New York City’s Segregated Classrooms Hurt All Students

New York City’s Segregated Classrooms Hurt All Students

Only 10% of public-school districts in the U.S. sort children as young as 4 years old into separate gifted-and-talented classrooms and schools. Unfortunately, New York City, the nation’s largest district, is among them.

At the 11th hour of his administration, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an overhaul of this program, which uses standardized tests to track children even before they enter kindergarten. But his successor will be responsible for making sure a much-needed course correction is carried out.

The obvious reason for making the change, which leaves the city’s selective high schools untouched, is that the system worsens racial and economic segregation. Three-quarters of the students enrolled in gifted-and-talented programs are White or Asian. Meanwhile, 70% of all New York City students are Black or Hispanic, and a majority attend schools where less than 10% of their classmates are White.

What comes next in New York could serve as a lesson for cities and states around the country that are grappling with what kind of education to offer their most-advanced students. While people are unlikely to flee New York and other liberal cities for the suburbs just because a gifted-and-talented system might morph into something more equitable, any change in these programs will have to be accompanied by curriculums that both appeal to middle-class families and benefit all children; otherwise segregation might only get worse.

De Blasio’s likely successor, Eric Adams, says he favors expanding gifted-and-talented programs, rather than getting rid of them — though he, too, wants to eliminate testing as the sole means of sorting students. Whichever route New York City chooses, one thing is clear: Overhauling the system is only likely to work if the city abandons its standardized approach to education.

Unfortunately, changes in gifted-and-talented programs are taking place amid competing mandates aimed at measuring and mitigating the “learning loss” that occurred during more than a year of stultifying online instruction. These efforts are chewing up time and resources.

Most recently, the de Blasio administration mandated controversial new standardized screening tests that teachers must administer three times a year in grades K-12. That’s in addition to state- and federally mandated tests, and new mandatory curriculums.

Instead, New York should make it easier for schools to tailor curriculums — and assessments — to different cohorts of students, such as those seeking, say, concentrations in the arts or sciences, or those focusing on technology, including programming and robotics. And they must have the flexibility to target and foster the range of skills and interests of individual children within the same classroom.

One approach that has proved successful would be to encourage schools to build curriculums around real-world projects and explorations for students of different interests and abilities. The benefits of this idea have already led to shifts in statewide assessments in New Hampshire and Vermont, the project-based requirements of the new AP U.S. government and politics course, and a rethinking of Regents exams taken by high school students in New York.

A Manhattan middle school, West Side Collaborative, surveys students about their interests and tailors lessons accordingly. The result is not dumbed-down education. One science unit asks students to imagine they are ecologist-oceanographers hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and to propose solutions to the Pacific Trash Vortex, a Texas-sized mass of garbage in the Pacific.

The project teaches students to do research, generate relevant data, develop an argument and create a Google presentation on their findings. It also provides leeway for students of varied abilities to pursue different avenues of inquiry.

Of course, giving students the guidance they need to make such lessons successful requires individualized attention that is difficult to offer in classrooms with over 30 students, which are typical in many city schools.

A challenge of this kind of instruction is that it asks students to tackle questions that often have multiple plausible answers. It also requires teachers to have deep subject-matter knowledge, which is not always the case, especially where instructors are assigned to classes outside their area of expertise, and during times of teacher shortages.

The much-lauded New York State Performance Standards Consortium, a group of about 40 schools that decades ago was allowed to replace most standardized tests with projects focused on writing, problem-solving and research, relies on in-depth teacher training. Consortium schools pair new teachers with veterans who observe their classroom instruction and offer help with lessons. Teachers also attend subject-matter seminars at other schools in the group.

Scaling such efforts may seem daunting. But the Biden administration’s stimulus funding — including $122 billion for K-12 education already passed by Congress in its latest rescue plan — provides an opportunity to address options that have long eluded cash-strapped schools. Much of the money is targeted to mitigating “learning loss,” especially for poor children, but districts are being given leeway to decide how to spend the money. Some of the resources are earmarked for teacher training.

This could open the way for cities like New York to channel funds to enrichment — music, art, chess — that will benefit all students. In the interim, New York schools should provide students opportunities to take advanced classes within schools.

But they should avoid sorting, say, advanced-placement students into the same segregated classes and social groupings. One solution is for schools to bring together heterodox groups of students with the same adviser to discuss everything from social issues to college planning — an approach that builds camaraderie among students and relationships with teachers.

As students get older and develop distinct learning styles and talents, the city can offer specialized programs and even selective high schools. But its leaders must do a better job ensuring that all students have access.

One model is Chicago, which notifies every student eligible to take the specialized high school tests, and reserves a majority of slots for the top performers in four socioeconomic tiers. This ensures that students from the poorest ZIP codes have access to the most selective schools.

New York City — with its wealth, ambition, diversity and liberal politics — has no excuse for the segregation of its schools. A few years ago, taking baby steps toward integration, the city permitted several schools to set aside a portion of their seats to ensure a diverse mix of students — for example, for students still learning English or for those with incarcerated parents. Not surprisingly, several of these schools promote the kinds of non-traditional, real-world learning experiences that are popular among middle-class families. It’s an approach the next mayor should pursue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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