Segregation by any other name

March 20, 2013

New York City's "gifted and talented" program is a justification for tracking students.

In the whole world you know
There's a billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted, and Black.
And that's a fact!

SORRY NINA Simone, but the New York City Department of Education disagrees.

While African Americans and Latinos make up two-thirds of the children in the city's public elementary schools, they are barely a quarter of the students in the city's gifted and talented (G&T) programs. Only six students qualified last year in the South Bronx's entire school district. By comparison, in the two districts covering Manhattan south of Harlem, over 6,000 students make the grade.

The New York Times pointed out that in these wealthy parts of the city, "more students scored at or above the 90th percentile on the entrance exam, the cutoff point, than scored below it." Compared to the Upper West Side, Garrison Keillor's bucolic fictional town from National Public Radio--where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average"--is downright mediocre. Shut down Lake Wobegon High!

The phrase "gifted and talented" suggests classrooms of extraordinary children-–perhaps even X-Men-style mutants--who need a unique environment of super-collider labs and isolated writers' cabins to reach their amazing potential.

Actually, G&T admission is based on standardized tests, which primarily measure the ability of a young child to sit still, follow instructions, and have a parent with the time and energy to know about the test and read children's stories aloud each night. Sure, I know many teachers who would view working in a school full of such children as a great gift, but we're not exactly talking about A Beautiful Mind here.

The rhetoric about "gifted and talented" is really a nice justification for tracking students. It's one of many programs in New York City, which has abandoned the concept of the neighborhood high school, that are supposed to empower families by giving them a choice of schools. Free-market education advocates like Chester Finn make "school choice" sound like the most logical idea in the world:

It is crazy to think that every school in America is right for every child in America. Schools are supposed to be different from each other. They specialize. Some work better for some kids, and others work better for other kids. If you're not musically talented, there is not much point in going to a music-centric charter school....Some should specialize in smart kids, some should specialize in violin players, some should specialize in disabled kids, some should specialize in kids who adore baseball.

As Finn indicates, school choice is at least as much about schools choosing their students as students choosing their schools. As Finn doesn't indicate--and school choice advocates rarely do--when all the choosing is finished, violin playing and baseball adoring seem to have less correlation to what school you end up in than the color of your skin.

Schools across the country are more segregated today than they were when segregation was legal in the 1950s. It's odd that Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who routinely refers to improving education as "the new civil rights movement," seems unconcerned that we're going backward from what the old civil rights movement was fighting for. Duncan hasn't made racial integration one of the criteria for his Race to the Top program, and none of the other prominent "education reformers," like Michelle Rhee or the Gates Foundation, have made it a priority either.

In New York City, home of education reformer/media baron/multibillionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the official response to the news about racial disparity in the city's Gifted and Talented program was a shrug.

"Let's be clear," Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott told the Wall Street Journal. "Just because they don't qualify for 'gifted and talented' doesn't mean they're not getting a high-quality education. Those who may not qualify for gifted and talented or just don't bother to take the test, they have high-quality schools, and that's our overall goal."

In other words, says the man who used to be the head of the New York Urban League, the separate schools that kids of color attend are not necessarily unequal.

If Walcott's response seemed straight out of the 1950s, he went for more of a '60s vibe in the same interview, saying that segregation in G&T schools "is what it is." Hey man, I don't stress over institutionalized structures of racial and class oppression. It brings down my vibe.

Education reformers are tireless fighters for civil rights when it comes to the closing of schools and scapegoating of teachers, but they lose interest when actual racial justice issues don't mesh with their agenda. If there were tanks rolling down U.S. streets in support of bilingual education and giving raises to experienced African American teachers, I honestly think that Michelle Rhee would risk her life to lie down in front of those tanks. But systematic and widespread segregation? Yawn.

Dennis Walcott is technically correct that racial exclusion in G&T is what it is--although it would have been really trippy and dialectical to say that it is what it isn't. But that's not a very useful observation. It would be more relevant for the chancellor to point out that this segregation has gotten worse as a result of the Bloomberg administration's decision four years ago to make G&T programs based solely on tests scores, and not on the discretion of district officials.

Bloomberg and Walcott routinely demand that teachers produce measurable improvement in student test scores regardless of their students' living conditions, and they dismiss any objections that this is unrealistic as whiny excuses. But here we have test results that can't be blamed on teachers because the G&T exam is given to children before they've even started school.

I suppose the administration could try to scapegoat thousands of aunties and abuelitas who care for pre-school kids while their parents are at work because the city's pre-kindergarten program is woefully short of seats. But I imagine that even Michael Bloomberg doesn't want to mess with those ladies. Instead, the city simply refused to release any racial data about the G&T until it was legally obligated by a public records requests by the Wall Street Journal.

OH, BY the way, the racial bias of the G&T--which finds white children to be three times as likely to be gifted as Black children and seven times as likely as Latino children--also proves that admissions tests are a sham. After all, even if you believe that there's some measurable notion of unique ability, then you will seek--if you're not a Nazi--proof of your tests' validity precisely in the fact that they find roughly equal numbers of gifted kids across the city's vast racial and economic divides.

This isn't unusual. The education reformers and corporate lobbyists push all sorts of high-stakes test that are riddled with errors. Seattle teachers have boycotted the MAP test in part because "the margin of error is greater than expected gains." Houston and New York have used--and published--teacher evaluation tests that have a margin of error of over 50 percent.

Meaning that the test itself would fail most tests.

The fact that education officials are so passionate about imposing these tests but then so apathetic about making sure they're accurate is revealing. They like standardized tests because they produce "data"--valid or not. Data concentrates authority and decision-making power in the hands of politicians and business, and takes it away from educators.

Even Gifted and Talented programs aren't immune from the power grab. This month, Queens residents were shocked to find out that the city plans to drastically reduce a popular local G&T with no community input--reportedly to accommodate the plans of Bloomberg ally Eva Moscowitz to open up two charter schools in the neighborhood.

These parents and teachers are finding out the same lesson as thousands of others in less fortunate but equally vital schools facing closure by Bloomberg's unelected Panel for Educational Policy: Democracy and community control matter.

We need to wrest control of our schools away from the modern-day segregationists, and put it in the hands of parents and teachers who believe that all children have talents and gifts that need to be nurtured, rather than ranked.

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