Op-Ed: Crafting smarter, more equitable gifted-and-talented program for NJ students

Carly Berwick | February 8, 2021 | Opinion, Education
Programs that pull gifted students from their classes deliver an implicit message that those left behind aren’t gifted, a form of segregation that hurts all students
Carly Berwick

After a groundswell of community input, New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy voted last week to reject a contract to screen four-year-olds for entry into the city’s gifted and talented program, effectively ending the decades-long method for determining who gets in. The panel’s decision came after years of activism by groups such as Integrate NYC and New York Appleseed, which pointed out that gifted and talented programs disproportionately exclude Black and Hispanic students and segregate students.

Meanwhile, New Jersey has gone in the opposite direction. A new gifted-and-talented law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January 2020, went into effect this fall, requiring K-12 public schools to identify “gifted” learners and establish programming for them, even as districts grappled with how or whether to open during the COVID-19 pandemic. The law is intentionally vague, following New Jersey’s emphasis on local autonomy for each of its 672 districts, and defines gifted as advanced relative to peers in one or more subjects. That latitude allows districts and schools to accelerate students by grade or by subject, launch or strengthen a separate gifted program in which students leave their classrooms for one or more days or develop a schoolwide enrichment program.

At first glance, doubling down on gifted education seems to run counter to national calls to make schools more equitable and inclusive. In New Jersey, half as many Black and Hispanic children as white children, relative to their populations, attend gifted programs, reflecting national trends. In a large part, this is because of districts’ reliance on standardized testing to determine giftedness, the existence of which is still debated. Tests may seem to be fair — you make a cutoff or you don’t — especially if the criterion for giftedness is acceleration relative to peers. But largely, they reflect existing societal advantages, socio-economic status and freedom from stereotype threat and test anxiety.

In addition, many gifted programs take students out of classes with their peers and provide them with a separate curriculum for a few hours a day or even all the time — leading to segregation within schools. When K-8 schools use pull-out programs for accelerated students, this can create a segregated track within the school, just as test-based honors or AP classes do in high schools. Many New Jersey schools are already segregated by neighborhood or town, but in districts with significant diversity such as South Orange-Maplewood, advocates have sued to end within-school segregation, leading to the establishment of a federal monitor to oversee school integration. By requiring that schools identify students with above-grade-level talents and report the total number of students in specific gifted programs, the law risks encouraging tracking.

Yet advocates for the New Jersey law point out that there are gifted students in all schools and failing to provide services and modifications can harm them, sometimes causing them to disengage from school or experience anxiety and depression. The two-page law was crafted in large part by the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children, whose president, Lynne Henwood, says identifying and offering services to gifted children is itself a matter of equity. “A lot of people think it is elitist, and for kids who are excelling in school getting all As, and that’s not necessarily the case,” says Henwood. Giftedness is “not a label, it’s a learning need. Some kids need to learn at a quicker pace, and if they are not, they get bored, some get anxious, and they underachieve.” Henwood says schools should use multiple measures of determining giftedness, including interviews and teacher reports. Grades alone may also mask the child who refuses to do work because it is “boring” or rote.

The Catch-22

The Catch-22 of giftedness, according to the new law, is children must first be labeled in order to receive those services, much like identifying students who need Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to receive special-education services. A test alone is too restrictive; gifted advocates call for multiple measures including teacher identification and recommendations. But once subjectivity is introduced, the problems of subjectivity are introduced. And in allowing for district flexibility, without full public discussion, the New Jersey law also risks letting districts choose measures that are regressive in terms of equity.

“Gifted education is supposed to be about teaching methods, not necessarily identification,” says Halley Potter, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who has written about the perils of test-based entry to separate gifted programs. Both Potter and Henwood point to the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), formalized by Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut, as a way to allow all students to learn together while offering “gifted” instruction in an inclusive classroom. “You can do this and have benefits for everyone,” says Potter, who points to a cluster of middle schools in Washington, D.C., that have implemented schoolwide enrichment and that could serve as a model for New Jersey.

The problem with SEM is that when it is working well, it is hard to notice. (I know because at my children’s former K-8 charter school in Jersey City, few did notice when the gifted pull-out program was changed to schoolwide enrichment last year; many thought that it had been canceled without replacement.) No one leaves the classroom for a few hours for their special program or is overtly identified to others as “gifted” — and the students left behind don’t wonder if they are “ungifted.” The invisibility of strong instruction is often its success: classrooms hum, students are engaged. All classrooms and schools can provide high-quality, engaging curriculum that has “low floor, high ceiling,” a term used by Stanford professor Rachel Lotan in the 1990s for Complex Instruction (CI), where teachers create and support group problems and projects that are intriguing to students of all levels. It sounds intuitive — shouldn’t all instruction be complex? But the balance is strikingly challenging to achieve.

Schools that are more rigid, work from a deficit-perspective, or have fewer well-planned projects might certainly frustrate children at all levels. A strengths-based approach can identify gifts among all children. Relegating interesting projects to those who test well may seem to add insult (you are not gifted) to injury (as determined by a test that mostly measures parental education and income). One 2016 study found that, after test scores, the most important factor in determining admission to a gifted program for Black students was the race of their teacher. Because 79% of teachers are white, Black and Hispanic students have just a 20% chance of having a same-race teacher. Research shows that having even one Black teacher in elementary school can positively impact Black student achievement for a lifetime, suggesting that schools may not have a gifted-pipeline problem, they may have a teaching pipeline problem.

For New Jersey schools working to create programs for students working above-grade level with a focus on equity, the Schoolwide Enrichment Model may not only be a best practice for those identified as gifted but for all students. For it to work equitably, school leaders will have to do three things well: publicize the program’s existence, offer professional development in SEM strategies and culturally relevant teaching for all teachers, and actively recruit and support Black and Hispanic teachers. These efforts may be even more essential during hybrid and distance learning, which both threatens boredom and offers new ways of teaching and learning.