Much of the discussion surrounding New York City’s school segregation problem has focused not on serious policy moves involving school integration* for the nation’s largest district but rather on maximizing school choice and improving quality.
The city’s education department still has not taken into full account research evidence showing that school integration leads to positive social and academic benefits for all students, while school choice spurs more segregation.
Meanwhile, another type of school segregation occurring within the city’s schools has received much less focus in the media and popular press: The type of segregation caused by school-within-school gifted and talented programs.
These programs act as a magnet to attract higher-income, white families to the public school system and increase achievement levels. Since the Bloomberg and Klein policy regime supported these programs and pushed to expand the number of programs across the city, the education department has used a single standardized test score to admit students to these high-status programs.
The admissions policy is also based on the faulty premise that all parents will get their children tested and apply. As a result, the city’s gifted programs remain disproportionately white, Asian and higher-income. General education programs housed within these same schools, however, tend to enroll a majority of low-income children of color. This practice can by default, desegregate schools at the building level. It can also have the unintended consequence of segregating students by race, class and perceived academic ability inside schools.
Related: Can schools create gifted students?
Gifted and talented education has become a highly contested political debate in New York City with prominent public officials starting to question the value of separate programs for these students. This is partly a result of recent media attention about the persistence of segregation in these systems, as well as the 2014 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project naming New York City schools as the most segregated in the country. Critics of the programs generally cite the negative effects of curricular tracking, such as disparities in student achievement, negative stereotypes and academic and social stigmas. They, along with the National Association for Gifted Children, argue against using a single admission score because of the stubborn correlation between standardized test scores and socioeconomic status. On the other side, program advocates say homogeneous groupings of students are easier to teach, and that “America’s future depends on gifted students.” Some of these same advocates tend to blame lower-income families for program inequality, instead of blaming the admissions policies themselves.
My recently published book on this topic, Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs, explores how a diverse group of parents make sense of as well as interact with a gifted program — composed of 82 percent white and Asian students — in their local New York City public school, particularly after making school choices based on where they see their children fitting into a school that is sharply divided by these structures.
Over a three-year time period, I conducted in-depth interviews with more than 50 parents in both gifted and general education programs. I found that if given the choice, the vast majority of parents would prefer to enroll their children in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools and classrooms. A full 86 percent of parents interviewed admitted they did not believe the gifted tests adequately measured “giftedness” as the education department defines the term, nor that their own children were “gifted” even if they “passed” the test. Despite their criticisms of the system, white parents continue to test and retest their children for the program because they see it as a pathway to educational advantage and because they feel diverse school options are very limited.
For instance, when asked what attracts parents to the gifted program, one white, upper-middle-class mother remarked that the school is known for being an “entry point” into the gifted middle school program in the district, “which everyone is concerned about.” She added that the middle school in turn seems to be a feeder into the better high schools, and that what detracts parents from the school is that it “pulls heavily from the housing projects into the gen ed program … and that’s where the supposed segregation comes in because it feels like part community school and part selective school.” In contradictory ways, most white parents were striving for the majority white program. Yet they also wished that the school would mix students up in the classrooms to become “one school” instead of two.
General ed parents of color voiced similar critiques when they said that gifted programs are being used as a way to “divide” students by race and class. Most black and Latino parents in my book did not enroll their children in the gifted program, however, because they did not get a high enough score on the test (if they were tested in preschool), they did not know about the program, and/or they did not want their child to be the only person of color in the classroom. As one working class Latina mother in the book explained, “the real problem is the lack of diversity.” She added that “it’s not just the feeling of segregation with the students that is bad, but the parents can feel it too … It’s a problem because it just doesn’t feel like a community.” White parents were also critical of the segregation, saying that when the programs are “purely divided” by race and class, “it adds this really negative culture at the school and sets kids up for who they think they are as a student.”
Additionally, there were 17 white parents in the book whose child was enrolled in the general ed program only, and nine parents who had children in both programs at the same time. This group of white general education parents felt out of place in the school because the programs are so segregated.
In fact, the negative stigma of the general ed label in terms of parent involvement levels, student behavior and their child’s perceived intelligence is a primary factor in parents’ decisions to have their child retested for the gifted program. They also perceive that their future educational opportunities will be diminished if they do not get their child in the program. This causes self-induced anxiety and pressure to be considered a “good parent” who pays for costly test prep services, not only for gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school; parents are also reportedly paying for tutoring for the fourth grade and seventh grade standardized tests that are used for middle school and high school admissions decisions.
Ultimately, the main argument in my book is that this policy context sets parents up to make difficult decisions which ultimately result in “winners” and “losers.” Prior research portrays middle-class parents’ ability to secure educational advantage as fairly easy, but ignores how education can be a scarce commodity. Thus, some middle-class parents’ victories come at the expense not just of lower-income parents, but also other middle-class parents who are jockeying for a competitive program seat. I also found that compared to when I first interviewed parents in 2011, there is less talk among parents about phasing the program out and less concern about the segregation that the system maintains, due to the increasing popularity and competitiveness of the gifted program. Like the current policy focus on creating high quality schools (that also tend to be segregated), the discourse has shifted to whether the school should change the name of program and how a school can also make classrooms more equitable in terms of resources, rather than whether or not the division should be eliminated altogether.
I conclude that phasing out school-within-school gifted programs would alleviate some of the negative consequences of maintaining separate and unequal programs. The underlying assumption is that white advantaged parents want special programs for their children’s education, and if the department phased out district programs, it would trigger white flight from the public system. Yet this and other research shows the opposite. If given the choice, most parents would instead choose diverse and de-tracked school options.
It is time to move closer to the goal of equal opportunity in education by creating diverse schools, programs and communities. Without explicit policies to promote diversity and integration citywide, the educational system will never be able to escape the shadows of the two New Yorks that the city has unfortunately become.
Allison Roda is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University-Newark. She is also a public school advocate, a parent and the author of “Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs.”
* The city’s education department has, in special circumstances, approved admissions requirements for racial and socioeconomic balance purposes in schools when the principal and/or school community requests it.