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25th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 25, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Everyone in Gotham should be proud of 17-year-old David Bauer, the Hunter College High School senior who won the top prize in the national Intel Science Search competition. This is an achievement not just for David, but also for his family. After all, they had to work particularly hard to make sure that their son received the proper education in our public schools.

This was no small task. The families of bright children have to engage in what has become a sad New York ritual: school shopping for a gifted and talented program. There are few programs remaining after nearly a half century of increasing “progressive” influence on our schools. These programs for academically advanced children are now “elitist” and damage the self-esteem of those who do not qualify.The answer is to drive all children into some egalitarian middle ground.

The efforts of David’s folks were particularly successful. They found him a place in the Anderson program at Manhattan’s P.S. 9 and then at the Delta program at M.S. 54. These two programs now appear doomed. Chancellor Klein has promised to re-evaluate their admissions policies — after the election.

During his year in the Delta program, David was successful in grabbing the biggest prize of all in the quest for the best possible public school education, a spot in Hunter College High School. Thousands of the city’s best students compete for just a handful of spots, awarded by examination. No portfolios, no “authentic assessments,” just a good old-fashioned, bring in your no. 2 pencil test.

It may be that absent these programs, David would have won this competition anyway. But I doubt it. Gifted and talented education, by bringing bright young people together, seems to incubate creativity and achievement.

David is now a neighbor of mine in Riverdale, so when the Intel semifinalists were announced some weeks ago, and I heard that David was a Riverdale resident, I was excited by the prospect that perhaps he was a product of the local schools. But I couldn’t say that I was surprised to learn that he moved here relatively recently, and that David didn’t go to any of Riverdale’s schools. The reason is that over the past decade, gifted and talented programs here had, by design, been gutted. The results have been disastrous.

Why? We have given over the school system to the adherents of “progressive education.” Because they believe that all children are basically the same, they maintain that all children are gifted and talented.
So as David’s mom was shopping around from school to school, finding the gifted programs in Manhattan, parents in Riverdale were seeing the district science fair scuttled, honors programs destroyed, homogeneous class groupings eliminated, and even a ban on spelling bees, all in a desperate attempt to drive all students to the same level of mediocrity. They succeeded. Admissions to specialized high schools, the key indicator of the success of academically advanced students, dropped by more than 80% in just a decade.

Back in 2001, the newly elected local school board was demanding a restoration of gifted and talented programs, over the objection of then-District 10 Superintendent Irma Zardoya, one of the city’s most vigorous opponents of gifted and talented education.

But forced by the board to revisit the programs she had worked so hard to dismantle, Ms. Zardoya employed a classic progressive tactic to thwart them. She used the work of Joseph Renzulli, a University of Connecticut professor, to suggest to board members and parents that enrichment programs offered to all are the same as truly gifted programs offered to a talented few.

They aren’t. I certainly believe that every child is entitled to enrichment programs. All children deserve to be exposed to art, music, and theater. But we also insist that the truly academically advanced students, like David Bauer, have available to them the special classes and special programs they need. They deserve no less attention and resources than other children, though this goes against the prevailing progressive philosophy.

As bad as things were before the mayor took control of the schools, they are worse now. Ms. Zardoya, and other opponents of real programs for gifted education, such as Deputy Chancellor Carmen Fariña, have actually been promoted, and Mr. Renzulli, with his ersatz gifted program, is now creating a citywide model for a six-figure fee, courtesy of a no-bid contract.

This should be a campaign issue. How did Mayor Bloomberg, who insisted he supported a “back-to basics” approach, get onto this course? Will he admit his errors? Who will challenge him on these points? Parents who believe in encouraging excellence must know that to restore the gifted programs they want, the Renzulli contract should be canceled. That is how we can ensure that there will be more David Bauers to be proud of in the future — children who will have the programs they need right in their own neighborhood school.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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