What is Gifted and Talented?
The Dirty Little Secret of G&T Schools
Think of anything which you are good at. It does not need to be academic. It doesn’t matter if it is baseball or sewing or fixing a car, so long as it is something anybody can learn and a bit of natural aptitude doesn’t hurt. We all have something. Pick yours and think about it for a moment.
Now picture being in a class learning it. Except, you are already good at it and the rest of the class are novices. Maybe you learnt it quickly, or maybe you just happen to have started earlier, but however you got there, you are now in a class where your skill level is above everyone else’s. Maybe just a little, maybe even a lot. Either way, you are good enough that you are not learning anything new in your class.
Should the teacher focus on you and ignore the 30 other students?
More than likely, any decent teacher will mostly focus on where the bulk of the students are at in learning. Being the student who knows the material already, you don’t need any help, obviously.
You don’t need any help for that particular class, maybe, but is that fair to you? Are you learning anything at all? Or are you effectively being left behind, kept stagnant, not learning anything at all while the rest of the class catches up?
Now spend an entire year repeating all the novice material you already excel at, over and over and over and over to the point of mind numbing boredom. A big league player forever in the minors, a pattern maker being shown how to hem a skirt, shown how to fix another flat because your partner can’t even replace a brake pad.
Studying for tests becomes pointless. Would you waste your time doing homework to “learn” something you are already good at? Grades would reflect your boredom more than your ability. If you were paying to not learn anything, you would even consider dropping the class altogether.
But what happens when your peers are all of similar ability?
Now the teacher can focus on your ability level. You can learn new things in class because the whole class is ready to learn new things. Your classmates push you to be better instead of struggling with things you already know. All kids at all levels will get the focused differentiated learning they need to improve the most, so all kids will excel.
All the rhetoric labeling Gifted and Talented programs as “elitist” or a “privilege” or an “enrichment” miss the entire concept. It is a grouping of students with similar ability to teach at their level. That’s it.
We are talking about public schools. Not charter schools. Not private schools. Not after school programs. Public schools, which share the same basic standard as other public schools. All students in the class must be helped to learn the same material. The only difference is that by grouping advanced learners together, they can be taught at their ability. So many of those attacking G&T education don’t seem to either understand or acknowledge that fundamental point.
They all learn the same curricula as all public school students, but if they all can learn a topic quickly, then the class can move on to the next topic without having to wait for anyone going at the normal pace. This can only happen when advanced learners are grouped together.
Calling them “sequestered” is a scary rhetorical device, but we already do the exact same thing with different grades, with special needs kids, or even with all kids when we separate each subject. You don’t force all math and all reading and all science to be in the exact same lesson at the exact same moment. You separate them to focus the lesson.
All students get a better quality education when it is tailored to their ability level.
To put a kindergartener with a second or third grade reading level in a kindergarten class full of kids still learning the alphabet, is the equivalent of being left back a year as a punishment for being smart. That is no different than bullying.
Some kids study harder than others to get better. Some just take to subjects naturally. But once they are at a certain level, should they not be taught to what they know and can learn?
Forcing kids to share a class with students of lower ability does nothing but hurt the G&T student. Imagine taking your team’s player who hits the most home runs and sending them back to the minors, or a garage firing their only mechanic who can rebuild a transmission blindfolded.
Actually, it’s worse. The outliers always get bullied in school. Look at how resentful “mature” adults are towards G&T students right now with the incessant attacks on G&T programs and specialized high schools, and imagine forcing these kids to have to endure facing that resentment every single day from a class full of kids not as advanced as them. No, not dumb, just not on the same level so that the advanced kid outshines everyone else in that class.
Now consider a few anecdotal examples. Yes these are outliers, but that’s the function of G&T — how to handle the outliers in the system.
I was always good at math and logic. As in, my parents would buy flashcards, and I would finish the set in one sitting then start writing my own. Around five years old, I found my dad’s college algebra books and asked him to show me. He gave me a simple explanation of a variable and I just started from there reading and doing the examples on my own. I didn’t finish the text, but made it a few chapters before I got bored and went back to beating the teenager next door at Monopoly.
I don’t remember ever needing to study for a single math test until college. I usually didn’t even bother to do the homework. Some teachers tried being strict, but would use fallacies like telling me I needed to do homework to get better test scores when I was getting 95s and 100s, essentially saying I did not need to do homework but then dock my report card for lack of homework. Other classes I would just sleep through the whole class, and only stay awake for tests.
For reading, it never held my interest and I was academically a year behind until third or fourth grade when my mother tried Dungeons & Dragons books and I shot up to college level practically overnight.
Simply put, I was never pushed and have nothing to show for this academically. My career as a software engineer was self taught from this math skill, and only went to college later on to get the resume line for interviews. And I was bullied, a lot, throughout all of school from my earliest memories through senior year of high school.
