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Gift of the Gifted

Why did Bloomberg slow down his plan to reform the schools’ gifted programs? Start with Upper West Side parents—and election-year politics.

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If a mayor who’d made education the centerpiece of his first term decided to fix the gifted-and-talented programs in the city’s public schools, he’d have any number of places to start. They’re attacked for catering disproportionately to white students, for granting kids permanent slots for the entirety of elementary school, and for byzantine admissions procedures that favor tenacious, well-connected parents.

And indeed, last summer, the city’s Department of Education assembled a special think tank of roughly twenty educators to figure out how to replicate the best parts of gifted-and-talented while making the programs more equitable. By mid-fall, the thinkers thought they’d finally dealt with one piece of the puzzle: the expensive, privately administered, often misleading, and possibly illegal IQ tests used by some schools as the key admission standard. On an October Thursday afternoon, the members of the gifted-and-talented think tank walked out of a meeting inside the old Tweed Courthouse behind City Hall satisfied with their conclusion: The IQ testing would be discarded. It would be replaced by diverse measures that would identify a broader group of skills and children in time for the kindergarten class of September 2005. Problem solved.

And then it wasn’t.

“We later heard that Joel Klein’s BlackBerry started getting messaged the moment our Thursday meeting ended,” says one task-force member. Most of those messages were said to have come from Upper West Side parents. The neighborhood has the city’s densest concentration of gifted-and-talented programs, and last fall its playgroups and preschools were roiled with rumors that the city was about to scramble the programs’ admissions rules. The most alarmist whispers claimed the gifted-and-talented programs were on the verge of elimination. The parents didn’t want the city messing with their kids’ hard-won good thing. One day after reaching its conclusion, the think tank was told that Klein had decided there’d be no alterations in gifted-and-talented admissions. At least until after this November’s mayoral election.

The battle over the proposed billion-dollar West Side stadium will eventually fade from the headlines. (I promise.) Yet even now, at the height of the controversy, the stadium debate has remained abstract and not very compelling to most New Yorkers.

Not so the public schools. “When we ask New Yorkers to name the highest priority for the next mayor,” says the Marist Poll’s Lee Miringoff, “education is No. 1.” The skirmish over revamping gifted-and-talented programs demonstrates education’s enduring potency as a political issue. It’s also a reminder that the racial and tribal politics of this city are endlessly varied. Freddy Ferrer stumbled into one thicket last week when he told a group of police sergeants that in 1999, there’d been attempts to “over-indict” the cops responsible for shooting Amadou Diallo, thereby inviting Ferrer’s rivals to claim he was contradicting what he’d said and done six years ago.

By stopping short of bold changes, Bloomberg is open to charges of pandering to the white middle class.

The Bloomberg administration is showing itself to be far more deft. In January, as part of his annual State of the City speech, Bloomberg trumpeted his intention to spread gifted-and-talented programs across the city. Delaying changes to the existing classes helps him in other places. The mayor’s management of the schools is especially important to the voters who are still making up their minds about the mayor, many of whom live in swing neighborhoods. “This election is going to turn on the white, middle-class professional neighborhoods—Riverdale, the Upper West Side, the West Village, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Park Slope,” says John Mollenkopf, a CUNY expert on voting trends. “These are reliably high-turnout neighborhoods where Bloomberg won or did fairly well in 2001. It’s a group that’s prone to vote Democratic on ideological grounds, so they might be available to Ferrer, if he’s the nominee. But Bloomberg’s progressive, good-government managerialism—and the fact that he’s not really a Republican—helps him.” And these are neighborhoods where large numbers of middle- and upper-middle-class parents have kept their kids in the public schools.

The mayor, famously, demanded that he be judged on his performance in improving the schools, and he started his term with a striking victory: getting the State Legislature to abolish the dysfunctional Board of Education, thus granting the mayor nearly complete control of the city’s schools.

But that was pretty much the end of the definitive wins. Bloomberg’s education record lacks the dramatic clarity of, for instance, cutting welfare rolls in half. His drive to establish smaller schools has had the ripple effect of overcrowding many of the remaining large schools. Ending the social promotion of third-graders initially created an uproar, but has since proved fairly popular. Bloomberg’s stalemate with the teachers’ union over work rules and pay is now in its third year. The mayor can point to increased math test scores, but reading scores have been flat, and the testing itself has become a sore subject with parents: Thousands of third-graders are spending extra hours at school merely to prep for standardized tests.

If Bloomberg has a major vulnerability, it is his supposed lack of empathy for the little guy. His Democratic rivals are eager to conflate the stadium and the public schools into a proxy for this image; last week, Gifford Miller launched a Website with the spectacularly cumbersome name schoolsnotwestsidestadium.org. Bloomberg, in turn, will say the Democrats want to take the school system back to the corrupt, bad old days—an argument Ferrer helped along during a January interview on NY1, when he emphasized his fondness for the dismantled Board of Ed. Whether voters give Bloomberg credit for tackling the unwieldy school system—or blame him for the way he’s gone about it—is one of the campaign’s largest questions.

Klein says he doesn’t recall the BlackBerry rebellion last October, and that delaying the gifted-and-talented-admission changes has nothing to do with the race for mayor. “We will discontinue using IQ tests,” the chancellor says, “but nobody said we could realistically develop an alternative test for this year. It’s as simple as that. But everybody can try to explain what you’re doing in terms of politics.”

Meanwhile, the city is moving ahead with other changes in gifted instruction. More schools will get self-contained gifted classes. And in mid-February, Carmen Fariña, the Department of Education’s head of instruction, outlined a noncontroversial, admirable reform: She’s establishing “schoolwide enrichment programs” in every public-school region. Instead of separating the gifted kids from the rest of the school population, this model creates accelerated instructional units—in, say, math or music or science—that advanced students attend for part of the day.

Still, the schoolwide enrichment program is a slow launch whose benefits to students are long-term. And Bloomberg has only seven months to make his case. Perhaps the gifted-and-talented think tank overestimated its power to set policy. But when the Department of Education stopped short of bold, immediate changes, it left Bloomberg open to accusations of pandering to the white middle class. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t good politics.


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