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The future of New York City’s segregated “gifted” programs

Gifted and talented education helped segregate New York City schools. What will Mayor Eric Adams do about it?

Children line up to enter P.S. 179 Kensington in Brooklyn, New York in December 2020. The school is not home to a gifted and talented program.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

One of the different approaches between outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his successor Eric Adams, who took office on January 1, is the fate of the city’s gifted and talented programs in schools.

In October, de Blasio announced, to praise and much criticism, that his administration would eliminate gifted and talented programs in an effort to promote racial and class equity. Adams said before the election that he will do the opposite.

New York City’s gifted and talented program is unusual. Students are typically tested once, at age 4, and divided from their classmates into a separate room or school for the rest of their elementary years. But the dispute is also part of a broader debate over equity in education.

There are only about 2,500 seats in the city’s gifted program available for about 65,000 kindergarteners in city schools each year, and Black or Hispanic students, who make up the majority of the public school system’s enrollment, made up only 16 percent of the kindergarten gifted program for the 2018-2019 school year. Students from poor families, students with disabilities, homeless students, and English language learners are underrepresented. White and Asian kindergartners made up about a third of enrollment citywide but had more than 70 percent of gifted seats in the 2018-2019 school year.

“New York City’s approach to gifted and talented is unusual and the segregation is particularly egregious,” Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank the Century Foundation, told Vox. “It’s really striking to be in a school building where if you peer into a classroom, you can guess whether it’s the gifted and talented classroom just by looking at the faces of the kids in the room. I think we’ve already seen that just trying to expand the gifted program, as it has been, hasn’t worked as a lever to advance equity.”

Potter, whose public policy research focuses on addressing educational inequality, talked to Vox about how New York City’s debate about gifted education became so heated and why it remains this way. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

Before we get into this in more detail, can you first walk me through how we got here? How did this debate get so heated and become so central to NYC’s public education system?

Halley Potter

It’s important to go back far enough to understand how we got to the system that the de Blasio administration inherited. Many people talk about “defending New York City’s great gifted and talented program,” but it actually hadn’t been in place for all that long.

When the Bloomberg administration took office, they made an effort to do a few things. First, they expanded gifted and talented programs in a number of schools. This was a specific strategy to try and keep white, affluent, and more privileged families in the district. So when we look at places across the city that don’t have gifted and talented programs, that’s part of why those places were overlooked.

Next, ostensibly in a bid to make things fairer, the Bloomberg administration started using a single standardized test with a citywide cut score to determine eligibility for gifted and talented programs. Before that, there was a mix of different ways that students could get into the programs, like teacher and parent recommendations or other qualitative observations. The Bloomberg administration framed [the standardized test] as a way to expand access and make it fairer so that there weren’t biased judgment calls involved.

The framing sounded promising, but what happened in practice with the test is that the racial diversity in gifted and talented programs in New York City decreased. There was already some overrepresentation of white and Asian students in gifted and talented programs, but after the move to using this single test score measure, representation of Black and Latinx students plummeted.

Fabiola Cineas

Why do you think that was?

Halley Potter

There are a lot of reasons why that’s the case. The testing process in itself sets up a pretty high bar of knowledge and time and availability for a family to navigate the system to actually bring their child for in-person testing.

With the test itself, as we’ve seen with any standardized testing, there’s bias that gets baked in in different ways. In this case, there’s a proctor who works one-on-one with the student. And since this entry test is administered to kindergarteners, the student is a 4-year-old child. It comes down to how this child is feeling that particular day, whether they feel comfortable with that adult, and also the adult’s reaction. In some cases, this is subjective. When deciding how a child has answered a question, there are many ways bias could be entering the system.

Students were then sorted by two different thresholds. The highest threshold allows a child to be eligible for certain citywide programs, and the lower threshold allows a child to be eligible for programs in their district. In some districts, gifted programs are in a number of elementary schools; in some districts there were no gifted and talented programs. [New York City has 32 geographic school districts.] That’s how we got to the system that was in place when the de Blasio administration came in.

Fabiola Cineas

Why do some parents and advocates seem so attached to — and quite frankly obsessed with — gifted and talented programs?