Contrast this with my daughter.
She read her first word before she was two. We taught her the alphabet and she just started sounding out letters into words on her own, long before we thought she would be ready. Shortly after she once put all her peas in a circle around the edge of her plate and started counting straight through to 100, only pausing for help with words for fifty and higher tens.
In UPK, she would come home complaining about being bored almost daily. When I spoke with her teacher, she said she would have my daughter read to the other students at times, but the teacher still needed to do most of the reading and focus on the alphabet for the sake of the other students. This was actually a quite good teacher who did very well for her students, but she was constrained to take care of the students she had in her class.
What did we as parents do? We read to her, the same books all parents read to their kids, every day. All kids are sponges for knowledge, she just absorbed everything a little faster.
She got a top score on the G&T test and was selected to attend a citywide G&T school. There, her classmates compete on things like reading level. She is not even the most advanced reader in her class. The teacher can have the class read at several grade levels above, constantly pushing to get better, while keeping them focused on age appropriate maturity development because that is the ability of the entire class.
I’m not even sure of her reading level right now but around her seventh birthday she finished reading the Harry Potter series. The first book was us reading to her, but the last one was her doing the reading.
If you put her in a non G&T class, she would learn nothing. Even if she was skipped a grade, she would still be above the class’ average reading level and would likely get bored. A bored kid in school does not learn, and likely slips in grades or even starts having attendance and behavior issues. Using grades in place of a test for an advanced learner already in a class below their ability will only further hold them back.
I already see this happening to my second daughter. Between two and a half to three years old, when most kids are going from 2–3 word sentences to 4–5 word sentences, she went straight to 14+ word multi-fragment sentences and improvising ten minute long songs. But her U3K teachers were completely unaware of this, even went so far as to recommend a developmental specialist, until we were once late picking her up and they were forced to deal with her outside of the class group of normal toddler ability while waiting for us and got exposed to just how articulate she is.
A Look at the NYC Department of Education’s grading policy for the remote learning during the COVID -19 pandemic proves they understand grades do not always fairly reflect ability or intelligence as they are heavily tainted by the situation of the student’s learning and a teacher’s bias, and that taint applies equally to G&T kids held back in a non G&T environment.
The truth is some students learn faster than others. Yes, even at four or five years old the differences in ability are already there. To deny this is to deny reality and directly harm such kids. Should a kid be permanently held back because they did not exhibit their skills by the test at four years old? Of course not. There should be a path into the program at every age.
But ask the same question the other way: Should a kid be permanently held back when they do exhibit their skills by the test at four years old? Because that is exactly what eliminating all G&T programs will do to children.
If you want to take what works and spread it around, then by all means let’s take a good look at the existing citywide G&T schools.
So what exactly is Gifted and Talented?
Yes, they have enrichments but those are supplemental. You can supplement every school at every level with enrichments. This does not replace G&T but borrows something they do which can work for all kids. They are lessons not focused on the academics tested against: chess, foreign languages, robotics, athletics, etc. Actually, most schools do a lot of these already, but can always be expanded. The big difference is that the NYC Department of Education does not fund enough of these. At citywide G&T schools, even predominantly low income schools, the PTA does extensive fundraising to ensure these programs are maintained. If the proposal was merely for the DOE to properly fund these programs at all schools, it would get very strong support from the G&T parents like me. But to say enrichments are G&T is outright false.
Other things G&T schools do include project based learning and class field trips. These are all things other schools either are or should be doing. It is important to include learning methods which do not involve strict testing so these are integrated throughout the lesson plan.
But the most significant thing G&T schools do, is measure kids’ ability and teach the most advanced learners separately, putting kids of like ability together. That is Gifted and Talented education, simply put.
So what is the problem with having G&T? The problem is not only that certain kids don’t get into these programs, it’s that lots of kids who need them do not.
At the kindergarten level, there are barely 10% the number of seats, across all citywide G&T schools, compared to the number of eligible kids tested to show highest G&T ability. Out of roughly 100,000 kids at each grade (counting public and private schools) 3,000 kids meet the top 3% score eligibility to get into a citywide G&T yet there are only 300 seats across all schools. Even with the 20% going to private schools discounted, that is still a shortfall of over 2,000 seats for kindergarten alone, which rounds to about a 2 class per grade school needed in every single district. Adding those seats in each district would immediately resolve the diversity issues leveled at the current G&T schools.
It is not inclusive enough because the program is not big enough to accommodate all the eligible kids or even represent a fair sampling. Instead of arguing who gets access to those limited seats, or taking it away from everyone, why aren’t we discussing making the program available to all the students who need it?
