Label or no label, all students deserve what NYC calls a “gifted” education. Credit: Taylor Flowe / Unsplash

New York City public schools offer two types of Gifted & Talented education. Five accelerated programs in citywide schools teach the standard NY state curriculum a year in advance, while enriched programs in over 100 district schools allow teachers flexibility in adding original material to the standard state curriculum. 

Pre-pandemic, when a test was required for admission, over 1,000 students qualified to compete for a seat in one of the accelerated schools, where about 300 seats are available in total. More than 4,000 rising kindergarteners qualified for the 2,000+ enriched district seats. 

Post-pandemic, now that students are recommended either by their teacher or by their parents and there is no difference between those eligible for accelerated and enriched programs, north of 15,000 4- and 5-year-olds go into a lottery for the same 2,500 G&T spots.

Officially, there are multiple levels and definitions of giftedness. Broadly, it encompasses about 5% of the population. With 70,000 students at each NYC grade level, that would be 3,500 per year. If we’re talking about the Highly Gifted, that would be 1%, or 700 students in every year. The Profoundly Gifted are literally one in a million, so there should be less than one of them per grade level. (In over 20 years of working with this population, I have only met one profoundly gifted child, who was reading Harry Potter and doing Algebra at the age of 3. No, it was not my child.)

When looking at these statistics, it becomes obvious that, whether or not your child has been arbitrarily dubbed gifted by the NYC public school system, odds are, they are not truly gifted in the classical sense. The beauty, though, is that it doesn’t matter. Label or no label, all students deserve what NYC calls a “gifted” education. Here’s why:

  • The Pygmalion Effect has proven that when teachers are told their students are “gifted,” they treat them differently and by the end of the year, the children are performing at a “gifted” level. (This also works on adults. And lab rats.)
  • Schools that offered “enrichment” to all students, rather than just to those who had been classified “gifted,” saw academic performance rise across the board. (A handful of NYC schools who adopted this approach noticed that their general ed classes were soon performing as well as the G&T section, and so got rid of their G&T programs altogether.)
  • Studies demonstrated that students who were offered acceleration, rather than remediation, when they were academically behind caught up faster.
  • All students learn best when they are allowed to progress at a pace appropriate to them, rather than a binary “gifted” and “general ed” paradigm which suggests there are only two speeds and that they are consistent across all subjects. Anyone who has ever met more than one child knows that this is patently ridiculous.

But the most important reason why all students deserve a “gifted” education is that what NYC calls G&T would be considered standard in Europe and Asia for students two grades younger. There is nothing happening in a NYC “gifted” classroom that could not be mastered by any child with a good teacher. Even those lucky enough to get accepted into a gifted program come in performing at wildly different levels.

A Queens District 24 parent who asked to remain anonymous told us that “at our school, some kids didn’t even know their basic ABCs, some other kids already knew how to read going into K. The class doesn’t really go that much faster given that there are kids in there who are not at level.”

Brinton Parson, head of the independent Alexander Robertson School, explains that “when the general expectations are lowered for everyone, it is easier to make formerly normal results seem elevated. The public G&T programs offer what should be offered to all typically developing students.” Her school, for instance “offers a rigorous academic program at an “accelerated” rate by using the NY State requirements as a minimal baseline and offering work at levels that the G&T programs provide as our standard core curriculum fare.”

Mom Yasmine Soiffer says that she found the main difference between General Ed and G&T to be “the social advantage. My son found his peers. He wasn’t the odd one out anymore. He made great friends, and they saw eye to eye. They encourage each other and push each other to do things like read books or read more challenging books.”

A second anonymous parent confirms that “G&T provides an environment that lets these kids be themselves – for instance, going in great depth for a project, doing much more than required, finishing a task very quickly, etc., without feeling out of place, without feeling ashamed of one’s own interests, without fear of becoming an outcast.”