Halley Potter

This has been the only thing that New York City as a whole school district has done to support advanced learners at the elementary school level. This approach to gifted and talented has been it. People who see their children showing gifted behaviors want to make sure there’s something available for their child.

Also, I think there are a lot of communities where these programs have provided opportunities for a small slice of students who have gotten access. These students have gone on to be elected officials, for example. People see this as a pathway for “the best and brightest” of the community. There’s a mentality for some folks who feel like, as much as they want to fix all the schools in their neighborhood, they may know that’s out of reach right now. So they say, “Let us at least have this option for the few kids that can get it.”

Both of those mindsets are based on a scarcity model. There’s very much this feeling, in many places, that public schools struggle to meet students’ needs, so people cling to anything that feels like a partial solution even if it is imperfect.

Fabiola Cineas

And for those who have opposed the city’s gifted and talented system, what do they say about inequality and segregation?

Halley Potter

The representation of Black and Latinx students in gifted and talented programs is about half their actual representation across the school system, and white and Asian students are about twice as much. It is incredibly skewed. In New York City as a whole, about 70 percent of students are Black or Latinx. In gifted and talented programs, about 70 percent of students are white or Asian. The racial statistics are really jarring.

New York City schools are segregated in many different ways, and gifted and talented programs serve a relatively small percentage of students overall. So the programs certainly are not the biggest driver of segregation in city schools. But the really extreme within-school segregation in a lot of places that has been caused by [gifted and talented education] is one of the big driving factors for a lot of people who want to change the system.

Fabiola Cineas

What are the best practices for supporting accelerated learners and building a gifted and talented program?

Halley Potter

A really robust program of gifted education in New York City would look totally different than what has happened over the past decade. Recommendations from experts at the National Association for Gifted Children, for example, describe a system of gifted education that is in many ways a polar opposite to what exists now.

Instead of testing 4-year-olds and testing children at an age when the experiences they’ve had are almost entirely shaped by their family and degree of social privilege, screen at a later age. Most experts will say you have to screen at a point when students have started to have a foundation of formal education together. Though the single standardized test may be a simpler system for the city, it’s not as good a system for actually identifying talent. Across the board, experts in gifted education say there should be multiple measurements because we know that for any one child, one particular measure might not be a good assessment of their ability and potential.

There’s also this idea that high-quality gifted education should have flexible groupings that students can move into and out of. This means that there might be a student who shows gifted behaviors in math but not in reading. Or there might be a student that is on track with their peers in kindergarten but then they show all these leaps when they’re in fourth grade. But under New York City’s system, there isn’t flexibility across subjects or across grade levels. There is primarily one entry point with the ability to test in in later grades, but many fewer students actually enter at those points.

Fabiola Cineas

Why do conversations about gifted and talented education focus so much on entry? Is there anything to be said about what these students actually learn in the classroom?

Halley Potter

What’s missing from a lot of these debates is that high-quality gifted education or support for advanced learners is about much more than just sorting and identifying students. It should be about what is actually happening in the classroom in terms of instruction. New York City’s previous system for gifted and talented education said nothing about that. There were no resources or guidelines at a city level for what should be happening in a gifted classroom. There’s no particular training for teachers. There’s no gifted curriculum. So some schools might be knocking it out of the park with teachers that are really personally dedicated to this and pursuing ongoing education. But in other places, the only difference between the G&T class and the non-G&T class is the fact that those kids have passed the test.

Fabiola Cineas

Let’s talk about the fact that the New York City system is not common. What is common in other states and cities when it comes to gifted and talented education? And would you characterize those systems as fair?

Halley Potter

Less than 10 percent of districts nationwide have a model where they have separate schools and classrooms for gifted and talented programs for elementary schools. But conversations about New York City’s system make it seem as though the city’s system is a very common and normal approach to gifted and talented education, but it’s not. I will say that nationwide, white, Asian students, and affluent students are overrepresented in gifted and talented programs. And there’s an under-representation of Black students, Latinx students, and low-income students. So this is a problem that is bigger than New York City.