If the argument is that there are not enough black and Hispanic kids getting into the program, you need to start with making sure there are enough seats for them, not making less seats. The city will pay to educate each student regardless of program the child is in so it costs nothing to expand citywide G&T schools so we can shift over all G&T students into them. Repurposing one school per district requires the minimal amount of reshuffling to get a more diverse group of kids into the program. This is actually a zero sum equation in the best way possible — a more appropriate education for all kids for the same cost.
Additionally, every single district school across the city should have a district G&T program to accommodate the next 7% of students eligible for those program. Why were they removed from largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods? It’s as if kids in those neighborhoods were setup to fail by the DOE and told residents of other districts are somehow the problem. And expanding this will directly solve the Specialized High School diversity issue by giving the underrepresented groups in every school in the city the preparatory education they need but are currently lacking.
More seats dedicated to group the kids by learning ability. That’s the secret sauce and it will work everywhere if it is provided everywhere. Having a citywide level G&T school in each district and district level G&T program in each school with enough seats reserved for each skill level is the solution.
How do you determine who is an advanced learner? Some say it should be an IQ test. Some say the test should be grades at earlier levels. Whatever the metric, it must be tested against in an unbiased way.
Of course the test can and should be prepared for, but here’s a dirty little secret about the G&T test prep. It’s available to all parents, tutoring is so cheap it is mostly used by poor immigrant families, and it’s largely ineffective. The biggest benefit is that is that a child can experience the format of sitting through a test administered by a stranger, and hear the format of the questions, before the actual test. But that’s it. It doesn’t make the kid any smarter, it makes the kid more comfortable in the situation. Every kid should run through a practice test at least once, and the parents can get a broad expectation of performance. There is no reading or math. Don’t expect excessive prep work to change the outcome because the test is not trivia to be studied for. A few hours of their parent’s time is not privilege, it’s a standard component of any child’s growth and learning.
If parents find it important to share test prep with all, then why not allot a few hours of the U3K & UPK lesson plan for it? That would give every child in the city a completely fair playing field regardless of privilege or how effective test prep is. Instead of forbidding preschoolers from being taught writing, they should be given an opportunity to shine — while simultaneously negating any effects of privilege upon getting into the G&T program.
If you don’t use a test, then what? Personal interviews? Like that won’t bring back privileged parents bribing schools to get their kids a good seat since there is no more merit test to prove they need it. Do you think privilege won’t run roughshod over any extracurricular activities being considered? Do you really think a person’s unconscious bias is going to be less biased than purely merit based tests? Or do you want the discrimination because you hope the person with the power will go for a predetermined result, other than learning ability, that now benefits you?
What’s really bizarre is the desire to have each individual school exactly match the ethnic composition of the entire city.
Let’s seriously consider this.
As my daughter attends one of the most diverse schools in the entire city, I can personally see the advantages of a diverse class. But why should a school need to match the entire city? The city itself is highly segregated, so the root of the problem is not the schools, the schools are just a symptom. The schools reflect the neighborhood they are in. Why not reflect the borough they are in? Why not the district? Why not the neighborhood? Why not reflect the ethnic makeup of the entire state?
Redistributing students across the state so that every public school would exactly match the ethnic makeup of the state seems about as reasonable — maybe even moreso when you consider the extreme lack of diversity across New York State. Putnam Valley, for example, is 85% white and barely 1% black. Integrating Putnam Valley kids with Bronx kids would be profoundly beneficial to both groups. I’m not being sarcastic, I’m discussing how arbitrary that metric is. The point is that forcing each individual school to exactly match the ethnic composition of a larger area is not necessarily ridiculous, but it is impractical.
How far do you want them to go? How long do you want a kid’s commute to be? Do you really want all the extra vehicles driving all over the city needed to make this happen?
Now as someone who brings my kid from a predominantly white Staten Island neighborhood to an East Harlem school, I’m already on board with integration and sending kids to schools outside their immediate zoned school. But I also am keenly aware of the gaping hole in this proposal. The DOE refuses to provide busing for students attending a school outside their borough. For all the rhetoric about integrating schools across the city, the chancellor does not walk the walk and provide the actual busing necessary to make it happen.
G&T schools do not match the exact demographic composition of the city but neither do any other schools in the city.
There is no “diversity” proposal to shut down every public school which is not diverse, the mayor and chancellor are only picking on G&T schools. But if we want them all to be the same, we must address them the same. If we are not shutting down every school which is not integrated then to only shut down the G&T schools for that reason is discriminatory. If we are not providing education to each kid for their learning ability then it is not equitable.
There are many kids being unfairly left out of this program. Closing it down does not give them access. Giving them a small piece of the program and dismissively telling them it’s the same thing is not giving them access. Taking the model proven to work in practice and replicating it everywhere is the only way to give kids everywhere access.
When you understand that Gifted and Talented programs boil down to letting all the smartest kids — of any and every race — sit together, then you realize that burning down the system helps no one, yet expanding it across the city is trivially easy.