03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Being Gifted Means You Get All the Gifts

At their fifth birthday party my grandchildren, Sadia and Gideon, got all the gifts. It would be one thing if children were only inundated with gifts on their birthdays, and if all children got to share in this ritual. But what if some children are gifted every day, while other children never get a fair share of the goodies. I think justifying a fundamentally unequal distribution of resources is the primary purpose of most school "gifted programs."

Labeling the children of upper-middle class professional parents as gifted allows society to segregate them in their own classes, while sentencing other supposedly less-gifted children to remedial instruction in test prep academies. This helps to keep down the cost of educating, or mis-educating, the other children who need more help, not less, to achieve, but who don't receive it. It also helps secure the support of talented go-getters - the parents of the chosen - for the politicians themselves and for a system based on social inequality.

New York City operates a series of programs for supposedly "gifted and talented" children starting when they are five years old. One of the programs, the city-funded Hunter College Elementary School on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, had 1,832 applications for 50 kindergarten seats last year. The 200 children with the highest test scores were invited to an on-site interview where three-fourths of them were weeded out.

There are a series of questions that need to be asked about these programs. They include:

  • Who gets selected?
  • How do children qualify as gifted?
  • Why are there only a limited number of places in gifted programs?
  • Are these programs justified?

Who gets selected?
What a surprise, they are overwhelmingly from white professional families, in a city where the vast majority of children are non-white and are from working-class and poor families. Of course not all of the children in gifted classes are white. To justify the system, some non-white working class youth with exceptional ability always pass the tests. The classes, while overwhelmingly segregated, are not completely so. In theory, everyone has the same chance to pass the tests. But the life experiences of young children are so different, especially if they are black and Latino and poor, that most children never have a fair chance on these tests.

As of October 2009, New York City had an astounding 1,027,775 children attending its public schools. 39% are Hispanic, 30% are black, 15% are Asian, 14% are white, and 2% are other. But its eight elite high schools serve a totally different population. For the 2008-2009 freshman class, only 6% of the blacks and 7% of the Hispanics who took the test were offered admission. More than two-thirds of Stuyvesant High School's 3,247 students are Asian. At Brooklyn Technical High School, 365 of the 4,669 students, or 8 percent, are Hispanic. At the Bronx High School of Science, there are 114 blacks, 4 percent of the 2,809-student body.

How do children qualify as gifted?
The simple answer is that some children pass the test, however, that is not the complete answer. The reality is that seats in programs that provide real education are rationed in American society. During the past two decades, the number of black and Hispanic students attending elite schools has declined as the number of Asian students in these programs has dramatically increased. Black and Hispanic students who would have been accepted based on their test scores in the past are closed out because of an artificial cap on the number of seats available. Students who used to be defined as gifted, students who can do the academic work of these programs, are closed out because of demographic shifts and the rationing of education - for no other reason.

According to the New York Times, during the 2005-6 school year, black students made up 4.8 percent of the Bronx Science student body, down from 11.8 percent in 1994-95. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the proportion of black students from 37.3% to 14.9% during the same time period. At Stuyvesant, the number of blacks declined from 4.4% to 2.2% of the student body. Hispanic enrollment also declined at the three schools, as did white enrollment at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, although it rose at Brooklyn Tech. Meanwhile, the Asian population at Bronx Science rose from 40.8 to 60.6%.

Why are there only a limited number of places in gifted programs?
There are many factors. One is elitism that is presented as meritocracy. If people understood that education was being rationed and most of their children, especially if they are non-white, were being sacrificed, they would rebel. But if their children are just not good enough, there is no one to blame. Another factor is that the schools are designed to replicate the society. Children must learn to fit into a hierarchical society where jobs and resources are distributed unequally. Finally, better schools that respond to the needs of diverse learners would be more expensive.

Are these programs justified?
When I was 14 I passed the admission test for the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. There were 900 students in my class. About 100 were the children of professionals and the school was run to help them get into elite private universities. The rest of us were working-class kids who were going to attend the free municipal colleges. We passed the test for this elite high school and were punished for three or four years by tons of meaningless homework and alienation from our friends in our home communities. I always check the newspapers and Internet for news of the "geniuses" I went to high school with. We are 60 years old, should be at the peak of our careers, and as far as I can tell, no one has won a Nobel Prize or justified the claims made about our specialness.

I would like to see the elite public schools serving private interests closed. I would have been better off attending a regular school with a diverse student population. It would have better prepared me for the diverse world that we all live in. In the suburbs, where schools by and large function, top academic students are not isolated from everybody else and they seem to perform adequately in high school and college.

The challenge is to educate everybody's children and to educate them in such a way that they learn to work with and respect people who are different from themselves. It is time to suspend class-based educational opportunity. It is time that the same children stop receiving all the gifts.