Public school programs for gifted and talented people denounced as racists, elitists

NEW YORK (AP) – Communities across the United States are reconsidering their approach to gifted and talented programs in schools as vocal parents accuse these elite programs of deepening racial segregation and inequalities in the education system of the country. country.

A plan announced by the mayor of New York to phase out programs for gifted and talented primary school students in the nation’s largest school district – if it continues – would be one of the most significant developments to date in a push that stretches from Boston to Seattle that has stoked passions and pain about race, inequality and access to a decent education.

From the start, the gifted and talented school curricula raised concerns that they produced an educational caste system in American public schools. Many exclusive programs have their origins in efforts to stem the “white flight” from public schools, particularly in the diversification of urban areas, by offering high-level educational programs that could compete with private or parochial schools.

Increasingly, parents and school boards are grappling with difficult questions about equity as they discuss how to meet the educational aspirations of advanced learners while encouraging other students so that they can also flourish. It is a dilemma that is lead the debate on whether to expand gifted and talented programs or to abolish them altogether.

“I have a burn and demolish mentality, but what are we replacing it with? ”Asked Marcia Gentry, professor of education and director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute at Purdue University.

Gentry co-authored a study two years ago that used federal data to catalog strong racial disparities in gifted and talented programs.

He noted that American schools have identified 3.3 million students as gifted and talented, but an additional 3.6 million should have been designated in the same way. The additional students missing from those lists, according to his study, were disproportionately black, Latino and Indigenous students.

Nationally, 8.1% of white children and 12.7% of Asian American children in public schools are considered gifted, compared to 4.5% of Hispanic students and 3.5% of black students , according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent federal data.

Gifted and talented programs aim to provide opportunities for students who feel intellectually limited by the education offered to their peers. Critics of the push to eliminate them say it punishes top performing students and cuts off a valuable opportunity for advancement, especially for low-income families without access to private enrichment programs.

In Seattle, a school superintendent who quit her job in May sought to cut the district’s Highly Capable Cohort program, as the district’s gifted and talented program is called, blaming it for causing de facto segregation. In its own recent analysis, Seattle Public Schools found that only 0.9% of black children had been identified as gifted, compared to 12.6% of its white students.

The school board has approved changes that will eliminate eligibility tests and automatically make all elementary students eligible for the advanced education exam. In addition to the scores, the selection committee will consider testimonials from teachers, family members and the community.

The changes don’t go far enough for critics like Rita Green, the Seattle Chapter Education President of the NAACP. She called for more work to create environments that foster the intellectual development of all 50,000 school children in the district.

“We want the program to simply be abolished. Period. The Highly Capable Cohort program is fundamentally flawed and inherently racist, ”Green said.

Debates over admission criteria to advanced courses and elite schools predate the last national debate on racial inequalities, but have since intensified. the murder of George Floyd.

In Boston, the school committee voted this summer to expand eligibility to its exclusive exam schools and guarantee places for top performing students in poor and underprivileged neighborhoods.

Latino students make up about 42% of Boston’s 53,000 public school students – about twice as many as whites – but are vastly under-represented in advanced courses. According to the district count, less than 20 percent of fourth-graders invited to attend advanced work classes were Latinos, while 43 percent of the guests were white.

Many children are neglected because of language and cultural barriers, said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Boston’s Lawyers for Civil Rights. Unconscious bias among teachers who nominate students for the program also plays a role, he said.

Elsewhere, San Francisco’s famed Lowell High School abolished entrance exams in February in favor of a lottery scheme. In Fairfax County, Va., Parents recently lost a legal offer to overturn their school district‘s decision to end campus admissions testing for top-performing students in science and technology.

Most gifted and talented programs have relied on testing to determine eligibility, with some families spending thousands of dollars on expensive private tuition and specialty programs to boost scores and increase their children’s chances of securing a spot. coveted.

Controversy over admissions to higher education programs has simmered in other cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago. But nowhere has the debate been as intense as in New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month that he would start dismantling the program in primary schools, calling it “exclusive and exclusionary”.

Some parents, including Rose Zhu, called on the city to expand the program, not end it. She joined dozens of other parents outside the city’s Education Ministry building this month to protest de Blasio’s proposal to bring her 21-month-old daughter, who Zhu hopes will follow. two older siblings in the city’s gifted and talented program.

“I live in Queens and our traditional schools in our districts are not that good,” she said. “So the G and T program is the best school I can put them in. “

De Blasio’s likely successor, fellow Democrat Eric Adams, said he was not in favor of eliminating the program, which would put him at odds with some of his black voters. Adams himself is African American.

One of those constituents, Zakiyah Ansari, director of the Alliance for Quality Education in New York, wants Adams to follow through on de Blasio’s pledge.

“We believe that every child is a gifted child, every child is a talented child,” Ansari said. “We have to have people so angry at pulling out of a program that impacts a few people and being angrier at black and brown kids who haven’t had access to a great education.”

But Gentry, director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute, agreed it was time for “a revolution to address the long-standing problem of fairness” in access to gifted and talented education.

She urged parents and school administrators to do the hard work of finding a compromise.

“I’m afraid the easy way is to stop doing it,” she said. “I know that inequalities exist. But the point is, there is a huge distinction between overhauling or eliminating.


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