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.