Is “Gifted Education” an excuse for “Segregated Education?”

New York City has a long history of gifted education, in the pre-decentralization (pre-1970) days the Board of Education set city-wide standards for Intellectually Gifted Classes (IGC) in grades four to six – two years above grade level in reading and 1.5 years above in mathematics. At the junior high school level Special Progress (SP) classes, both three years and the accelerated two year models. At the high school level the legacy high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech entrance exams as well as entrance examinations for the four-year CUNY colleges.

Testing did not start with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the state tested all fourth and eighth graders and New York City tested all kids – there were district tests, more tests in the 1990’s than today.

With the advent of decentralization school districts had wide discretion in the designation of classes. My school district created a range of “gifted” classes, from kindergarten through the fifth grade with a district Director of Gifted Education. The district employed a psychologist to test five year olds, and parents flocked to have their kids stamped as “gifted.” District 16 (Bedford-Stuyvesant) and District 7 (South Bronx) designed a single school as the gifted school – all “gifted kids,” as defined by the district, were assigned to the gifted school.

The Frederick Douglas Academy High School was opened in the 90’s and advertised as the Stuyvesant of Harlem, a screened school intended to attract the most gifted students in Harlem.

The District 3 (Upper West Side) school boards under decentralization created two categories of schools, small “gifted schools,” schools requiring higher reading and math scores, overwhelmingly white, and the other schools, overwhelmingly Afro-American and Hispanic.

The Bloomberg administration accelerated the creation of gifted schools, schools requiring higher state test scores and/or interviews. The 1974 Callendra-Hecht Law allowed for the creation of additional schools requiring the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT), the test required for the legacy high schools, five schools joined the SHSAT three legacy schools.

Over the twelve years of the Bloomberg mayoralty about two hundred screened schools were created, effectively siphoning off the higher achieving schools from the pool of schools.

Some argue that the creation and expansion of gifted classes and gifted schools is an attempt to limit “white flight,” the movement that began in the 50’s and 60’s of white families fleeing to the suburbs as black and Hispanic families moved into neighborhoods. The district in which I served as the teacher union representative fell into that category, the gifted programs were widely advertised, real estate offices were provided with folders praising the qualities of local schools, emphasizing the “Eagle” program, the name of the local gifted program.

The Bloomberg initiative might have been aimed at keeping Bloomberg voters in the city, neighborhoods lobbied for the creation of screened program, the newer euphemism for gifted schools.

Whether attempting to halt a new wave of white flight, or middle class flight or wanting to pacify potential voters the result has been to segregate schools as well as neighborhoods across the city.

The 2014 UCLA Civil Right Project study,

New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.

 Any argument that gifted children, whatever that means, requiring separate classes or separate schools lacks credibility.

Dawn X. Henderson (2017), “When ‘Giftedness’ Is a Guise for Exclusion,” writes,

Institutional racism permeates the public education system … Racism exists in the structure and processes of the public education system. It is often unconscious and difficult to challenge and change because people believe it is quite natural for one group of people to be dominant or intellectual inferior compared to another group of people. Society will also point to poor parenting and innate differences in intelligence, especially when we have “model minorities” who historically perform well on these tests. Metrics of ability and aptitude are given to affirm these beliefs and institutional structures such as “gifted” programs or college preparatory courses are pathways that sort individuals into this hierarchy.

 The selection process for admission to gifted programs is plagued with implicit bias and outright discrimination.

Courville and DeRouen, Louisiana State University (2009) “Minority Bias in Identification and Assessment of Gifted Students: A Historical Perspective and Prospects for the Future,” argues,

With a long history of research highlighting cultural bias against minority groups of varying ethnicities and culture, as well as contributing factors to discrimination such as gender and socioeconomic class, it would seem that increased awareness of a discriminatory past would lead to a reduction or elimination of bias in the identification process. Unfortunately, such a reduction has not been the prevailing trend, with present day educators continuing a systemic pattern of minority under representation.

 Joseph Renzulli at the Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development  has shown us that highly effective gifted education can take place within heterogeneous classrooms, while some schools and school districts have employed the Renzulli methods the screening and creation of separate classrooms still prevails.

