Will Ending Gifted and Talented Programs Help Desegregate Schools?

Students write and draw on poster board at P.S. 5 Port Morris, an elementary school in the Bronx. Photo: Brittainy Newman/AP/Shutterstock

Idesha Fraser was proud to hear that a teacher at P.S. 282 in Park Slope had recognized her fourth-grade daughter’s academic potential and transferred her into the school’s Gifted and Talented program. Still, she had misgivings. Fraser’s daughter had been one of many Black students in a diverse classroom, but when she started in the Gifted and Talented program in September, she was one of only a few Black students in a predominantly white classroom.

“They’re drastically different. It’s very visible,” said Fraser. “My daughter hasn’t mentioned it to me — we haven’t talked about skin color — but she’s pretty intuitive. I’m pretty sure she notices it.”

Which is why Fraser cheered Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement last week that New York City would be ending its Gifted and Talented programs, acknowledging that they had exacerbated racial segregation in the city’s school system. The numbers are stark: While Black and Latino students make up nearly 60 percent of the city’s 65,000 kindergarteners, they fill just 14 percent of the 2,500 Gifted and Talented seats. About 75 percent of the seats go to Asian American and white students, who represent only 25 percent of the citywide population.

“Even though Gifted and Talented education is my field of study, I can’t really bring myself to shed a tear over their demise,” said James Borland of Teachers College at Columbia University, who studies the effects of these programs on economically disadvantaged students. “For years they were bordering on disgrace. It was a really disturbing difference between the makeup of regular classrooms and the Gifted and Talented classrooms. It’s been that way for a number of years, and the department hasn’t really done anything that I’m aware of to remedy the situation. So there is no choice other than to pull the plug on the whole thing.”

Many saw de Blasio’s announcement, made ahead of his possible run for governor, as a way to make good on his promise to reform the school system while leaving the next mayor to figure out the messy details. Even those who cheered the mayor’s decision have been left to wonder what will replace the programs and whether it will do anything to desegregate the largest and perhaps most racially inequitable school system in the country.

“The schools are very segregated, and there are a lot of schools that are underenrolled or underresourced. I think that the Department of Education has a lot of work to do to create a more equitable system, that’s for sure,” said Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College who has studied inequality in New York City’s Gifted programs. “But this is a good first step because of the segregation it was causing within schools. It really had a cumulative effect too as students went into middle schools and high schools. You would see advantaged parents use the system to their advantage, knowing if they could get their kids into a Gifted and Talented program, it would set them up for better middle schools and high schools.”

The programs rely on a single standardized test administered to 4-year-olds, which even defenders of the programs say is problematic. (Some children, such as Fraser’s daughter, may be transferred into the program later.) As the city’s chief academic officer under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Shael Polakow-Suranksy worked with a testing company to ensure the quality of the Gifted programs’ application test. It didn’t take long for Polakow-Suranksy to realize that building such a test was impossible — 4-year-olds’ development happens at such a rapid pace and in such a nonlinear fashion that kids born months apart can be miles apart cognitively, he said.

“Watching the testing company contort itself to try and figure out how to tend to that issue by creating a scale that differentiated scoring by month, from age 4 to 5, it became clear what a joke this test was,” said Polakow-Suranksy, who is now the president of Bank Street College of Education. “And how absurd it was to make decisions based on it.”

The test begot a prep industry that catered to parents eager to give their toddlers a booster seat at the table. Maxine Jing, program director at Talent Prep in Manhattan, said that parents generally enroll their 3-year-olds for her company’s 15-class package at a cost of about $1,000. Critics say private tutoring and other factors, like a priority boost for students who have older siblings in one of the programs, allow affluent parents to gamify their children’s futures.

De Blasio has proposed replacing the programs with one called Brilliant NYC, which would screen students entering third grade for more accelerated learning, a move that could help mitigate the wide racial disparities in test results, said Columbia’s Borland. But simply pushing the test back from age 4 to age 8 elides the root of the problem, according to Donna Ford, an expert on gifted and urban education at Ohio State University. “When a school district wants to be unapologetically anti-racist and culturally responsive, they will apply that equity formula for minimum and maximum representation,” said Ford. “We want to make sure that New York is not putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.” Instead, she says gifted programs should use an “equity formula” to determine minimum and maximum percentages of representation among students.

Gifted and Talented programs were created not for educational reasons, according to Polakow-Suranksy, but to attract and retain mostly white middle-class families in the public-school system. Since then, public schools have vastly improved, and some schools, led by parent advisory boards and principals, have taken it upon themselves to dissolve their Gifted programs. As general education improved, the accelerated track seemed obsolete and a hindrance to diversity initiatives. Not everyone was onboard.

“It was sometimes not a very pretty conversation. There was coded language around, ‘Well, if Gifted and Talented families aren’t happy, they won’t donate to the PTA, or they might leave the school,’” said Kirsten Cole, who sat on a parent committee charged with looking at issues of equity and inclusion at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights. “It was happening around the same time as the Ivy League–college scandal, and it was part of the same conversation about how families leverage their privilege.” The effort was ultimately successful, and P.S. 9 eliminated its Gifted classes in 2020.

While children currently in a Gifted program will be able to continue on that track, the mayor’s announcement riled many parents who worried their younger children wouldn’t get the same opportunities as siblings who were already on the Gifted track.

“Right about now my daughter was about to start practicing for the test a few nights a week at bedtime, just like her brother, but not anymore,” said Max Dickstein, whose son is in the Gifted program in Queens. The uncertainty of his younger child’s educational path is frustrating, but Dickstein was conflicted about the program as it presently exists. Dickstein’s daughter, for example, could have been eligible for “sibling priority,” a benefit that Dickstein acknowledged would perpetuate the program’s disparities. “Maybe the answer is to burn it to the ground. But outcomes are important, and I would hope that both of my kids are a little more challenged in school.”

De Blasio has said that the reason he waited so long to make a change to the programs was that he hadn’t been presented with a viable replacement. Brilliant NYC, he said, will aim to offer accelerated learning to all 65,000 kindergarteners. To do so, the mayor said, the city will retrain all of the city’s kindergarten teachers in addition to hiring new ones.

Eric Adams, who will most definitely succeed de Blasio in January, has said he will not eliminate the Gifted and Talented program but will “expand opportunities for accelerated learners.” Adams has not provided details on how his expansion differs from de Blasio’s Brilliant NYC. Not everyone is convinced either plan will stop favoring affluent families.

“This isn’t going to last long. We might say this is the will of the people, but the rich, powerful, and influential will shape the next steps,” said James Moore, a professor of urban education at Ohio State who studies gifted education programs. “You can best believe people are having meetings right now to ensure that their kids will have access to this program.”

Will Ending Gifted and Talented System Desegregate Schools?