Gifted Education Series, Part 2: Against Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

In my previous post in this series, I looked at what some of the advocates of gifted education say about the benefits of these programs. Here, I will examine what those who are against them have to say.

It is not easy to measure giftedness in the first place. Intelligence tests and achievement tests are often culturally biased and may “reflect ethnicity, socioeconomic status, exposure and experiences rather than true giftedness.” Some children just might not be good at taking tests or may be gifted in ways that tests cannot measure well—like creative thinking. When you can’t even rightly identify those students who should be placed in gifted programs, should you have them?

There are several criticisms of gifted programs, the main one being that it promotes segregation in the classroom along racial and socioeconomic lines. Many say that the practice of separating the top 2% of the population from everyone else clearly falls under the definition of segregation, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “an action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things.” Instead of white-only water fountains, there are smart-only schools or schools within schools. If, under the mandate of equal protection, the Supreme Court struck down the idea of schools separating children based on skin color, it seems logical to assume that this should be the case for IQ as well since this is another “immutable” trait. Providing equality of opportunity also applies to publically-funded gifted programs that receive extra money and prestige.

An example of this segregation comes from New York City’s gifted and talented programs, which have a long history of exacerbating socioeconomic and racial segregation within city schools. As of 2011, roughly 70% of all New York City public school students were black and Latino, but more than 70% of kindergartners in gifted programs were white or Asian. Even if a school has nominal diversity in itself, this is undermined by segregation in the gifted program. Schools may look diverse, but the general education classrooms look very different from the gifted classrooms in terms of racial/ethnic and economic background. In one specific New York City school, 63% of the students are black or Hispanic and 33% are white or Asian. In the gifted classrooms, 62% are white or Asian. These disparities are most apparent at the lower grades.

Socioeconomic status advantages also give better-off preschoolers a testing advantage that is compounded by gifted programs. These very young children have to cram for high-stakes exams in order to get into these gifted programs. Their parents push them and might even hire test prep services to make sure their children do well. Many educators find that this practice does not sit well with them. This flawed system reinforces racial separation, negative stereotypes about class and race, and contributes to disparities in achievement. Gifted admissions standards favor middle and upper class children and create castes within schools where some children are enriched and accelerated while others are getting the bare-bones version of the material.

When looking at the gifted classrooms, one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way children are selected into these programs. These programs create a cycle in which students start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools over their years of schooling. The number of black and Hispanic students who make it into specialized high schools in NYC has declined significantly over recent decades. Some say that if the objective is diversity, this system can never work.

Parents argue that it’s more economics than race, even though this goes hand and hand in many cities. If you were upper income and well educated, you would want your child to have a more enriched education. But when you think about it, not only are the black and Hispanic children being denied more intense education and enrichment, but those white students who are in separate gifted programs are being denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms are shown to offer.

In concordance with this thinking, the NYC schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, actually completely eliminated the gifted program at the school where she was previously the principal. Many parents of the gifted students at her school were outraged, but she calmed them by promising school-wide improvement in instruction [6]. Many are urging NYC schools to take this approach that betters the whole school and incorporates mixed-ability classrooms instead of perpetuating these segregated classrooms by continuing separate gifted programs. This will be explored further in the last post in this series.


One thought on “Gifted Education Series, Part 2: Against Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

  1. Pingback: Gifted Education Series, Part 3: A Possible Alternative | Education Policy Talk

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