Opinion

Adams: Parents Weigh In on ‘Modest Proposal’ to Ditch Gifted Testing in NYC & Give Accelerated Ed to Any Child Who Wants It

By Alina Adams | October 28, 2019

Peter Kramer/Getty Images

A version of this essay originally appeared on the New York School Talk blog.

Earlier this month, I offered A Modest Proposal for Turning NYC School Admissions Upside Down – & Letting Parents Decide the Education They Want for Their Kids.

The gist of it boiled down to:

What if …

A computer algorithm more sophisticated than the one in use now to match New York City kindergartners with schools aggregated students by interest and location to create schools that exactly match parental choices?

It’s basically the magnet school reimagining that the city Education Department’s School Diversity Advisory Group suggested in its report Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students. Only instead of the city picking what types of magnet schools there should be and leaving parents to continue fighting over limited resources, we could work on the principle that education is one of the few things that doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game, and let families democratically determine the nature of each and every school.

Responses ranged from:

The system proposed in the article assumes that all schools have the same resources. They do not. Not by a long shot. The variation of teaching styles, enrichment programs and number of teachers in the classroom is incredibly wide. Unless the algorithm also took into account household income, you would just get the same system we have now. Families wanting their kids to go to schools that have resources — meaning large PTA budgets that provide teachers, teacher training and enrichment programs that many other schools do not have.

To:

[I]t would drive rents and real estate down in these otherwise expensive neighborhoods, since the only reason families move there and pay ridiculous money is to live in those certain [Upper West Side] and [Upper East Side] school zones. If they take zones away, then landlords will never get that kind of rent. I’m sure apartment sale prices would probably go down as well because again, people are paying for school zone.

But the main point raised again and again proved to be:

I like how you can just choose if you want a program, but what if we just don’t know if our kid is capable of accelerated programs?

And:

You’re proposing grouping students by their parents’ preferences for their kids and not by students’ abilities and/or preparation … [T]here’s a strong argument for proven ability groupings. 

That said, if sole criteria are parent preferences, then won’t many more students be in misplaced accelerated classrooms assuming there were enough spots? I wouldn’t be surprised if the current demand which is double the supply, under your proposal would quadruple. 

Personally I think that is a good unexpected consequence as long as there are sufficient interventional supportive systems in place to help students keep pace with their peers.

First of all, don’t assume that the majority of parents will want the accelerated option.

Here’s an interview with a mom who turned down her district’s top gifted and talented program (for a child who qualified for Hunter College Elementary School, no less) in order to enroll him in a progressive gen ed district elementary school (interview starts around 4:30):

Second, there is nothing being taught in accelerated schools like Anderson or NEST+M that couldn’t be mastered by any child, assuming he or she had a good teacher. Remember, what Americans call “gifted” is standard general ed fare across Asia and Europe.

Conversely, in my job as a school admissions consultant, I work with dozens of families every year who, despite winning the lottery for a seat at Hunter or Anderson or NEST+M still come to me for help with transferring.

Sometimes the reason is that the child — or, more often, the parent — can’t handle not being at the top of the class. Other times it’s because being a verbally precocious 4-year-old is no guarantee a child will be interested in tackling algebra in middle school.

It would seem that passing the test for G&T placement is no more of an indicator that the child will be an eager student than not passing it.

Which brings us to the irreplaceable value-add that is teacher quality.

There is nothing more important than teacher quality.

My middle child attends the most competitive and coveted public high school in New York City. And his experience with the teaching there has been so uneven, it prompted him to write:

Currently, the way schools function is thus: Knowledge is put in students’ heads, then we check if it’s still there a week or so later. Everything we ask them to recall is predigested information vomited directly into their mouths as they are forced to do their best to swallow this information vomit….

I know from experience that there are teachers, passionate experts in their subjects, who can be wonderful. Often a teacher like that will make learning happen with what feels like no hard work, because the class is just so enjoyable, or they can make the complex material extremely easy to understand. But this model has one critical flaw: When the teacher is gone, when you move on to the next grade, the student suffers from great teaching withdrawal.

Whether or not my modest proposal is adopted, New York City schools need great teachers.

Great teachers can provide the “sufficient interventional supportive systems … to help students keep pace with their peers.”

Sometimes that’s available with the current model.

As this mom revealed regarding her December baby at Anderson:

The school was fantastic, giving him extra support and communicating what we could do to help him. It’s been a satisfying journey for him to struggle, persevere and then succeed.

On the other hand, I hear stories from parents whose children were given no help at all. The fact is, there’s just as much outside tutoring going on among the identified “gifted” kids as in the “great” general ed schools.

As this mother raged in response to Manhattan District 3’s recently implemented plan to set aside 25 percent of seats in its top middle schools for students performing below grade level:

They don’t know what to do with the low-scoring kids who got into these “great” schools, and now they have no support. Do you know how they’re supporting my daughter? They’re not returning my calls!

Teachers matter more than anything. My oldest child, who didn’t qualify for any G&Ts when he took the test as a 4-year-old, had some amazing teachers (and curriculum) in K-8 so that, by the end of it, he was testing in the top 2 percent. He now attends an Ivy League university.

Instead of wondering whether all kids are good enough to be in an accelerated program, we should be wondering whether all teachers are good enough to teach them.

According to former President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan:

[A]ctual student learning was nowhere in the definition of a “good teacher.”

Does anyone else find that to be a problem?

Alina Adams is a New York Times best-selling romance and mystery writer, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten and Getting Into NYC High School, a blogger at New York School Talk and mother of three. She believes you can’t have true school choice until all parents know all their school choices — and how to get them. Visit her website, www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com.

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