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31st March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 31, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The current dust-up between Upper West Side parents and the city’s Department of Education brings into sharp focus a long simmering controversy over the education of academically advanced students. It doesn’t matter who is in charge, whether it is the mayor and his chancellor, or the old hybrid Board of Education, chosen by six different public officials. The same underlying philosophy prevails, guaranteeing that for middle-class parents, the New York City public school system is sure to break your heart.

A generation of educational ideological dominance by so-called “progressive” pedagogues has removed Gifted and Talented programs, once a fixture in nearly every school, from the vast majority.
Two forces are at play.At the center of “progressive” educational philosophy is the concept of selfesteem. In the minds of these educrats, each child is born with huge quantities of self-esteem just waiting to be destroyed by academic disappointment. So why disappoint? If no child is treated as smarter than any other, then even the dullest will be in no danger of losing this God-given commodity. From this comes the philosophy of the Education Department’s G&T consultant, Joseph Renzulli. In Mr. Renzulli’s world, “giftedness” can be found in just about everyone.

The second force tearing down G&T programs is that white and Asian students seem to find their way into these programs in far greater numbers than blacks and Latinos, though all four groups contain pupils of great brilliance. Rather than try to identify the reasons for these results and address them, it is far easier to simply undermine the programs.To the politically correct,Asians are also “minorities” until they enter the schoolhouse door.Then their success makes them fair game for the self-appointed equalizers.

Calls for “equity” in the G&T programs were cleverly deferred by the Department of Education until the mayoral election had passed. Now it safe for the “leveler’s axe, as Heather Mac Donald calls it, to swing once more.This is nothing new. Back in the early 1970s, an effort was made to eliminate the competitive examinations for the city’s three specialized “science”high schools.It took an act of the State Legislature to save Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech.

In the 1980s, the Board of Education developed the “opt-in” system of high school admission, bizarrely giving preference to children achieving the lowest academic scores,while severely restricting the options available to top performing students. All in the name of “equity.”

In the 1990s,there was a gifted and talented renaissance, as such superintendents as Anthony Alvarado, of Manhattan’s District 2, which includes the Upper East Side, realized that he could lure middle-class parents and their higher achieving students back into the public schools.

Thus, most of the new gifted programs came not from a belief that academically advanced students deserve advanced learning opportunities, but became a marketing ploy to enhance test scores through the magic of favorable demographics. Unquestionably, in some programs, perhaps including those on the West Side, abuses occurred. Educrats occasionally became overzealous in luring families whose children would almost certainly exceed the low bar of merely achieving grade level, the only standard by which the progressive establishment measures the success of public schools. This opened the door to the current controversy, resulting from the complaints of minority parents. But you can make a system fair without making it onerous.

At a preliminary budget hearing last week, Chancellor Klein maintained that the West Side problem was caused by a “shortage” of seats for gifted programs. This led Brooklyn Councilman Lewis Fidler to inquire how many seats were added as a result of Mayor Bloomberg’s electionyear initiative to expand the city’s gifted and talented programs.

“It blew me away to learn that only 340 seats have been added — citywide,” reports Mr. Fidler. “After all the brouhaha, just 340 seats. This doesn’t even begin to address the need.” Mr. Fidler says he is considering re-introducing legislation that will mandate that 10% of the seats in each of the city’s Community School Districts be set aside for G&T programs.

The citywide director of gifted and talented programs for the Department of Education, Anna Commitante, concedes that the figure of 340 new seats in self-contained programs citywide “seems about right,” however, none of those new seats was created in District 3, despite the clear demand.

Ms. Commitante maintains that District 3 was the only of the city’s 32 districts that previously gave preferences to siblings, one of the items contested by dissident parents. But when asked why the old District 3 policy could not be expanded citywide, she maintained that the previous policies did not give “equitable access” to all of the children in the district. I don’t get the connection, but certainly this can be remedied without unnecessarily putting 5-year-olds on buses.

The West Side parents are now victims of the good intentions of those who can’t view the school system one child, one family at a time. Nothing is gained by the system, nor does any child achieve “equity” by forcing siblings into two different schools, or busing any child from their home-zoned school if a G&T program is available there. In the final analysis, unless we make the system friendly to our middle-class families, expect less, not more diversity in our public schools.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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