Not long after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intention to end New York City’s current gifted-education program, Eric Adams came down on the other side of the issue. The plan doesn’t reflect his own views, Adams said; he actually wants to expand the program to ensure more students have access.
This is more than a run-of-the-mill disagreement between an incoming and outgoing administration. Adams’s sensible reply represents a fundamental break from his predecessor’s ideological, polarizing approach to schools. More broadly, though, Adams is demonstrating the right mindset about diverse educational programming, especially after two years of Covid-related disruptions.
Discomfort with gifted programming is not uncommon in education circles. Many Americans believe that public schooling should be the great equalizer, bringing together students of different backgrounds and producing more parity in outcomes. In this view, gifted education can be suspect—it separates those with special abilities and, if the programming succeeds, propels these already-advantaged students even further ahead.
Indeed, many prominent public-education initiatives are designed to help those most at risk of falling behind. For example, the federal government and state governments have spent decades channeling more funding to low-income districts to compensate for the lack of local revenue-generating capacity. Accountability systems, most notably the No Child Left Behind Act, were largely designed to improve the performance of lower-performing students and schools. Special education programs direct dollars and support to students with various disabilities.
All of this is admirable. Public schools should help the underserved. But every family should believe that its local district-run school will also help their children realize their full potential. People possess different interests, goals, and natural abilities. If a school system focuses on some students or aims to homogenize outcomes, some kids will get less attention than they need. Gifted students aren’t better, but they are different—and they deserve challenging programs.
Adams’s intention to grow gifted offerings and expand opportunities for other groups of students bodes well for the city. It suggests that he wants the system to offer an array of programs that collectively meet the varied demands of New York’s students.
That’s a welcome contrast with de Blasio’s hyper-progressivism, which includes a laudable concern for the less fortunate but has yielded a rigid, doctrinaire approach. As a result, the mayor has proved gifted at identifying important education problems and then devising misguided responses. He understood the tragedy of failing schools, but his “turnaround” initiative failed because it was based on the same exorbitantly expensive, establishment-friendly strategies that had failed elsewhere. He wanted low-income kids to have access to better schools, but he battled Success Academy, a charter network that was giving low-income kids access to better schools. He wanted more students to succeed after high school, but he tried to scrap the entrance exam that helped preserve the rigor of the selective high schools that prepare students for post-secondary success.
His approach to gifted education follows the same pattern. As Ray Domanico has written, the status quo is imperfect. The city should reconsider high-stakes testing of four-year-olds, allow students to place into gifted programs across their school careers, and ensure that students of all backgrounds have access to advanced coursework. But ending the current system without sufficient clarity about how high-achievers would be identified and adequately served is not the answer. Too many low-income students would never get the extra attention they deserve were it not for gifted programs. Many families depend on separate programs and schools because the schools to which their children are assigned perform so dismally. And offering reliable, high-quality resources to the most academically advanced students shows that the system cares about the potential of all kids.
Compared with its investment in programs for the disadvantaged, the federal government spends next to no resources on gifted education. And state governments spend surprisingly little as well, often providing no standards for gifted education; little funding for gifted programs; and inadequate requirements for districts’ gifted-education staff, program offerings, and screening of students.
Protecting offerings for academically advanced students is a matter of principle. But as a practical matter, districts need to take gifted programming seriously. For the last two years, the pandemic has disrupted public education. Millions of families had the chance—or were forced—to experiment with alternatives to the traditional neighborhood public school. Add the growth of school-choice programs over the last few years and the proliferation of school models over the last few decades, and families today have access to more educational options than ever before—charters, private schools, online offerings, hybrid models, homeschooling, microschooling, pods, hubs, and more.
Public school systems need to be able to look at each parent and say, “We have programs that will help your child reach her potential.” If they don’t, many families will find other providers that can. As we emerge from the pandemic, school districts have the chance to reassess how well they serve all students. Ideally, this will cause them to diversify the programs they offer. Shrinking options—like ending gifted programs—runs the risk of pushing families to look for the door.
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