Friday, November 07, 2008

New York City gets it right

I live in New York City with my family. Most likely we will move out of the city before my son, Jasper, goes to school, but this is not necessarily because of the schooling situation. If you live in Washington DC and desire a good education for your bright children, you pretty much have to enroll in a private school (as Pres. elect Obama, incidentally a school voucher opponent, will choose for his children). But New York City has long had good gifted programs, including Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, which have produced numerous finalists in the former Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

About two years ago, though, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joe Klein surveyed the gifted programs, and noted that they were not exactly fair. Not so much "not fair" in the way people normally claim they are not fair (i.e., separating out kids for special treatment, or even the racial balance, though they did note that). The programs had a patchwork of entrance requirements, were located at certain schools due to better parental lobbying, started in different years, etc.

So last year, the schools decided to standardize admissions requirements. First, the NYC schools declared that as many students as possible should be tested. They did tons of outreach to historically underserved areas. They used two tests -- a reasoning test and a school readiness test. Then they declared that only children who scored in the top 5th percentile (on a national comparison basis) would be admitted to NYC gifted programs; the flip side of this is that every child who did score about this level would be guaranteed a spot.

Well, all did not go entirely as planned. It turns out there were fewer gifted children under this definition than the schools liked, so they lowered the cut-off to the top 10% -- already pushing it, in my opinion. Even so, some schools have far smaller gifted programs than in the past -- for instance, 10 students in a class in a school in which there average class size is 20 or more. You can read about the controversy in this New York Times story on "Fewer Children Entering Gifted Programs."

As you can imagine, some people are upset about this. From the article:

"At P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side, the gifted kindergarten class has 16 children, while another kindergarten class has 28, a situation Lisa B. Donlan, president of the local Community Education Council, called 'unfair to the entire school community.'

"At P.S. 52 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, one of four schools with gifted classes of eight — the minimum the city requires — the other five kindergartens have 22 or 23 children each.

“'Their intentions are all good, and I understand making it more uniform across the city,' the school’s principal, Ilene Altschul, said of the changes in gifted admissions. “I just don’t understand how a class of eight children is beneficial.'”

Indeed, some parents are pressuring schools to open up these smaller gifted classes to other kids; as one parent noted, “To get your kid into a good kindergarten in New York City is such a yearlong battle, and I know that it’s a very desirable program...It’s a shame that other kids are being denied the opportunity.”

So maybe I can explain why it's beneficial. New York City gets it. Gifted education is supposed to be an intervention for children who need it. Personally, I think they should have stuck to the original 95th percentile, or even higher. But, leaving that aside, gifted education is not supposed to be the "desirable" class, an entitlement (every school gets 20 spots) or a way to keep middle class families in the city so they don't move to New Jersey. If kids need the interventions of gifted education, they should get it. If they don't, they shouldn't, even if there are empty seats. It's not about seats.

It's also not about "rewarding" kids. The New York Times falls into this trap, as usual obsessing about the racial composition of these classes, pointing out in the article that only 22% of the students identified as gifted now are black or Hispanic. Most districts would find this pretty good; if you add in Asian children, the city's gifted program is 50% minority, but given that the New York City schools have a higher proportion of minority students than this, the New York Times claims the reforms have "failed to diversify the historically coveted classes" (even though the percentage of Asian students in these classes has actually gone up).

But Bloomberg and Klein are sticking to their guns. As Klein says, "we won’t compromise standards and thereby dilute our programs." It's about time a school official understood why a school district should have a gifted program, even if not everything the NYC schools have done to reform their program has been entirely smart.


Anonymous said...

Gifted education is supposed to be an intervention for children who need it.

Well that's one take on gifted education. The difficulty as you identify is deciding who needs it. A more helpful and perhaps more inclusive way of looking at it might be to think that all children require the education they need.

Anonymous said...

The anonymous response above is so strange....duh, I don't see anywhere that Laura implies that all children don't require the education they need. Her point is that there is something unique about the education that gifted children require, and it makes sense to focus on it. Separately, the other classes need to handle the education that those classes require, OF COURSE. I do not see your comment as more helpful or more inclusive.

Anonymous said...

Her point is that there is something unique about the education that gifted children require.

Providing appropriate content and challenge does not make gifted education unique.

Kate said...

It is my understanding that the appropriate challenge and content for gifted children is not appropriate for most other children. Hence the gifted classes. Special ed would be the same way. The slower speed and simpler content that is appropriate for some types of special needs kids would be inappropriate for most children. Hence special needs teachers and remedial classes.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate The New York Times doesn't interview you.

I'll be honest, it's been a rough year for me as a parent of a child who is in a smaller district program. (She scored a 99%, but travel to the citywide schools would have been difficult. Plus, it's so close by. I was originally thrilled.) The PTA meetings are intense, with some parents trying to pressure the principal into changing the admissions process, and demanding their kids get in the class.

Now there's going to be a City Council Meeting on December 16th because politicians want Klein to change the admissions policy for g/t programs.

I am jealous you might move. I love NYC, but can't believe how outrageously competitive parents are here.

And this is just kindergarten...

Anonymous said...

If children were and not labelled and segregated but given the education they need where they are, then the issues being discussed here may not arise. Is this not going to happen every time we try to label and segregate, especially if a child is "mis labelled"?

Veronica said...

Forgive me, I couldn't find an email addy for you. But could you write a post for parents on how to handle the too much homework question? My daughter is in kindergarten and I feel like it's too much. We're going to teacher conference this week and I want to bring it up. Thanks for your awesome blog!

Kevin said...

If it were possible for teachers to provide the education each child needed over the enormously wide range of abilities seen in same-age children, then we would not need gifted classes and special-ed classes.

Although the current mantra of the education establishment is to "mainstream" all children and "differentiate' their instruction, this has been shown to be highly unsuccessful at handling the kids at both the high and the low end.

I'm not sure, however, how good testing is at identifying gifted kids at the kindergarten level. There should be testing for the need for gifted education at each grade level.

For that matter, separate placement in each subject based on tests and other achievement measures, independent of age, would be a more appropriate way to get students the education they needed, rather than the current lock-step system that insists that age is all that matters.

Anonymous said...


The kids are accessed to see if they continually need the accelerated programs. The kids who didn't get in the program, can re-test the following year. On the district level, unfortunately, gifted classes stop at 2nd grade. Supposedly they're going to change that.

Based on what I've read, early intervention is important for the child who is a "rapid learner."

The Princess Mom said...

"If children were and not labelled and segregated but given the education they need where they are, then the issues being discussed here may not arise"

The issue is whether it is even possible to give children the education they need where they are. Gifted children learn very quickly. My children have finished several grades worth of curriculum in a single year. How can you continually keep up with them "in place" with other children who don't master the curriculum as quickly?

The fact is that a gifted classroom is the "place" to educate gifted children.

Anonymous said...

So many other groups get targeted intervention, ie. ELL (English Language Learner), SEL Standard English Learner), Special Ed, Below Basic learners, etc. While I'm not against each group getting what it needs, too often the gifted child doing well gets, "He's doing fine." It's about time a large public school system did something for the gifted in which some of the aforemetioned groups could overlap and benefit twice.

Anonymous said...

The fact is that a gifted classroom is the "place" to educate gifted children.

Not according to some gifted adults I know who have been through a similar system.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else concerned about the issue raised in the second last paragraph of this post? According to the 2000 Census, for the first time non-Hispanic whites were the minority population in the 100 largest U.S. cities then is there not an issue here? Not because we need to have "so many children from each ethnic group" identified, but because perhaps the instrument used to measure is at best biased and at worst flawed.