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18th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 18, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Gifted and talented programs are the third rail of the politics of education in New York. These programs are popular in the neighborhoods where they still exist. Most have fallen to the leveler’s ax years ago. The former deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana K. Lam, may have sealed her fate when she suggested that the Department of Education was re-evaluating them. The outcry made her a political liability.

The recent disclosure that a secret panel was studying the issue precipitated the introduction of a bill in the City Council to protect and expand the programs, introduced by Council Member Lewis Fidler.
The mayor got the message that something had to be done, and in his State of the City speech last month he announced that there would be a new policy.But the failure to disband the panel, referred to by the educrats at Tweed as a “think tank,” reinforced fears that the new policy would not be good news. The participation of University of Connecticut professor Joseph Renzulli on the panel ensured that the outcome would not meet the expectations of most parents. Mr. Renzulli does not believe in the selective gifted programs they demand.

The administration is often tone-deaf to educational policy. The New York Times poll released earlier this week showed that 68% of those surveyed disapproved of Mr. Bloomberg’s handling of education, his signature issue. Among parents, the figure is worse: A quarter of those with children in the public schools give the mayor a thumbs-up on this issue.

As soon as the results of the deliberations were made public, it was clear that the politicians weren’t buying. Early criticism of the gifted and talented plan came from Council Member Eva Moskowitz, the chairwoman of the council’s education committee who is running for president of Manhattan, and two legislators from Brooklyn, Mr. Fidler and State Senator Carl Kruger.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, criticized the lack of transparency of the process,which to her puts the enterprise under suspicion.

The changes were announced by Deputy Chancellor Carmen Fariña at Hunter College Wednesday evening. Ms. Fariña does not come to this table with clean hands. Critics of educational policy coming from District 2 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side blame her and the former superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, for watering down the gifted program at P.S. 6, where she served as principal, and the other schools in the district during the 1990s.

For my part,I see the “gifted”plan as being too deceptive,complex,and cast in the future to serve the needs of academically advanced students. They have been shortchanged long enough.

Programs in place will be kept, a sop to the political realities of this re-election year.

Going forward, there will be two approved models. One, a self-contained classroom model, appears to conform to a traditional gifted and talented prototype. But only 12 such programs will be established citywide in September. Why so few, and how will they be apportioned?

The second model, a school-wide enrichment model, will be put in place in 30 schools in September. But this is not a gifted and talented program. Rather, it comes from the inclusive mind of Mr. Renzulli. That this model is to be placed in two-and-a-half times as many schools speaks volumes about the priorities at Tweed.

The idea of enrichment programs should be the right of children of all academic abilities. It should be put in every school, beginning this September. This is the program that should be funded with the $175 million in private donations the administration has raised.

And if the mayor and chancellor are serious about restoring appropriate education to academically advanced students, it too can be done this September at little extra cost. Simply restore the concept of homogenous class groupings that allow teachers to work with students of similar academic abilities. Instead of teaching to the middle and not properly serving the needs of those at the top and the bottom, children can receive instruction appropriate for their level.

Mr. Fidler pointed out to me that if we can rezone the entire West Side in a matter of months, why will it take until September 2007 to put testing in place for early childhood admission to gifted programs?

No test will be perfect, and the issue of race and class will assuredly be raised.You can wait until the year 2107 and these same issues will dog us. It is time to move past that. There are enough evaluation devices on the shelf today. We can evolve better tools incrementally, but the time to start is now.

I am sure that when it came to their own children, the mayor, chancellor, and Ms. Fariña were not content to wait. They should not ask our brightest children to wait, either.

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

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