Friday, May 30, 2014
Does a "good" school need a gifted program?
New York City has long built gifted education into the structure of its schools. A few entrance-by-exam schools (Hunter, Stuyvesant) have long offered gifted kids the chance at an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers. The system is far from perfect, but at least gifted education exists in a way that hasn't been easy to get rid of. Since I left New York City three years ago, I've been paying somewhat less attention to the schools. But it turns out the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has an interesting track record and thoughts on gifted education. Namely, "As principal of P.S. 6, Fariña famously eliminated the school's gifted and talented program," a recent article in Capital New York noted, "initially alarming parents who wanted their children in high-level classes but who were, according to a parent at the time, eventually reassured by Fariña." Why did she do that? According to the article, "Fariña has not spoken in detail about her philosophy on gifted and talented, but on Monday alluded to the issue of inequality within schools that caused her to toss out the gifted program at P.S. 6 in the first place. 'How do you tell a child that he is gifted but his brother or sister isn't?' she asked." Since people tell one child that he/she qualifies for special education services, while another child in the same family does not fairly frequently, if gifted education were viewed as what it is -- an intervention for children who need it -- this would seem fairly straightforward. But many educators do not view gifted education this way, Fariña included, it seems. The meeting discussed in this article was held in Manhattan District 2. This is widely perceived as a "good" district with "good" schools. It's in a relatively wealthy part of the city that includes the Upper East Side and midtown. When "a suit-clad father of a district 2 student complained to Fariña that his daughter didn't test into a gifted and talented program, Fariña was not overly sympathetic. 'If you're in district 2, the feeling is that every school is one that's gifted and talented,' she said." Note this quick mental jump. Programs for gifted kids are basically just "good" schools -- so if a school is "good" gifted kids don't need anything else. I'm not surprised to hear this, in the sense that many people hold this belief. Gifted education programs are just sops for well-to-do, reasonably smart kids in lousy systems. Once you've solved the lousy system part, then gifted kids in this "good" district don't need anything because their schools are "good." Isn't that just what parents wanted? Unfortunately, a number of gifted programs set themselves up for this sort of criticism by employing various questionable strategies: forcing parents to request testing (meaning only the connected or in-the-know parents do so), putting the cut-off low enough that it includes kids whose needs probably could be met decently in the regular classroom, or being about fun stuff (trips to science museums!) that all kids can do. I tend to think that even "good" schools need gifted programs because it's not just about discipline and challenging grade-level work. It's about challenging kids whose brains are far enough ahead of their peers that even the best teacher will have trouble meeting their needs in class. It's about putting kids with others who will show that they are not the brightest kids in the room. Since NYC is so big, even 1 in 1000 kids can have 1000 kids like them. It's been a bright spot in the system that the city has tried to recognize this and put these kids together as much as possible. So it's unfortunate that the people in charge have a different conception of what gifted education is about.