Equity Does Not Mean Everyone Gets Nothing: There’s a Better Way to Address New York City’s Gifted Gap

Equity does not mean that everyone gets nothing. But the recommendations of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group would do just that when it comes to gifted and talented education.

In an attempt to increase integration in the nation’s most segregated school district, this panel has a bold but misguided idea: eliminate all gifted and screened schools and replace them with magnet schools and enrichment programs open to all students. This will only deepen inequity at a time when equitable access to gifted education must be drastically expanded.

The equity issue we don’t want to address

Gifted education is a tricky issue for most education equity advocates, and I admit to being a reluctant gifted advocate myself. I have no problem calling out the history of eugenics, white supremacy and forced segregation that is woven into the fabric of gifted and talented education in this country. Gifted education scholars such as Donna Ford and Joy Lawson Davis have called out these issues for decades. But eliminating gifted education because the results are not equitable is not the answer.

New York City’s most recent high school graduation rate is 76 percent. But only 50.4 percent of students with disabilities and 34.7 percent of English language learners graduated on time. We are legally obligated to provide ELL and special education services, but even if we weren’t, I doubt we would ever propose ending ELL and SPED programming just because the results need to be dramatically improved. Why is it so easy to scrap gifted programs?

Maybe we just don’t “get” gifted education. Gifted students are a special needs group, yet we persist in this false idea that “they will be just fine.” In 1991, I was a first-grade student at P.S. 91 in Brooklyn, New York. I was getting into trouble constantly. My teacher would give us classwork; I would finish it in two minutes, mess around with my classmates, get in trouble, get assigned more busy work, finish it in two minutes, and this cycle just continued. When the paraprofessional told my mother I needed to get tested for gifted and talented, my mother did not know what “gifted and talented” meant. No schools in my district offered gifted and talented programs.

When I enrolled in the Astral program at P.S. 208, my new gifted program changed everything for me. All of a sudden, the same behaviors I used to get in trouble for were required. Now, I was supposed to question my teacher. Now, I was supposed to get out of my seat and interact with my peers. The interesting part about this experience is that there were only 24 students in my gifted class, compared with more than 30 in the average P.S. 208 classroom. On top of that, my gifted class served two grade levels at once, meaning that this game-changing experience was available to only 12 students per grade level in a school that I and many of my classmates were bused to. This sparked my understanding that genius is distributed equally, but opportunity is not.

The story of my gifted and talented experience is not just about access but also outcomes. Out of the 24 students in my class, three did not finish high school and only a slim majority earned a college degree. I also struggled mightily in my first two years as one of only a few black students attending the Bronx High School of Science (before knowing that there would be even fewer of us 20 years later). This is not unique to my story. The Excellence Gap, researched extensively by Jonathan Plucker and Scott Peters, highlights the fact that for the 3.4 million high-ability, low-income students in the United States, 23 percent do not take the SAT or ACT exam, less than half took an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course, and almost one-fourth never even apply to college. It is time to reject the myth that gifted learners will be “just fine.”

Gifted learners exist in every single school in every single community. We often see them in our classes, whether we identify them or not. Even in schools where a vast majority of students are “low-performing,” we see some students jump two to three grade levels in a single year. We see ELL students who have an uncanny ability to grasp body language rapidly become emerging bilinguals and seamlessly code-switch across language and cultures. What are these students doing in our general education classes? Unless teachers are specially trained in meeting the needs of gifted learners and prioritize those needs, it is a crapshoot.

Sometimes they get lots of time to catch up on their favorite books because they finish the work so quickly. Other times, they learn the content so quickly they end up helping their peers with the work. On the other hand, if they are anything like I was, they are acting the complete fool out of boredom. But as a basic premise to ensuring that all children receive a free and appropriate public education, all students deserve to be challenged every single day.

It is not just unfair to ask gifted learners to serve as tutors and get “free time” to do whatever they wish after they complete assignments that come so easy to them. It is also a large part of why we as a nation consistently leave genius on the table. Underachievement in our brightest learners is a massive challenge, and considering the tremendous challenges our young people need to tackle, not just to compete in the global workforce but to ensure we even have a planet to work on, we cannot afford to keep leaving genius on the table.

A better plan for addressing the gifted gap

Instead of shutting down gifted education in New York City, I would recommend a large-scale expansion of gifted and talented services through a four-step process of universal gifted assessments using local norms; adding real substance to gifted and talented programs; training all secondary teachers to utilize gifted education strategies; and implementing talent development programs for Title I schools starting in prekindergarten. And if you are interested in figuring out how your school system can improve access and program quality for gifted learners of all backgrounds, these recommendations will likely work for you as well.

