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Rethinking Gifted Education

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

This past Sunday I went to see the new Broadway play In the Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda. It was my second time seeing this wonderful musical about gentrification and the pursuit of the American Dream in the section of Manhattan that I happen to call home. I attended a special showing for the students, teachers and alumni of Hunter College Campus School. Miranda is a graduate of Hunter and after the show he stayed around to answer questions. It was a pleasant occasion with good vibes all around. The Hunter product thanked his former teachers, many of whom were in the audience, for the education he received at the school for the "gifted”. As Lin Manuel described the hard work and creative brilliance that went into this production, the Hunter community reveled in witnessing the accomplishment of one of their own.

After the play and discussion I couldn’t help but think about the cruel irony of the occasion. Today, there are very few students at Hunter like Lin Manuel Miranda -- a working class Latino from Washington Heights. For that matter, Hunter and the other schools and programs for gifted and talented children enroll very few poor African American or Latino children at all.

Is the absence of such students due to the fact that there are no "gifted” children in these communities? I think not, but of course it depends on how one defines what it means to be "gifted". If we rely exclusively on how four year olds perform on standardized tests it is unlikely that children that reflect the diversity of the City will ever find their way into these programs. This is not because there aren’t talented students like Lin Manuel in poor, Latino and Black communities throughout the City, but simply a reflection of the fact that our schools are for the most part not providing enriched learning opportunities and cultivating talent in all children.

A close examination of the DOEs gifted programs and exam schools shows that in a city where almost 75% of children enrolled are Black or Latino, a paltry 25% manage to be included in the top ranked gifted programs. An even closer examination reveals stark patterns of race and class segregation in the most highly ranked schools throughout the five boroughs. In a city renown for its liberalism why isn’t this issue the subject of more controversy or concern?

There are many problems with the way the DOE and many other school systems define those it deems gifted and talented. A good argument could be made that the standard used is both far too generous and simultaneously too restrictive. Very few of the students who attend schools for the “gifted” possess extraordinary talents or exceptional ability. They are certainly bright, motivated and eager learners but their primary gift is the great fortune they had to be born to privileged parents; parents who possessed the time, education and wherewithal to provide them with so much stimulation and intellectual enrichment that in the typical school they easily out perform their peers.

There are poor children of color in New York City who are also smart and motivated. There absence from the DOE’s gifted programs and schools is a clear sign that the methodology used to determine access is far too restrictive. Chancellor Klein is proposing changes in the way children are designated and assigned to gifted schools and programs. Such a review is necessary but should go far beyond a lowering of the score needed to enter the program. If we know that children we regard as "gifted” benefit from strong teachers and a stimulating curriculum why should we limit these benefits to them?

Moreover, shouldn’t the school system do more than merely measure students intellectual potential and sort accordingly? Why aren’t we actively cultivating the talent and gifts of all children?

There is much that is wrong with the way in which the DOE assigns students to its schools, but the biggest problem of all is simply the shortage of high quality schools. With a few notable exceptions the DOE consistently concentrates poor Black and Latino children into poor-performing, "undesirable” schools staffed by inexperienced teachers and administrators. Undoubtedly, many of these children have talent and potential that could rival that of Lin Manuel. Many others could thrive if they were placed in an educational setting where their intellectual and creative talents were actively nurtured. Sadly, unless they are star athletes -- we are very good at finding ball players even from the poorest neighborhoods, it is highly unlikely that those talents will be cultivated in our public schools.

The problem with "gifted” education is not that some children receive the intellectual stimulation and support to reach their potential. Rather, the problem is that the number of children who benefit from such opportunities is so limited, and almost always confined to those with more privilege. All children, even those whose talents take longer to manifest, deserve to attend safe, supportive schools that push them to excel and encourage them to achieve their potential. By accepting the status quo we effectively deny thousands of children in this city the only possible means available to escape poverty and expand their opportunities. We also deprive ourselves of the talents of individuals with talents like Lin Manuel Miranda.

Pedro Noguera is a professor of sociology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and the author of the recent book The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 9, 2009.

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