Earlier this week, I asked Amy Hsin, a sociologist who studies education and inequality and who advised the de Blasio administration, what she made of all this. “To be generous, the idea behind replacing tests with recommendations is based on the assumption that teachers can provide a more well-rounded picture of intellect — that they can pick up things that can’t be picked up by testing,” she said.
“But the problem is, A, that teachers are not trained to know what to look for, and B, that the science does not provide clarity about the things you should be looking for in very young children. What happens in that vacuum is that teachers are just left to make things up. So they’re relying on the same historical markers that have always been used to identify intelligence — race and class.” According to federal data, Black preschool students are expelled at rates more than twice the share of their enrollment.
Last year, when the referral program was put into practice for the first time, the percentage of spots in gifted and talented kindergarten programs offered to Black and Latino children made up fewer than a quarter of the total. While this meant that more than twice as many Black and Latino students were admitted over the previous year, the last in which the standardized test was used to measure giftedness, it is still the case that they represent roughly 70 percent of the public-school system’s population.
The current plan, overseen by the city’s new education chancellor, David Banks, expands the number of gifted and talented seats in kindergarten by 100, bringing the total to 2,500. And while insuring that there will be a program in every community in the city, it also guarantees that many children will be left out. Parents still need to apply for the programs after their children are nominated, meaning that those who are too busy or simply forget or remain out of the loop will miss the opportunity for their children to join the lottery.
None of this will quiet the debates about whether gifted and talented projects are inherently unjust, whether they should be abandoned altogether or whether admissions measures ought to be rethought, something that seems self-evident if they are to remain.
A large school district in Illinois, outside of Chicago, has had success bringing its gifted and talented population in line with the communities it serves. The process combines the use of tests that measure cognitive ability and academic progress and a teacher checklist. Evaluations compare students with peers in their own school rather than across a district or against national norms. Crucially, teachers receive the kind of professional development that extends beyond a video and some support: a 45-hour course on “giftedness.”