Earlier this week, I asked Amy Hsin, a sociologist who studies education and inequality and who advised the de Blasio administration, what she was making of all of this. “To be generous, the idea behind replacing tests with recommendations is based on the assumption that teachers can give a more complete picture of intellect — that they can pick up on things that cannot be picked up by testing,” she said.
“But the problem is, A, that teachers aren’t trained to know what to look for, and B, that science doesn’t clarify the things to look for in very young children. What happens in that vacuum is that teachers are just left to make things up. So they rely on the same historical markers that have always been used to identify intelligence — race and class.” According to federal data, black preschoolers are expelled from school at rates more than double their enrollment.
Last year, when the referral program was first implemented, the percentage of places in gifted and talented preschool programs for black and Latino children made up less than a quarter of the total. While this meant more than twice as many black and Latino students were admitted in the previous year, the latter in which the standardized test was used to measure giftedness, it still holds that they represent about 70 percent of the public school population. .
The current plan, overseen by the city’s new education chancellor, David Banks, will expand the number of gifted and talented preschool places by 100, bringing the total to 2,500. And while it ensures that there will be a program in every community in the city, it also guarantees that many children will be left out. Parents still have to sign up for the programs after their kids are nominated, meaning those who are too busy, just forget about it, or don’t keep up to date will miss the chance for their kids to enter the raffle.
None of this will quiet the debates about whether gifted and talented projects are inherently unfair, whether they should be abandoned altogether or whether admissions measures should be reconsidered, something that seems self-evident if they want to stay.
A major school district in Illinois, outside of Chicago, has had success in aligning its gifted and talented population with the communities it serves. The process combines the use of tests that measure cognitive ability and academic progress, and a checklist for teachers. Evaluations compare students to peers at their own school rather than in a district or against national standards. Crucially, teachers get the kind of professional development that goes beyond a video and some support: a 45-hour course on “giftedness.”