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Tackling Segregation in NYC Schools: Are Gifted and Talented Programs a Problem, or a Solution?

New York City’s public school system is the most racially segregated in the nation. Several mayoral administrations have sought to tackle this issue: Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented programs based on school choice, with the intention of helping low-income families escape low-performing schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a school diversity advisory group, which recently released a report that advocates for eliminating “gifted and talented”(G&T) programs in elementary schools and reducing academic screening for middle and high schools. De Blasio has not made any indication as to whether he will adopt the recommendations or not, although he has adopted many of the group’s previous recommendations. Instead of entirely scrapping these programs as the report recommends, de Blasio should instead expand them to more schools, especially those in low-income and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. 

There are multiple factors that must be taken into account when addressing issues of racial segregation in NYC schools: Where G&T programs exist in the city and the extent to which schools across the city experience massive discrepancies in overall performance are two factors that make successful implementation of solutions difficult.  At one of the best middle schools in the city, PS 122, 79 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored at the proficient level in the NY state standardized math test. In contrast, at 80 middle schools across the city, math proficiency was lower than seven percent. At certain schools, such as IS/PS 224 in the Bronx, this figure was closer to three or four percent. These patterns of disproportionate proficiency begin long before New York students enter high school.

G&T programs, along with screened high schools, are distributed across the city in clusters that often correspond to wealthier neighborhoods. This pattern is highlighted in the diversity advisory group report. The combination of these factors means that there are fewer quality educational opportunities for low-income, talented students who live in neighborhoods with underperforming schools. While Mayor Bloomberg’s school choice policies made it easier in theory for students to choose to go to better-performing schools in other parts of the city, this is not a realistic option for many families, often because of simple barriers like geographic distance and unreasonable travel times. Expanding G&T programs to low-performing schools could provide educational opportunities to engaged low-income students who do not have the same options as some of their wealthier peers, who may be able to afford private school or extracurricular academic programs. Participation in a G&T program should not be dependent on gaining admission to a selective school.

One of the main criticisms of G&T programs is that they foster greater segregation within schools. Citywide, Asian-American and white children are overrepresented in elementary level programs, while Latinx and Black children are underrepresented. However, in many underperforming schools currently without G&T programs, student bodies are almost exclusively Black and Latinx, rendering the potential impact of G&T programs on segregation within these schools limited or nonexistent. Students should be able to test into programs at any grade level, instead of having limited chances and ending up in classes below their abilities. This would also make admissions testing less high stakes: Opponents of G&T often attribute demographic imbalances to wealthier Asian-American and white parents having more time and resources to spend on research and managing their child’s application process and test preparation. While this argument oversimplifies correlations between income and race, information about testing should be more widely distributed, since Black and Latinx students currently take the test at lower rates than other students.

Making an even-handed expansion of G&T programs requires changes that go beyond tweaking the application process. NYC currently has both citywide and district/school specific G&T programs. There are only five citywide programs, which accept students from anywhere in the city. The citywide programs are schools where every class is a “G&T” class, as opposed to district programs, which exist in a form more similar to honors classes within schools. Even though district standards are lower than those of the citywide programs, many underperforming schools do not have enough students meeting the standard to fill a single G&T class. Thus, standards would have to be adjusted to specific schools to ensure that a program could be started. As a result, most G&T expansion should be focused on district programs in areas that currently are far away from citywide programs or that have few existing district programs. More citywide programs in these areas could be beneficial as well, but this would require more resources to implement. While adjusting admissions standards, Washington D.C. has experimented with open-enrollment gifted programs -accelerated programs with no admission standards. Any student can enroll in this program, regardless of test scores or performance on other metrics. These programs have not had issues with demand, and while they may not be as selective as traditional G&T programs, they provide more potential for identifying children who have exceptional talents that may not translate directly to traditional test scores. 

To his credit, Mayor de Blasio has pushed for policies that would expand educational opportunity and equity, such as universal Pre-K. His administration has also pushed for more controversial measures: Recently, de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza considered scrapping the SHSAT admissions test for NYC’s selective high schools. This would require approval from the state legislature, which has shown little interest in changing the current system. However, recent focus has shifted towards addressing segregation in the rest of the NYC school system, including middle and elementary schools. Expanding elementary and middle school G&T programs to more schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, should reap similar benefits to programs like universal Pre-K, but at lower cost as programs would be within already existing schools. Similarly, if more students were reaching testing thresholds for gifted programs, then these programs likely could be expanded relatively easily within schools. 

G&T programs used to be more common in New York City public schools, as well as nationwide. They have a complicated legacy, as they were seen as a way to boost national educational quality after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, but also were used in some cities as a counter to federally-mandated desegregation following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. G&T programs became popular after the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk, in 1983, a report that claimed American schools were underperforming. However, many were phased out in the 90s and 2000s. This was partially a result of greater emphasis placed on statewide standardized testing, exemplified by policies like the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, schools began to focus more on remedial education, getting as many students as possible up to a minimum standard. Funding for G&T programs became seen as superfluous, contributing to the lack of these programs today. 

In New York City, the national shift towards standards-based educational reform coincided with an influx of Asian immigrants. Along with whites, Asian-Americans are the most overrepresented group in New York’s G&T programs. 81 percent of students who receive offers to kindergarten G&T programs are white or Asian-American, in contrast to the public school system as a whole, in which 65 percent of kindergarteners are Black or Latino. Asian-American students account for over 60 percent of enrollment in NYC’s specialized high schools, the ultimate objective for many students in the G&T programs. Stuyvesant, New York’s most prestigious specialized high school, gained national attention when it only admitted seven Black students out of 895 spots this year.  

However, indirect conflation between racial background, socioeconomic position, and academic achievement fails to describe the whole picture of NYC schools: Asian-Americans broadly comprise one of the poorest ethnic groups in the city, having the highest poverty rate among year-round workers in the city. Though data is scarce, some have claimed that 40 to 60 percent of Asian-American students qualify for free or reduced lunch in the specialized high schools, which are often referred to as the worst examples of school segregation in the city. Despite often facing economic barriers, Asian-Americans have achieved impressive levels of success in NYC public schools. Many Asian cultures place a high value on education, and many low-income families see it as a path to success. Because academic achievement does not necessarily correlate with aggregate economic status among NYC’s Asian-American population, attempts to rebalance the racial/ethnic makeup of schools via policies that focus solely on income often miss the mark. Making an explicit effort to expand G&T programs in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods would expand access to educational opportunity and diversify NYC schools – in particular its elite high schools – without punishing low-income families of other minorities who have devoted time and resources to securing educational opportunities for their children. 

Cutting G&T programs in their entirety could balance out NYC school racial demographics to an extent in the short term. However, in the long term, adopting this approach would abandon many of the students who are most in need of better educational resources. Many graduates of New York City’s best public schools who came from disadvantaged backgrounds have credited these types of programs with helping them overcome socioeconomic barriers. Few people have argued against the effectiveness of the programs themselves. Instead of cutting opportunities because not all students can access them, New York City should invest in these programs to expand them to as many students as possible. 

Photo: Image via Jeremy Gordon