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Schools debate: Gifted and talented, or racist and elitist?

Communities across the US are reconsidering their approach to gifted programmes

Virus Outbreak Public School Enrollment (For representation)

Communities across the United States are reconsidering their approach to gifted and talented programmes in schools as vocal parents blame such elite programmes for worsening racial segregation and inequities in the country's education system.

A plan announced by New York City's mayor to phase out elementary school gifted and talented programmes in the country's largest school district if it proceeds would be among the most significant developments yet in a push that extends from Boston to Seattle and that has stoked passions and pain over race, inequality, and access to a decent education.

From the start, gifted and talented school programmes drew worries they would produce an educational caste system in US public schools. Many of the exclusive programmes trace their origins to efforts to stanch white flight from public schools, particularly in diversifying urban areas, by providing high-caliber educational programmes that could compete with private or parochial schools.

Increasingly, parents and school boards are grappling with difficult questions over equity, as they discuss how to accommodate the educational aspirations of advanced learners while nurturing other students so they can equally thrive. It's a quandary that is driving the debate over whether to expand gifted and talented programs or abolish them altogether.

I get the burn-it-down and tear-it-down mentality, but what do we replace it with? asked Marcia Gentry, a professor of education and the director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute at Purdue University.

Gentry coauthored a study two years ago that used federal data to catalogue the stark racial disparities in gifted and talented programmes.

It noted that US schools identified 3.3 million students as gifted and talented but that an additional 3.6 million should have been similarly designated. The additional students missing from those rolls, her study said, were disproportionately Black, Latino, and Indigenous students.

Nationwide, 8.1% of white children in public schools are considered gifted, compared with 4.5% of Black students, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent federal data.

Gifted and talented programmes aim to provide outlets for students who feel intellectually constrained by the instruction offered to their peers. Critics of the push to eliminate them say it punishes high achievers and cuts off a prized opportunity for advancement, particularly for low-income families without access to private enrichment programmes.

In Seattle, a schools superintendent who left her job in May sought to do away with the district's Highly Capable Cohort programme, as the district's gifted and talented programme is called, blaming it for causing de facto segregation. In its own recent analysis, Seattle public schools found only 0.9% of Black children had been identified as gifted, compared with 12.6% of its white students.

The school board has approved changes that will do away with eligibility testing and make all grade-schoolers automatically eligible for consideration for advanced instruction. In addition to grades, the selection committee will consider testimonials from teachers, family and community members.

The changes don't go far enough for critics like Rita Green, the education chair of the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP. She has called for more work to build environments that nurture the intellectual development of all the district's 50,000 schoolchildren.

We want the programme just abolished. Period. The Highly Capable Cohort program is fundamentally flawed, and it's inherently racist, Green said.

Debates over the criteria for admission to advanced courses and elite schools predate the latest national discussion about racial inequities, but have intensified since  the killing of George Floyd.

In Boston, the school committee voted this summer to expand eligibility to its exclusive exam schools and guarantee spots to high-achieving students from poor and disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Latino students account for roughly 42% of Boston's 53,000 public school students—about twice the number as whites—but are vastly underrepresented in advanced courses. By the district's account, fewer than 20% of the fourth graders invited to participate in advanced work classes were Latino, while 43% of those invited were white.

Many children are overlooked because of language and cultural barriers, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Boston's Lawyers for Civil Rights. Subconscious bias among teachers who nominate students for the programme also play a role, he said.

Elsewhere, the renowned Lowell High School in San Francisco in February scrapped admissions exams in favour of a lottery system. In Fairfax County, Virginia, parents recently lost a legal bid to undo their school district's decision to do away with testing for admissions to a campus catering to high achievers in science and technology.

Most gifted and talented programs have relied on tests to determine eligibility, with some families spending thousands of dollars on tutoring and expensive specialised programmes to boost scores and increase their children's chances of getting a coveted spot.

Controversy over admissions into advanced education programmes has simmered in other cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago. But nowhere has the debate been as intense as in New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month that he would begin to dismantle the programme in elementary schools, calling it exclusive and exclusionary.

Some parents, including Rose Zhu, have called on the city to expand the programme, not do away with it. She joined dozens of other parents outside the city's Department of Education building this month to protest de Blasio's proposal, bringing along her 21-month-old daughter, who Zhu hopes will follow two older siblings into the city's gifted and talented programme.

I live in Queens, and our traditional schools in our districts aren't really good, she said. So the G and T programme is the best school I can put them in.

De Blasio's likely successor, fellow Democrat Eric Adams, has said he does not support eliminating the programme, which would put him at odds with some of his Black constituents. Adams himself is African American.

One such constituent, Zakiyah Ansari, the New York City director for the Alliance for Quality Education, wants Adams to follow through with de Blasio's pledge.

"We believe every child is a gifted child, every child is a talented child, Ansari said. We have to have people as angry about taking away one programme that impacts a few people and be more upset about the Black and brown kids who haven't had access to excellent education.

But Gentry, the director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute, agreed that it was time for a revolution to fix the problem that's been long-standing in terms of equity" in access to gifted and talented instruction.

She urged parents and school administrators to do the hard work of finding a compromise.

I worry that the easy solution is to stop doing it, she said. I know inequities exist. But the thing is, there's a huge distinction between overhauling or eliminating.