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16th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 16, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

The sooner that the Department of Education abandons the idea that classes for gifted and talented children are some sort of civil rights program, the better off we will all be.

Two weeks ago, Chancellor Klein announced another restructuring of the city’s gifted and talented programs, the third such effort in as many years. What is the reason behind all of this attention? The quest for “equity.”

The problem is that gifted programs are not about equity. On the contrary, they are about inequality. Some children are smarter than others, a concept that goes against the grain of the progressive education establishment.

Complicating the situation is that the five- and six-year-old pupils admitted to these programs are disproportionately white and Asian. It isn’t the children who are seeking these spots, it is their parents. In District 10 in the northwest Bronx, a district nearly 95% black and Hispanic, nearly all of the white and a goodly portion of the Asian population live in one tiny corner of the district, Riverdale, which generates less than 10% of the district’s school-age population.

The former superintendent, Irma Zardoya, who took charge in 1994, methodically purged the district of all gifted programs in her quest for ideological purity. So when Chancellor Klein as part of his last restructuring of this program finally brought back these programs to District 10, there was not a single seat devoted to the academically advanced for the over 50,000 children attending kindergarten through eighth grade there.

Two tiny programs were established by the chancellor for this year’s first graders, serving a total of 56 children. One was at P.S. 24, a high achieving school in Riverdale, the other at P.S. 54, an academically troubled school in what many perceive to be a dangerous location.

More than half of the 123 valid applications for two programs, 63, came from the parents in largely middle-class Riverdale. This was despite the efforts of the administration to limit applications from Riverdale. Advertisements promoting the program were placed in newspapers such as the Amsterdam News, El Diario and some Bronx local newspapers. The Department carefully avoided the two well-read newspapers serving Riverdale.

But despite these efforts, a majority of the children qualifying for the programs came from Riverdale. 22 Riverdale children received their preference of placement at local P.S. 24, but the Byzantine application process, designed to promote “equity” by assigning the tots to the programs by test score, excluded perhaps as many as two dozen other qualified children from their neighborhood school.

Virtually all of those parents rejected placement at P.S. 54. One single mom, an immigrant from Cambodia, not understanding the assignment process, made the mistake of checking off P.S. 54 as a “second choice.” Having just missed the cutoff for first round offers to P.S. 24 by a single point, her son easily qualified for the next round, but was excluded under the complex rules. So this child, already a student at P.S. 24, which is two blocks from his home, was told that the only way he could be placed in a gifted program was to ride the bus to P.S. 54, an trip of about an hour each way, or continue at P.S. 24 in a regular class.

Not surprisingly, his mother reluctantly, indeed angrily, chose the latter option, knowing that six children with lower scores than her son, all from outside of the neighborhood, are now attending the program her child was excluded from.

Inexplicably, the Department of Education made these new gifted classes considerably larger than ordinary general education classes, 28 children as opposed to the normal size of 20 in early childhood classes. Had the gifted classes been capped at 20, Riverdale children might have nearly filled two such classes using last year’s admission criteria.

But the rules were designed not to maximize the number of bright children served, but to limit the success of children in the middle class areas, all in the name of “equity.” It is not the fault of the qualified children in Riverdale that parents in the rest of the district didn’t take advantage of the program. None of these rules will be changed under the chancellor’s latest proposal.

This still isn’t enough “equity” for the education department. The new plans call for raising the standards for judging the “giftedness” of these five-year-olds to just those scoring in the top 5% of a national sample of children taking the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test. This initiative is designed to limit the numbers of those admitted from those currently applying. This is a slap at Gotham’s middle class.

The second part of the program, one that I can endorse, is to increase the number of poor and minority admissions by giving the test to nearly all students. I have no problem with increasing the opportunities for any of our children. But I do question the insistence on accomplishing this by continuing to diminish opportunities for our middle class who want their bright children to have every opportunity to succeed.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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