For the last four years Chancellor Farina has simply ignored the issue – she was far more comfortable with the past, trying to support the pre-Bloomberg days in which she thrived. She was principal of PS 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a school that carefully selected their student body, it was, in effect, a private school at public school prices.

The Diversity Task Force is not due to report until December, the State Diversity and Equity Work Group are planning conference for the 18-19 school year, and, in the city the pressure builds.

The teacher union president, in an op ed in the NY Daily News “Diversify High Schools Now suggests a number of commonsense methods, correcting a system that now creates “winning” and “losing” schools based on pre-determined entrance requirements, effectively clustering the lowest achieving kids in specific schools and holding all schools to the accountability metrics.

Mayor de Blasio, using Chalkbeat, the online education site, suggests his own plan,

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

De Blasio also calls for changing the current law that requires the use of the SHSAT as the sole entrance criteria.

It seems odd that the mayor suggests a plan to integrate the specialized high schools while his appointee, the chancellor, is still studying the problem. The chancellor can say, “great idea – let’s do it,” or create his own plan, and, the specialized high school “problem” while high profile fails to impact the other 400 or so high schools and 1200 or so other public schools.

Hovering in the background is the specter of the opens admissions debacle at the CUNY four-year colleges, the roiling civil right movement of the 60’s exploded on the City College campus in 1969 and the CUNY administration moved to an open admissions system, that became highly controversial.  Earlier today, wearing my City College cap, a gentleman asked, “What year?” We chatted, I asked, “Do you belong to the Alumni Association?” “No,” he responded, “I quit after open admissions, it ruined the college.” I assured him it returned to its former glory.

While open admissions formally ended in the 90’s, the admission is now selective; the City College student body reflects the population of the city.

Folks are still arguing over a program that began almost fifty years ago and was terminated twenty-five year ago.

Five weeks into the job, think Richard Carranza is having any second thoughts?

2 responses to “Is “Gifted Education” an excuse for “Segregated Education?”

  1. When the STEM academy opened in the school where I taught in Maryland about ten years, I noticed it was predominately white, predominately male and predominately upper middle class. I also noticed a lot of state of the art technology being used by the STEM students, such as I-book, I-pads and wireless internet in their rooms, while my special education students had to make due with the old desktop computers that were shared among students.


  2. Where to begin? First of all, I resent the implicit assumption that gifted = white even on the part of the author of this article. Second, I see no study of the successful black and hispanic students who did make the cut. What was special about them? Was it an economic advantage? Was there something about the parenting style in their families?
    I was a student in the IGC and SP programs of yore. Significantly, when my friends and I travelled from Springfield Gardens to Laurelton for 4th through 6th grade it was the white students who were surprised that we minorities, virtually the only ones in the school, were there for the IGC classes. Yes, we were tracked since kindergarten. Classes were ranked in every school as K1, K2, etc. Springfield Gardens was a neighborhood in transition back in the fifties, so its classes were quite ethnically diverse even then.
    In high school I attended a specialized high school that was and is probably the most diverse in the city. It was the High School of Music & Art (which merged with the School of Performing Arts and is now known as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts). I remember resenting the two tiered cut off for the National Merit Scholarship. Minority students who scored high enough to achieve a National Merit Scholarship were still designated National Achievement Scholars, which had a lower bar for passing. This lead to the assumption in colleges that minority students needed and were always given a leg up to be able to compete with their white counterparts.
    At least one thing was better back in the day than it is today. In the sixties, every junior high school had an orchestra, a band, and a chorus. They had art classes and school plays. Students whose families did not have the financial wherewithall to give them private lessons nevertheless were exposed to the arts. Now if a school has any of these programs it is called a magnet school.
    As an educator I am not against tracking, but I am for restoring the richness of offerings across the city in every neighborhood. I am for the equivalent of Head Start programs for children from disadvantaged families. Mayor DeBlasio has introduced 3-K along with pre-K. I am for expanded ESL and bilingual programs for students new to the country. They work. There is nothing magical about being white, but white privilege exists. In the public schools let’s expand supports and perquisites to all children.


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