SOURCE:WSJ.COM

Will gifted-and-talented school programs still exist in five years?

Controversy has ramped up around the longtime practice of providing accelerated classes for selected students. Racial-justice movements highlighted inequalities, prompting changes in districts across the nation. Lawsuits related to these programs are pending in states including Virginia, Missouri and New York.

Critics say gifted-and-talented classes lead to racial segregation and take resources away from other students who need them. Even some proponents say changes may be needed in methods for selecting students and in the names of these programs, which many brand as elitist.

Backers argue they are a strong selling point for public education, especially to middle-class families, and play a valuable role in educating students. Some say advances in assessing the ways that children learn, which have been helped by new technology, point toward a need for more tailored instruction, not less.

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“There’s a greater and greater understanding of the individual learning needs of students, across the board,” says Scott Peters, a research scientist at the Center for School and Student Progress at Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit that creates tests used in schools around the world. “It’s going to be harder and harder to support these ideas of, oh, let’s just have all ninth-graders learn algebra.”

Gifted and talented programs are mostly managed locally, and their content varies widely. There is no direct federal funding for them. Most states have gifted programs, but only 15 mandate them and provide funding, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. Most don’t provide guidance on how to identify gifted students, how they should be taught, or at what ages they should enter the programs. Students chosen as gifted may get accelerated lessons in classrooms shared with others not in the program, or in separate classes or schools.

New York City, the largest school district in the nation, is in the midst of a particularly heated debate. Mayor Eric Adams this year expanded gifted classes to every district in the city, just months after his predecessor moved to do away with them. The plan adds 1,000 seats to gifted classes for third graders and 100 seats for kindergarten students this fall.

At the same time, Mr. Adams got rid of an admissions test that opponents of these programs had criticized as favoring white and Asian children over Black and Hispanic students. Instead, students will be referred by teachers.

Universal screening of third-grade students for gifted eligibility will increase diversity, says New York City Chancellor David Banks.
PHOTO: THE NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
Expanding rather than eliminating the programs is a way to encourage enrollment after declines during the pandemic, says New York City Chancellor David Banks. Universal screening of third-grade students for gifted eligibility will increase diversity, he adds. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Some see this model of scrapping admissions tests and offering accelerated classes in every school as one that could take root more widely across the U.S. in coming years.

Many parents want the option of gifted programs for their kids, and the classes can be important in educating talented students, says Johns Hopkins University professor Jonathan Plucker, a past president of the National Association for Gifted Children. But, to survive, he says, the programs need an overhaul and likely a name change as well.

“I think, for some people, the term brings lots of raw feelings about elitism,” Dr. Plucker says. “Opportunities that they feel that they were unfairly denied when they were growing up.”

Critics say the programs feed racial and wealth inequalities. Students in wealthier schools were more than twice as likely to enroll in gifted education programs compared with those in high-poverty schools, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics. A 2018 study conducted by the University of Connecticut found that students living in poverty were less likely than other children to be identified as gifted.

White students accounted for 58% of enrollment in gifted programs, although they made up 47% of enrollment in the nation’s public school system, according to nationwide data for the 2017-18 school year collected by the Department of Education.

Gifted programs bring segregation and take resources away from needy students, says Brooklyn school-board leader NeQuan McLean.
PHOTO: JACOB GORDON
Brooklyn school-board leader NeQuan McLean says gifted programs have caused division and segregation in his district, and should be abolished because they take resources away from needy students.

“We need to teach all students, including those students who may not be gifted in math, but may be talented in art,” says Mr. McLean, president of Community Education Council 16 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “We have to make sure that we’re tapping into all of those things.”

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How students are selected for gifted programs is an issue at the heart of the debate. New York City’s test was criticized in part because families could hire tutors to prepare. Education Department officials say the new system based on teacher recommendations will yield more diverse admissions.

Meanwhile, a National Bureau of Economic Research study of a single large district in an unnamed city published in 2015 found that testing all students for giftedness, rather than relying on teacher recommendations, resulted in a more diverse group of students qualifying.

Local conflicts over access to gifted programs have become more widespread as the nation navigates a period of social change, Dr. Plucker says. The acrimony, he says, has led many educational leaders to want to get rid of the programs altogether.

But the drawbacks of deprioritizing programs for the nation’s talented children could be huge, he says. “We need to get this right, or else we’re all going to pay for it down the line.”

Write to Ben Chapman at Ben.Chapman@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
White students made up 47% of enrollment in the U.S. public school system, according to nationwide data for the 2017-18 school year collected by the Department of Education. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said they made up 22% of enrollment.