3 min read
Gifted and talented programs are disproportionately made up of white and Asian kids. Blacks and Hispanics are severely underrepresented. This cannot be a surprising finding to most readers of the New York Times. And yet the cover story of the paper's Metropolitan section is devoted to this imbalance. The Times reporter seems to believe that uncovering this imbalance is evidence of a smoking gun -- that the school system is stacked against minority kids and that the Bloomberg administration has actually made matters worse.

Here's the opening example:

There are 652 students enrolled at P.S. 163 this year, from prekindergarten through fifth grade. Roughly 63 percent of them are black and Hispanic; whites make up 27 percent; and Asians account for 6 percent.This reflects the flavor of the neighborhood, and roughly matches the New York City school system’s overall demographics. Yet in P.S. 163’s gifted classes, the racial dynamics of the neighborhood, the school itself and the school system are turned upside down. Of the 205 children enrolled in the nine gifted classes, 97, or 47 percent, are white; another 31 of the students, or 15 percent, are Asian. And a combined 65 students, or 32 percent, are black and Hispanic. In the 21 other classes that enroll the school’s remaining 447 students, only 80, or 18 percent, are white.

Across the city, the author, Al Baker, finds similar statistical situations. Not only that, but many poor neighborhoods have no gifted programs at all and many rich neighborhoods have more than their share. Baker notes that schools used to be able to develop their own criteria for admitting kids to a gifted program. But in recent years, the Bloomberg administration has forced schools across the city to use one of two standardized tests in order to determine eligibility.

And the problem then is not that black and Hispanic kids are not performing as well as their white peers, at least according to the article. It is that the tests themselves are biased. James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, tells the reporter: “It is well known in the education community that standardized tests advantage children from wealthier families and disadvantage children from poorer families.” Blaming the standardized tests, though, is simply blaming the messenger. The poor minority kids in New York's public schools are underperforming for a variety of reasons. They often come from homes where there are fewer books, where education is not valued as much, where there are all sorts of distractions from schoolwork. And then they go off to the worst public schools in the city with the worst teachers. (Union rules mean that the teachers with the most experience can simply opt out of teaching in low-income neighborhood schools.) So even if these kids are asked to take standardized tests in 2nd or 3rd grade to determine eligibility for a gifted program,they are already behind.

At least one person interviewed for the story believes that the test is not the problem. Ellis Cose, the author of The End of Anger, about race and generational change, has a child in a gifted program in New York. He notes: That the "system . . . can never work if the objective is diversity. . . . The only way it even conceivably can work is to give young poor kids the same sort of boost up that young affluent kids get, which is to make sure these kids get an excellent preschool education, make sure these kids get tutoring, make sure these parents know at what time in the circuit they are supposed to prepare their kids for what. And that is taking on a much larger task than tinkering with a test.”

But diversity is so often the goal. And in addition to the fact that diversity doesn't ultimately help the minority kids because it doesn't address these educational deficiencies, it also may harm race relations as well. The schools which have gifted and talented programs in order to attract some more affluent families to a particular school -- magnet-type programs -- may be making things worse. As the Times reporter notes, some critics say that gifted programs, "[b]ecause they are often embedded within larger schools . . . bolster a false vision of diversity . . . while reinforcing the negative stereotypes of class and race." Kids of all races start to see only white kids in honors classes and they start to think only white kids are smart. All of these shenanigans -- redistricting, busing, magnet programs, etc. -- are never going to help poor kids because their "objects," as Cose notes, are diversity, not education.

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