Grisel Cardona’s son has autism spectrum disorder. He’s non-verbal and has an Individualized Education Plan, which is a program that ensures a student with an identified disability receives specialized instruction.
But, Cardona said that doesn’t mean her son is not gifted and talented. The term is arguable, she says. Some kids learn faster than their classmates, while others are trained when they’re 4 years old to ace a school screening test. But she said since each student is unique, it’s not fair to label some as gifted and talented because they meet specific criteria.
Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said the test for 4 year olds to enter the Gifted and Talented education program would be administered one last time this spring. This move to fade out Gifted and Talented learning was suggested by the Department of Education’s School Diversity Advisory Group in 2019, as a way to repair the city’s extremely racially segregated school system. But the decision has stirred debate in the city and has many parents and educators wondering aloud as to what Gifted and Talented really means, or if the test should be cancelled at all.
“I feel like we’re underestimating what it is to be gifted and talented, and what that really looks like,” said Cardona, who agrees with the cancellation of the test. “You can be autistic, but you can be smart.”
The debate may be moot just as it is heating up. Days after de Blasio’s announcement that the next test for 4-year-old children to join the program would be the last, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to deny a proposed contract extension with Pearson, the education publishing company that creates the test, AMNY reported. As a result, the mayor’s promised last test was no longer an option, and the Gifted and Talented program was discontinued earlier than expected.
But many are fighting to keep the test and the program alive. Since January, more than 1,000 New Yorkers have signed a petition in favor of Gifted and Talented learning. It reads that the mayor’s education reform plan is “deeply undemocratic” and a “reckless initiative” that will cause “irreparable damage” to the city’s school system.
Kejda Gjermani, an organizer of NYC Reboot, a community coalition calling for education reform, initiated the petition. She has two children who attend a charter school and will not be affected by the fate of the program. But she’s advocating for others because as someone who was born and raised in Albania, she said she always imagined the United States’ educational system would be superior to what she had experienced in her poor native country. And when her children attended New York public schools, she realized it’s not. She believes education should be merit-based, and that’s why she supports the reinstatement of the Gifted and Talented program.
“Whatever educational opportunities are out there, kids who show, in an objective way, the ability to stomach a more challenging curriculum should have the option to do it,” Gjermani said.
Nishant Vajpayee, a lawyer who studied at Georgetown University, has two children in public school. His 8-year-old daughter is in the Gifted and Talented program, and his 5-year-old son was in line to take the test this spring. Vajpayee, who grew up learning in Gifted and Talented classes in the United States and other countries, signed Gjermani’s petition for the program to continue. But he argues, the program needs to be reimagined.
Children learn differently, he says. His daughter is very focused on her schooling, and she benefits from learning on a faster track. She’s empathetic and emotionally balanced. He calls her “the ideal child.”
But she’s not as cognitively advanced as her brother, who can read and understand the nuances of books meant for kids far beyond his grade level. Still, Vajpayee’s son has state support services because he’s emotionally behind, with difficulty managing his impulses and frustration.
The term “Gifted and Talented,” Vajpayee said, is a misnomer. Though Vajpayee’s daughter thrives in the Gifted and Talented environment, he said the program still wouldn’t be enough for his cognitively gifted son.
“Even though my son has some of the qualities that sort of reflect more of a Gifted and Talented student,” he said, “I’m more worried about him than my daughter who gets along with friends, and who will very likely be successful because of that.”
He said his son, on the other hand, may continue to struggle with social interactions, a skill set that many Gifted and Talented students lack. Even though students, like his son, are advanced in their abilities to absorb information and regurgitate numbers, “they have a disability when it comes to other facets of their lives,” Vajpayee said. “It’s a program for students who have another way of thinking very similar to special education.”
Vajpayee has a point. Children do learn differently. According to Family Education, a parenting research-based website, gifted children often struggle with impatience, self-esteem issues, perfectionism and have trouble making and keeping friends because of their unmatched intellectual depth.
Vajpayee further argues though, that the Gifted and Talented program is elitist, because it favors children from families who have the resources to direct towards tutoring.
The better solution, he says, would be to set up a “quota system” that diversifies the program by making it accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds by giving a seat to a child with a lower test score if they’ve had a more challenging upbringing. How that would be determined is unclear.
As someone who is Latina and the mother of a child with a disability, Cardona is also concerned about the lack of representation in Gifted and Talented education. The facts support her argument. Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York think tank that researches economic, racial and gender equity, says the diversity in the Gifted and Talented program does not reflect the city as a whole or even individual schools.
In one of the most diverse schools in Brooklyn with about 940 students, 40% are Black, 31% are white, 17% are Hispanic, and 9% are Asian, USA Today reported last year. The gifted and talented classes are attended by mostly white and Asian kids, while the general education classes are attended by mostly Black students.
White and Asian students account for one-third of the city’s total students from kindergarten to eighth grade. But in 2015, they filled almost three-quarters of the nearly 16,000 Gifted and Talented seats, WNYC reported.
“The only thing that has really been in place for Gifted and Talented education so far in New York City is this basic idea of separating out the students,” said Century Foundation’s Potter, who wasn’t part of the decision to cancel the test but has been involved in conversations with school districts and education councils about the topic of diversity.
“Getting rid of a test for four-year-olds,” she said, “should open the door to a real conversation about how we come up with the best ways to make enrichment accessible to students in all of our schools.”