Over the summer, an education panel convened by Bill de Blasio put New York City’s mayor in a bind: It recommended dismantling much of the city’s programming for gifted students in order to advance integration.
Hizzoner is known for his charged progressive rhetoric about ending inequality, but the proposal would compel him to stop talking and take on the thousands of families who like special academic offerings for their high-performing children. The panel argues in its report that the system serves to segregate by race, income, and language, and to “perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement.” The panel would institute a moratorium on new gifted-and-talented programs, phase out existing programs, end the use of middle-school entrance criteria (such as grades, test scores, behavior, and lateness), and fundamentally alter high-school admissions practices. The panel would instead prioritize schoolwide enrichment programs so a diverse student body could learn together under one roof.
The recommendations were met by swift opposition from several city leaders, who defended programs for precocious children while acknowledging the imbalance in program enrollment. As for the mayor: He was conspicuously noncommittal in response to the panel of his administration’s own creation.
It would be easy to suggest that de Blasio—in Irving Kristol’s memorable language—is just another liberal mugged by reality. This story, however, represents more than a clash between one ambitious politician’s progressive aspirations and the educational equivalent of realpolitik. Whether America’s public-education system should give special attention to especially high-achieving students is a question that perpetually bedevils policy makers. It forces them to grapple with issues as fundamental as the meaning of equality and opportunity and the purpose of public schooling.
Gifted education puts in tension two equally compelling strands of American thought. On the one hand, Americans are egalitarian: We resent unearned privilege, and we intuit that public schools ought to be where very different young people come together to prepare for an equal shot at the American dream. On the other hand, Americans believe in individualism: We appreciate that different people with different aptitudes and ambitions will accomplish different things. We want to cultivate special gifts so each of us can be our very best.
In the early days of American public education, a premium was placed on equality and standardization. For example, in the 19th century, it was paramount that we enabled all kids to become literate regardless of whether they could afford boarding schools and tutors. In the decades to come, as more and more immigrants reached our shores, our schools were handed the duty of advancing acculturation and assimilation.
Many state constitutions, in fact, have language prioritizing commonality, equality, and/or uniformity in the provision of public education. Arizona, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington mandate a “general and uniform” system; Colorado, a “thorough and uniform” system; Idaho, a “general, uniform and thorough system.” California requires a “system of common schools”; Nevada, a “uniform system of common schools”; Indiana and Minnesota, a “general and uniform system of Common Schools”; Kentucky, an “efficient system of common schools.”
The focus on equality is not a relic of the early republic, of course. Over the past several generations, the most high-profile reform efforts have sought to create a more level playing field for groups of historically underserved students, including African Americans, girls, children of immigrants, English-language learners, and students with special needs. The court cases related to school desegregation and busing, the passage of Title IX, and rules related to special education all promoted an equality agenda.
When I started working in the modern education-reform movement about two decades ago, virtually all our efforts were intended to help the most disadvantaged students. (Over the years, I helped found a charter school for low-income kids, was involved in the early days of two education advocacyorganizations, and worked on education policy for a state legislature, a member of Congress, the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, a state department of education, and a state board of education.) Vouchers offered expanded options to low-income students assigned to failing schools. Teach for America prepared sharp recent college graduates for teaching jobs in disadvantaged communities. School-finance lawsuits aimed to direct more dollars to low-income schools. Charter schools became an engine for starting high-performing, high-poverty schools, especially in urban America. The No Child Left Behind Act aspired to get all students up to proficiency in reading and math and to close the achievement gap.