Getting rid of gifted programs: Trying to teach students at all levels together in one class
Districts are eliminating gifted and talented classifications to try serving students of various academic abilities in integrated classrooms. In some places, it’s working — but schools also face unanticipated challenges
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ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y. — It was 7:58 a.m., and Bruce Hecker’s 12th grade English class at South Side High School had the focused attention of a college seminar, with little chitchat or sluggishness despite the early hour. Students discussed the relevance of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” to the McCarthy hearings and to current competing fears of terrorism and technological surveillance.
The conversation that morning in December 2019 followed the lead of the seven or eight most vocal students. Occasionally, Hecker interrupted to encourage participation from a handful of students who receive support services to keep up with the class’s rigorous curriculum.
The students Hecker called on hesitated, cleared their throats and said “um.” But when they did speak, their comments were clear and cogent.
“If you’re a kid and you break a vase,” one student reflected on the theme of scapegoating in Miller’s play, “you don’t get these concepts. But your first thought is still to blame the dog.” His peers laughed in appreciation.
More than 30 years ago, Rockville Centre began a gradual but determined effort to do away with gifted classes in its elementary schools as well as many of the tracked classes at the middle and high schools. The goal wasn’t to eliminate all tracking, South Side Principal John Murphy said. Upperclassmen can still choose to take more challenging math, science and foreign language classes. It was, instead, to avoid creating a caste system by assigning students to remedial, average or advanced classes before they’d had a chance to develop their academic potential.
Those assignments often became self-fulfilling prophecies even though they didn’t always accurately reflect students’ abilities. This can have a long-term impact; the rigor of high school courses has been found to be the No. 1 predictor of college success. In Rockville Centre, tracked classes also led to racial and economic segregation in a high school where a fifth of the nearly 1,100 students are Black or Latino and the rest of the student body is nearly entirely white.
Early on, administrators found that many Black and Latino students and students from low-income families avoided the most challenging classes even after being given the option to enroll in them. So now, some of South Side’s college-level classes, like Hecker’s 12th grade English, are not only open to all, but also required.
Around the country, gifted and talented programs have come under fire for exacerbating school systems’ already stark racial and economic segregation. In 2019 in New York City, a group commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, The School Diversity Advisory Group, recommended doing away with all gifted and talented programs, while that same year Seattle attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate its programs as a way to alleviate school segregation. Screens used to select students for high performing schools and advanced classes based on grades and test scores also face mounting criticism for exacerbating segregation. Last winter, a district near Philadelphiaagreed to reduce its number of tracked classes at the middle and high school levels and increase access to Advanced Placement courses in response to a discrimination lawsuit brought by parents..
The children in America’s gifted education programs don’t look like the overall school population. They’re disproportionately white and wealthy, while Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income students are often left out. In this series, The Hechinger Report examines racial inequity in gifted classes and what schools are doing to fix it.
But some educators, parents and students worry about what might replace screened classes and accelerated programs. Is it possible, they wonder, to teach all students at all levels together in one class? And, if it is, will teachers receive the support they need to succeed?
“I have gone to a lot of conferences about educational diversity that were held during the weekday during the school year,” said Amy Stuart Wells, professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a proponent of eliminating gifted programs. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.) “There were no teachers at these conferences. There was a lot of talk about moving kids around. There were a lot of recommendations thrown out there. But when it came to how they’d really work, the attitude was, ‘Let’s let the teachers worry about it.’ ”
Even when school systems do have a plan for how to bring students at different academic levels together while supporting and challenging each student, those plans don’t necessarily succeed at undoing long-standing racial and economic segregation.
In Washington, D.C., new magnet schools based on the University of Connecticut’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which aims to provide special programming for students at all performance levels, have been met with enthusiasm, but so far have produced uneven outcomes in terms of improved school test scores, and have had little impact on school diversity. And while educators at South Side have good reason to point to their school’s academic success, students and parents say that pushing students so hard to excel takes an emotional toll, and have demanded less rigor. Some have even asked for a return to more tracking.