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30th November
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, November 30, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg, outlining early in his tenure his program to “fix”the schools, asserted that there were “no good old days, just old days.”The Boston-educated billionaire was wrong.There was a time when New York’s schools were the envy of the nation, nurturing the talents of the highest-performing students.Yet the remnant of what was once one of the most successful programs to develop the talents of gifted and talented New York children is under fire.

During the “good old days,” homogeneous class groupings by ability began in the earliest grades.Classes were grouped rigorously,the “one class” of the brightest children, the “two class” the next highest, and so on. The designations were abandoned in the early 1960s. Homogenous classes have since been eliminated by the “progressive” educators who now control the system.
They favor a “heterogenous” classroom structure that includes children of all abilities. Common sense tells us that few teachers can juggle this wide spectrum of student needs, but this is trumped by the progressives’ view that “self esteem” is more important than achievement.

Also abandoned was the “SP program,” an accelerated course of study that permitted bright students to “skip”the eighth grade in junior high school. Typically, in ninth grade, bright students would take the competitive examination for the three specialized high schools. Even those who failed to win admission to these schools, established by a visionary mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, had options.

By the early 1970s,the criteria for admission at the “specialized” high schools was almost abolished. Because the three schools were disproportionately populated by white students, just as they are by Asian-Americans today, they were viewed as racist.Had it not been for the State Senator John D.Calandra,now deceased,and Assemblyman Burton Hecht, no longer in office, these schools would have fallen to what Heather Mac Donald calls “the leveler’s axe.”The results of the elimination of other gifted and talented programs has had a negative effect on our city and over the years has driven tens,perhaps hundreds, of thousands of middle-class families from New York.I learned this firsthand in District 10 in the northwest Bronx,where I have lived all of my life.

In 1993, Irma Zardoya, a “progressive” educator,became the superintendent of District 10 and moved to eliminate the remaining homogenous classes, gifted programs, and honors classes. Ten years later,the number of students gaining admission to the specialized high schools has declined by 80%,even as the student population of the district increased by 25%. When I raised this with Chancellor Klein, he suggested that it was the result of “middle-class flight.” He has it backwards. Middle-class flight was caused by the ill-conceived public policy that undermined programs directed at academically advanced students.

The elected Community School Board went to the mat with Ms. Zardoya to reverse this trend and began to make some slight progress. But Ms. Zardoya was able to delay implementation of a real gifted and talented program, finally putting into place what she termed an “enrichment and talent development”program,designed to broaden the definition of what it means to be gifted to include almost everyone.

These ideas come from a theorist named Joseph Renzulli, a professor now affiliated with the University of Connecticut.That is why the disclosure recently that a committee — formed in secret, whose membership is mostly unknown, except for Mr. Renzulli — will restructure the city’s gifted and talented programs has caused so much fear among the city’s public-school parents.They have good reason for concern. These “inclusive” enrichment programs must not be confused with true, selective, gifted and talented education. The elected community school board that tried to hold Ms. Zardoya’s feet to the fire is now history. Ms.Zardoya has been promoted and is now one of the city’s 10 Regional Superintendents. That there is no recourse or respite from these ideas is evidenced by the recent involvement of Mr. Renzulli. But Mr. Bloomberg can begin to reassure parents that he indeed supports gifted and talented programs by ending the city’s relationship with the likes of Mr. Renzulli and his crowd. If he fails to do so,there are others waiting in the wings to step into the breech.

City Councilman Lewis Fidler of Brooklyn has introduced a bill in the council that would mandate gifted programs for the top 10% of students in each district.This is a politically correct device that inadvertently serves the agenda of opponents of gifted and talented education. It specifically discriminates against groups and neighborhoods that have large concentrations of children performing at high levels.Gifted and talented education needs to serve high-performing individual students, wherever they may live and from whatever ethnic group they come. That means defining academically advanced children by uniform objective criteria,and making sure we deliver those services to them on an individual basis. Would we only provide special education services to a fixed percentage of children in each district? Why are gifted children any different? Don’t they deserve the services they need?

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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