving in the direction of universal screening around third grade, which seems to me aligned with your suggestions. That’ll also be interesting to watch.)

But at the end of the day, I think that keeping in place the structures of a system designed as a way for white parents to sequester their children from their Black and brown classmates seems to me at least as damaging, if not more, than the consequences of eliminating that system.

If we want to create a system that is not going to be manipulated by people with privilege within it, we have to make the default option a really great option.

If we are going to reform gifted education, let’s use it as an opportunity to not tinker around the edges, but as a way to reform the whole system. If we recognize that giftedness falls on a spectrum of neurodiversity and that every child deserves to have their educational needs met regardless of where they fall on that spectrum, it could change the way we fundamentally approach gifted education as a whole.

So that leads me to this—in order to really fix the equity issues presented by gifted education, we have to focus on making all schools great schools, and that might mean tearing down some of the off-ramps currently available to the more privileged among us. If we want to create a system that is not going to be manipulated by people with privilege within it, we have to make the default option a really great option. 

At the end of the day, I don’t think we’re that far apart, even if our preferred paths differ somewhat.

And what do you think? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment with your experiences and perspectives on Gifted Education.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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Kira Dault

Kira Dault is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago with her family. She can be found on Twitter @kiradault.