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'All the children are above average': Should schools separate gifted students?

Published: Thursday, June 19 2014 4:05 a.m. MDT

Critics of gifted education focus in part on its segregating impact on the classroom, claiming that nominal diversity in the school itself is often upended by segregation in the gifted program.

Last year the New York Times took a close look at New York’s P.S. 163, where 63 percent of the students were black or Hispanic, with 33 percent white or Asian. But in the nine gifted classrooms, the Times found, 62 percent were white or Asian.

Those numbers are typical citywide, said Halley Potter, a policy analyst at the Century Foundation.

“What you get is general education classes that look very different from the gifted classroom in racial/ethnic and economic breakdown,” Potter said. “You have schools that look like they are diverse, but in fact they are heavily segregated through the gifted program along racial and economic divides.”

Advocates of the Renzulli approach point to that racial and ethnic divide, arguing that socio-economic advantages give better-off preschoolers a testing advantage that is compounded by gifted programs.

Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, sees the demographic divide through the reverse lens.

“Some of the kids worst served by this are at-risk, low-income kids with a lot of talent but who are stuck in schools that are doing everything they can to get kids over a minimal bar,” Hess said. These poorer gifted kids, Hess argues, will never get the advantages at home that wealthier kids have. If the school cannot push them forward, they will get lost in the flow.

Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, likewise argues it's possible to shape gifted programs in creative ways to address the socioeconomic segregation problem. He says he is open to flexible formulas that ensure more minorities and underprivileged are drawn into gifted programs.

Unintended consequences

One of the more unseemly sides of the gifted regime, critics argue, is the spectacle of parents who drill their children, often hiring tutoring services for children as young as 4 and 5 years old. The thought of toddlers cramming for high-stakes exams to get into gifted programs, coached by parents and even for-profit test prep services, does not sit well with many educators.

While this kind of gamesmanship is common in competitive schools, such as those that pepper New York City, the promise of the differentiated classroom is that it will help diffuse, to a large degree, the battle for placement at young age.

Commercial outfits such as Bright Kids, a for-profit test-preparation service, have filled the niche for parents anxious to push their kids into New York’s gifted and talented programs. While Bright Kids offers a variety of services, they make no bones about their primary purpose. On the Bright Kids website, the “services” tab leads with “test prep,” which opens in turn to "Pre-K" and "Kindergarten."

Even Hess, a strong defender of gifted education, sees the test prep mania in New York as unseemly.

“Of course, it’s a problem,” Hess said, “but it’s a problem pretty isolated to New York. It does not affect gifted education programs in middle America.”

No system, Hess argues, is without foibles. And he says that, on balance, gifted programs serve an indispensable role in empowering bright kids whose families would lack the resources to push them onward.

Hess and Finn both see gifted programs as indispensable. For the last 15 years, they argue, the public school regime has been so heavily focused on testing to raise the lowest student performance that kids who move further faster are simply taken for granted.

One problem, Hess argues, is that areas in which bright kids need to grow, like music or science, are not always the things that are easily measured, like reading and math.

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