New York City to Phase Out Its Gifted and Talented Program

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Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks on the first day of class at a school in the Bronx on Sept. 13, 2021 as his schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, looks on at his right. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks on the first day of class at a school in the Bronx on Sept. 13, 2021 as his schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, looks on at his right. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday unveiled a plan to overhaul gifted and talented education in New York City elementary schools, calling for sweeping changes to a highly selective program that has been widely criticized for exacerbating segregation in the nation’s largest school system.

Under de Blasio’s plan — released when he has just three months left in office — elementary school students who are currently enrolled in gifted classes would become the final cohort in the existing program.

The system would be replaced by a program that offers the possibility of accelerated learning to students in the later years of elementary school. And the test given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, already suspended in part because the city’s advisory school board refused to renew it last year, would be permanently ended.

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“I bet you a lot of parents are going to look at this plan and say this is a reason to stay” in public schools, de Blasio said in a radio interview Friday, adding that far more children would have the opportunity to receive some accelerated learning than under the existing system. But some families and elected officials who support keeping aspects of the current gifted system sharply disagreed.

De Blasio has been criticized for not taking forceful action to fulfill his promise of tackling inequality in public schools. The announcement comes just three months before he must leave office because of term limits, putting the fate of the plan in the hands of his successor. De Blasio, who is weighing a run for governor next year, has also said the plan could change as the city seeks comment from the public.

Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor and the prohibitive favorite to win next month’s election, has rejected calls to get rid of gifted classes and has instead said he favors an expansion of the programs into low-income neighborhoods. Experts have said that plan would do little to integrate the programs without more direct changes to admissions.

“Eric will assess the plan and reserves his right to implement policies based on the needs of students and parents, should he become mayor,” said Evan Thies, a spokesperson for Adams’ campaign. “Clearly the Department of Education must improve outcomes for children from lower-income areas.”

The mayor’s action attempts to address what the city has known for decades: Its gifted and talented program has contributed to racially segregated classrooms and schools for thousands of students citywide.

Although about 70% of the roughly 1 million public school students in New York are Black and Latino, about 75% of the roughly 16,000 students in gifted elementary school classes are white or Asian American. For years, rising kindergarten students have gained access to the program via a high-stakes exam that some families pay tutors to help their children prepare for.

The programs are considered a crucial steppingstone for students to advance into competitive middle and high schools. Many parents, including Black and Latino parents, have sought out gifted classes as an alternative to the city’s struggling district schools and have come to rely on them as a way to set their children up for future success.

But many other parents and experts say the system has worsened segregation and weakened instruction for children who are not in the gifted track.

Not surprisingly, reaction to de Blasio’s plan was mixed.

Robin Kelleher, an elected parent leader in District 2, said Friday that de Blasio’s announcement felt like a “political stunt” and that the mayor would be leaving a pile of “bloody, broken bone fragments” for Adams to clean up.

But Karla Stenius, a parent in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, said she believed that gifted programs made it more difficult for children in regular classes to thrive.

“If we’re just dumping a bunch of resources into gifted and talented,” she said, “everybody else suffers because they didn’t know somebody or they couldn’t afford a tutor.”

De Blasio’s schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, who was appointed this year, has been instrumental in pushing him to fundamentally alter the gifted and talented program, according to people with knowledge of the last several months of intensive negotiations on the issue.

Adams has endorsed a very different approach to gifted and talented: keep the classes but increase them in low-income neighborhoods. Although that idea has been questioned by researchers, who have said it would do little to integrate the programs, it is popular with some parents, including Black and Latino families who want more gifted options.

Reversing de Blasio’s plan could be difficult, since it would require Adams to either resume the use of the unpopular admissions exam or come up with a new admissions method within the first few months of his mayoralty to allow students enough time to apply. Adams has said that he supported keeping the exam, which was broadly criticized by experts, but that it should not be the only way that young children are evaluated for academic skills.

Under de Blasio’s plan, New York City will no longer admit rising kindergarten students into separate gifted classes or schools starting next fall. Instead, the city will train all its kindergarten teachers — roughly 4,000 educators — to accommodate students who need accelerated learning within their general education classrooms. The city does not yet have an estimate for how much the training will cost, though it is expected to be tens of millions of dollars.

And instead of the unpopular admissions exam, the city will evaluate all rising third graders, using past work and input from their teachers, to determine whether they need higher-level instruction in specific subject areas for one or two periods a day.

The mayor has not yet solicited feedback from parent groups or elected officials on his gifted and talented plan. Officials said that he planned to consult with families and educators on the plan throughout October and November and that aspects of the proposal could shift before he leaves office.

It is not yet clear, for example, what will happen to the five schools across the city that exclusively serve children who are considered gifted.

A well-organized group of parents who back keeping gifted classes in some form, with support from elected officials like state Sen. John C. Liu, a Democrat from Queens, have criticized the mayor in recent months for preparing a new system without getting input from parents. Many of those families have children who attend school in Manhattan’s District 2, one of the city’s whitest and wealthiest school districts.

The mayor’s earlier push to eliminate the admissions exam for the city’s most elite high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, failed after he announced the plan without first seeking feedback from the many thousands of Asian American parents whose children would be most affected. Those families spent months forcefully pushing back against the plan, and their opposition ultimately helped defeat it in the state Legislature.

The mayor’s other significant action on integration, a plan announced late last year to remove some admissions requirements at competitive middle and high schools, was rolled out without significant public comment.

While changes to admissions to the city’s specialized high schools are subject to legislative approval, de Blasio has full power over all other schools, including gifted programs.

The mayor’s plan for the future of gifted education is similar to a proposal made in 2019 by a task force he convened on school integration measures — a plan that he had, until now, mostly ignored.

Many of the people who were involved in that proposal celebrated de Blasio’s announcement Friday, even though they said it came far too late in his tenure. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate who is also weighing a bid for governor, said the plan was “a long time coming.”

“We can’t just rest and rely on the way things have been, we need to have the courage and drive to move forward,” Williams, who himself attended a gifted program in New York, said in a statement.

The mayor has faced nearly eight years of private pressure on the issue from his three schools chancellors, all of whom have been skeptical of, if not completely opposed to, separate gifted classes.

The mayor’s first chancellor, Carmen Fariña, got rid of gifted classes in the Manhattan elementary school she ran for many years as a principal. The second chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, resigned earlier this year, in part because he was frustrated by what he considered the mayor’s reluctance to take bold action on gifted and talented education.

While de Blasio’s announcement represents a major shift for New York, it is hardly pioneering. Only about 10% of districts nationwide have entirely separate gifted classrooms and schools, according to Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank.

Some experts believe that labeling students as gifted and plucking them out of general education classrooms altogether exacerbates segregation by removing resources from regular public schools and siphoning the strongest students and teachers elsewhere. Researchers have argued that those children can still receive additional attention within normal classrooms.

But that requires many thousands of city educators to pull off some of the hardest work in public education: teaching children with a large range of abilities in one classroom, a practice known as differentiation.

“Differentiation is like a fuzzy blue unicorn,” said Jonathan Plucker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and a proponent of gifted education whom the city consulted on its plan. “It would be great if everyone had one; I’m just not sure it’s possible.”

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