Fabiola Cineas

What is your reaction to Mayor Eric Adams suggesting that he wants to keep gifted and talented programs intact and just expand them to more neighborhoods?

Halley Potter

We’ve already seen that just trying to expand the gifted program, as it has been, hasn’t worked as a lever to advance equity. That’s what the Bloomberg administration tried to do. They opened up a bunch of new gifted and talented programs, but representation of Black and Latinx students plummeted during that same period of time. Just expanding a system that has so many flaws in terms of how students are admitted, and so little support in terms of content, isn’t going to provide the kind of support and access that we really want to see.

What gives me hope is that there is actually a lot of overlap between what advocates for equity want and what supporters of gifted and talented education want. The practices that really deliver a much better form of education and support for advanced learners would actually be a huge step forward in terms of what equity and access would look like in the city.

The Adams administration is trying to make a stand and say we need to be supporting advanced learners. That’s a really important thing for New York City to be doing. I hope that a key part of that is thinking about what gifted and talented education actually looks like, how we’re equipping teachers, and how we make sure that is expanded so that as many students as possible have access to that. We shouldn’t be putting most of our resources into a system that’s focused on sorting to pick a very small group of students that then have access to a program that itself doesn’t have any particular resources around the actual quality and content of the instruction.

Fabiola Cineas

Throughout this conversation, I’ve been thinking about the purpose of gifted and talented education. Why do we need these programs, especially when they seem to just sort and segregate students as early as age 4? Why do these children need special attention? Why can’t they just be in the same classroom as everyone else?

Halley Potter

This is a case where my stance has really changed as I’ve dug into this issue more. For me, the most compelling vision for gifted education and supporting advanced learners comes from researchers out of the University of Connecticut. They’ve developed a model called school-wide enrichment, where you take the gifted pedagogy and try to make it accessible to all students.

This educational philosophy is firstly based on a shift in how we think about giftedness to begin with. When we talk about gifted students, there’s usually the strong implication of “non-gifted,” though we don’t tend to use that label. There’s gifted and talented and then there’s “not gifted” and “not talented.” That sorting is usually the first step when people think about gifted education. Instead, this model of gifted education says we’ve got it all wrong. We shouldn’t be labeling students; we should actually be thinking about labeling behaviors. So it’s not that you have an individual student that is gifted all the time in every subject now and forevermore. But if you’re in a classroom, and you’re looking at the ways that students learn and interact, you might see particular things that are gifted behaviors.

These researchers, Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis Renzulli, describe gifted behaviors as falling at the intersection of three different things. There’s above-average ability, which is the first thing we usually think of: “That kid’s really smart. They’re in kindergarten but doing something I don’t think most fifth graders can do.”

But then there’s also creativity, showing something really surprising.

And the third category is commitment to the task, a child who is putting so much effort in. When we think about all of these together, those are a huge part of human ingenuity. We want those for all of our students. If that’s what gifted education is about, then we should definitely be investing in it as a society. When you think of gifted and talented as behaviors — and not just as students who either have it or they don’t — every child has the opportunity to weave in and out of those circles.

Fabiola Cineas

As a new administration takes off in 2022, what makes you hopeful or optimistic about what New York City can do for its children in this space?

Halley Potter

My biggest hope, but maybe also my biggest frustration, is that I think there is so much potential for overlap in the goals of people who want to promote strong programs for advanced learners in the city and people who are concerned about the segregation and inequity that the current system has created. The answers to both sides, in many cases, can go hand in hand, and we can have a beautifully redesigned system of gifted education that’s focused on serving a much wider range of students, is not based on the rigid labeling of students, and is not based on a model of separation but rather about providing different resources for schools to use.

The way this debate has been framed publicly has made this challenging. The scarcity mindset has made it seem like this is the only option we have for gifted and talented education in New York City, so either we are keeping it, we are extending it, or getting rid of it. As long as the debate is framed in that way, we do a disservice to all sides. But if we could get to a place where we could actually think disruptively about redesigning a much better system of supporting advanced learners and gifted education, then I think we could actually meet the goals of so many people on different sides of this issue.