This opinion piece first appeared in the Queens Chronicle, April 27, 2020 by Yiatin Chu, Chien Kwok and Maud Maron
One year ago the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) proposed to “discontinue the use of the Gifted & Talented admissions test” and “institute a moratorium on new Gifted & Talented programs …” in a misguided and ill-conceived plan to achieve the laudable goal of increased racial diversity in NYC public schools. The backlash from public school parents and Queens elected officials was immediate. SDAG’s chairperson, Maya Wiley (yes, the one rumored to run for mayor), tried to explain away the plain meaning of the words in the report and suggested they were not calling to end G&T. In other words, 2+2 does not always equal 4. Mayor de Blasio and his embattled school chancellor said they needed time to review. A year later, the families that depend on and seek out G&T programs for accelerated and challenging education have no certainty about the future of the program.
Decades of research and documented outcomes have demonstrated the benefits of supporting all students across the learning spectrum from those with learning disabilities to those who need acceleration. High-ability students are also students with unique needs who require support to reach their full potential.
G&T and other honors programs such as Special Progress traditionally served as a pipeline for NYC’s specialized high schools to make these top schools truly diverse. Brooklyn Tech, the largest of the original three, was over 50 percent black and Hispanic for two decades when there was a robust offering of G&T and SP programs in local schools. This historically inconvenient fact was left out of SDAG’s reports. The same anti-acceleration reformers who pushed to “detrack” schools starting in the ’90s by eliminating G&T and SP programs are now decrying the obvious consequences of their bad policy choices — fewer black and Hispanic children, especially from the neighborhoods where G&T and SP programs were shut down, are academically prepared to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test or enter other academically rigorous middle and high schools.
In hopes of fixing the very real and troubling racial disparity at NYC’s most academically accelerated schools, the “take-away” reformers seek to eliminate these much sought after programs instead of improving and expanding them.
The tactics of shaming parents and intimidating them into silence if they stand up and speak out in favor of G&T, SP and screened programs as well as specialized high schools, no longer work. All parents have the right to seek the best education possible for their child. NYC parents want diverse classrooms where their child will benefit from academically rigorous instruction while also learning with children from different socio-economic, racial and cultural backgrounds.
Each year 33,000 students take the G&T placement test; of those, 11,000 are from Queens. Despite having twice the number of qualifying G&T students each year than available seats, the city Department of Education refuses to expand the program beyond the insufficient 3,700 seats currently offered. For Queens families, there is only one citywide G&T school in Astoria with just 50 kindergarten seats for the 362 kids who scored above the 97th percentile. Many qualified students, including black, Hispanic and low income, are left out in the cold.
Close observers of the DOE have reason to worry. The G&T testing contract with Pearson was on the June 17, 2020 Panel for Educational Policy agenda. At the last minute, this $1.7 million contract was pulled, while other contracts costing several hundred million dollars were approved. It failed to make it on the July 9 or the August 19 agenda when the PEP approved the $34 billion operational budget for DOE for 2020-21.
The failure to approve a G&T contract compounds the ongoing uncertainties of school reopenings. Families are still in the dark on middle and high school admissions changes and don’t know how the SHSAT will be given this fall with social distancing accommodations.
Parents deserve as much certainty as possible in these uncertain times. Let’s do right by all our children and commit to public G&T programs.
Yiatin Chu, Chien Kwok and Maud Maron are NYC public school parents and members of Place NYC (placenyc.org), a parent-leader group advocating for high-quality, challenging education for all students.