The announcement that outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to eliminate, or radically overhaul, the gifted and talented program in public schools due to concerns about equity has set off a predictable firestorm. While progressive activists strongly support the move, many parents with children in the program are up in arms.
The debate has gone national. Conservatives gleefully point to de Blasio's initiative as more evidence that progressive Democrats are promoting communism by another name: Rob the talented to make everyone equal.
To progressives, gifted programs exemplify social injustice. Of New York's one million public elementary school students, these programs serve only 16,000 — three-quarters of them white or Asian American, even though 70% of the city’s public school students are Black or Latino. Critics talk about "segregation"; others say the term wrongly equates merit-based disparities with forced racial separation.
These issues are not unique to New York. In Alexandria, Virginia, the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School is dropping a standardized admissions test for new criteria including socioeconomic status. In San Francisco, another acclaimed magnet school, Lowell, is switching from reliance on grades and test scores to a lottery system.
Glaring racial disparities in selective educational programs were a strong cause for concern even before the current heightened sensitivity to racial injustice; they are a particularly pressing issue in today's climate. Such gaps are likely to alienate minority communities from the school system while making liberal white parents (and their children) feel guilty about enjoying unfair privilege.
But remedies can backfire. The much-criticized test for four-year-olds that until now determined admission into New York's gifted program was itself originally set up in an attempt to make the process fairer and more racially balanced.
Today, some of the strong opposition to de Blasio's proposed overhaul comes from nonwhite minorities. Asian American parents in particular feel the attacks on gifted education shortchange and scapegoat their children. Many Black and Latino parents whose kids are currently in gifted programs also fear losing valuable opportunities.
Some proponents of change say the answer is to improve education for everyone. Reports on the progress made at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, which began to eliminate elementary-school gifted classes 30 years ago and has also scaled down tracking in middle school and high school, show that alternative approaches are possible. At South Side, individualized, project-based "talent classes" have exposed a much wider base of kids to challenging material; in math, support classes help weaker students catch up without shortchanging those who are more advanced.
It remains to be seen how de Blasio's reforms will play out in New York schools — or what the next mayor, likely Eric Adams, will do when he takes office. Adams says he wants to expand the gifted and talented program to make it more accessible in Black and Latino communities instead of eliminating it. There are other models.
Some aspects of the program, particularly the sorting of children into "gifted and talented" tracks at an early age, definitely warrant rethinking. A more flexible approach is essential. There is also a clear need to do a better job of identifying talented kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. But let's spread the benefits around instead of going the "communist" route of making everyone poor.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.