Universal Gifted Assessments Using Local Norms 

We have seen school districts such as Aurora Public Schools in Colorado make significant gains in closing gifted gaps with a shift to universal screening practices and local norms. Universal screening means that every single student receives the district’s gifted and talented assessments (including nonverbal assessments known to identify giftedness in ELL students) instead of relying on parent or teacher referrals that are ripe for biases. And local norms recognize that the brightest students at every school are truly the brightest students at every school and need to have that talent fostered. Setting a standard that allows, for instance, for the top 5 percent of students at every school to be identified in gifted programs does not water down the program. Instead, it accounts for the reality that giftedness presents differently in different populations of students, leading too often to underrepresentation in schools serving low-income communities and overrepresentation in more affluent ones. Considering the current practice, in which more than 4,000 students each year test into gifted and screened programs in New York City to compete for 2,000 slots via lottery, expanding access seems like a much better strategy than asking gifted children to rely on pure luck.

Gifted Programs Cannot Be Gifted in Name Only

Access is the most popular but not the only issue in gifted education. Too often, even when students are accepted into a gifted program, these programs are gifted in name only. Fortunately, there are many ways schools can design gifted programs to meet the needs of students. I was in a self-contained gifted class in elementary school and for my core academic courses in middle school. But gifted programs across the country find ways to meet the needs of gifted learners through pull-out programs, in which gifted students are pulled out once or more a week for enrichment and/or acceleration. Schools can also explore clustering, in which a critical mass of gifted learners assemble in the same class, allowing teachers to differentiate more easily.

Any program design must also recognize that gifted children are gifted all day, every day. To that end, ensuring that general education teachers are also trained in differentiation and other strategies to meet their needs should be a part of any school’s gifted education plan. In a district serving 1.1 million learners, gifted programs should not be one-size-fits-all. But they must be more than a fancy title that checks off a box.

Equipping All Secondary Teachers With Gifted and Talented Strategies 

Across the country, most gifted and talented middle and high school students do not receive formal gifted and talented programming. Instead, schools typically offer middle school students accelerated coursework or pre-Advanced Placement classes and offer high school students Advanced Placement, Honors and the International Baccalaureate program. These offerings often fall short, however, because gifted learners are not necessarily high achievers. They can be, however, if all secondary teachers are equipped with the tools and strategies to unlock their full potential. Almost all secondary educators teach at least some gifted learners and learners who are not gifted. So, as a bonus, the gifted education strategies they will learn will also bolster student achievement for all students. By not settling for offering advanced and accelerated coursework alone, schools can better meet the needs of gifted secondary students while raising the overall bar for achievement.

Developing Talent Starting in Preschool

New York City is already forging an equitable path by making access to early childhood education possible through universal pre-K. With this program in place, there is a tremendous opportunity to explore talent development models to encourage and foster the gifts in our youngest learners. Programs that educate parents on gifted education and help them understand how to best support the cognitive development of their children are crucial resources for our children’s first and most important educators. Pre-K programs can also help young children realize their gifts early by training early childhood educators on creating flexible workspaces and a least-restrictive environment for students to reach their full potential.

Unequal is inherently unequal

My high school English teacher at Bronx Science would frown upon my decision to introduce a brand-new point in my closing paragraph, but I am still a rule breaker, so here goes: I do not believe that integration as a goal in and of itself is worthy of Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group’s intense focus.

My experience growing up in a self-contained gifted class with nothing but other students of color from low-income neighborhoods across Brooklyn was special. I never, ever heard that getting good grades was “acting white,” because we did not know any white students who could show us what “acting white” was. I grew up with a mindset that black people and the children of immigrants were supposed to be brilliant, because that’s all I ever saw, all I ever knew. De Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group’s focus on integration seems based on Brown v. Board of Education’s conclusion that separate is inherently unequal. But in a school system where black and Latinx students represent 70 percent of the student body, but 75 percent of the gifted and talented populations are white or Asian, the issue should be that unequal is inherently unequal. Contracting already-limited opportunities for accessing gifted and talented programs is a guaranteed way to continue to leave genius on the table.

Colin Seale is a critical thinking expert, achievement-gap-closing educator and attorney who founded thinkLaw — an award-winning program that helps educators teach critical thinking to all students using real-life legal cases and other Socratic and powerful inquiry strategies. He is a national speaker who contributes to Forbes and Education Post.

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