But would there still be a stark difference if all children were treated as “gifted,” per the Pygmalion Effect? If all children were given equally challenging books to read? If an expectation of high achievement was the de facto environment instead of one reserved for G&T classrooms?

For instance, at the Success Academies public charter school network, where students are accepted purely via lottery, no pretense of testing for “giftedness,” nearly 100% of eighth graders pass their Algebra 1 Regents exam (most traditional public school students aren’t even offered the course until high school), and 100% of students take at least one Advanced Placement class. CEO Eva Moskowitz attributes the accomplishment to her school’s approach. “How much children achieve depends on how much we expect from them. At Success Academy we aim high and our scholars rise to meet the challenge,” she says. “Our school design prizes order, accountability, and joyful rigor – providing students with the tools they need to succeed in and out of the classroom. When children learn in an environment that encourages educational excellence, the limit is endless for what they can achieve.” 

I contacted the principals and assistant principals at each of NYC’s five citywide schools to ask what material is covered in their classrooms that isn’t covered in general education, and why they believe this same material could not be mastered by all public school students.

We have received no reply from any of these schools as of press time.

When I posed the same question to a DOE spokesperson, the first response we received was: Looking for a bit of clarity on this. Can you list the five schools that you’re referring to?

Once I enlightened them regarding the schools in their own system (for the record, they are: Anderson, NEST+M, TAG, BSI & Q300), the answer I received from Deputy Press Secretary Chyann Tull was:

New York City Public Schools is committed to providing a high-quality education for all students. The key distinction is that gifted and talented schools should use curriculum compacting, a research-based approach, to accelerate instruction in areas where students show great aptitude. Moreover, the new identification process for our kindergarten programs, which is backed by research, gives more comprehensive insight into each student’s potential to thrive in accelerated instruction that cannot be captured by a single test. Gifted and talented schools are one of the many ways that we create opportunities for students to explore their talents, and we have ended the scarcity model in NYC by providing high quality options in every zip code. We look forward to continuing our work towards creating innovative models for accelerated learning that meets student needs.

As that didn’t really answer the question, I followed up with:

The current identification process is simply a teacher clicking a box to say yes they recommend this child for G&T, or no they don’t. How does this “give more comprehensive insight into each student’s potential to thrive in accelerated instruction that cannot be captured by a single test”?

There is nothing in this approach to indicate where the student’s strengths lie. Also, of the students who ask for a G&T nomination, how many receive one? How many don’t? Anecdotally, every parent I have spoken to said that, when they asked their teacher for a recommendation, the teacher gave it. In addition, for those parents who were interviewed by a DOE employee, every single child was recommended, as well. Do you have data on what percentage of applicants is accepted versus those who were turned down?

You also write, “we have ended the scarcity model in NYC by providing high quality options in every zip code.”

However, using your new identification system, over 10,000 students are recommended for G&T programming, suggesting they would “thrive in accelerated instruction,” yet the city only offers some 2,500 seats. How does this end the scarcity model? Also, how does the city justify offering “acceleration” to some students and not others, if all were deemed equally eligible?

Furthermore, when you speak of “accelerated instruction,” that’s accelerated compared to what? What “research-based approach” do you use to determine that those who did not apply to a G&T program, either because their parents didn’t know about it, or because they didn’t know how, wouldn’t also benefit from the exact same “accelerated instruction” as those students who were not only lucky enough to have parents who applied their child, but also lucky enough to lottery into a seat?

Thank you again for your help.

A response arrived in under fifteen minutes, this time from the Press Secretary himself, Nathaniel Styer:

I think her original package answeres (sic) your questions. Have a great day.

Maybe I’m just not adequately gifted, but I don’t think it does. I don’t think it does at all.

What I do think is that, since even the Department of Education doesn’t appear to have an answer for what makes their G&T programming accelerated or why it could not be mastered by any child in their system, we should go ahead and give every single NYC public school student the kind of “gifted” education currently only available to a lucky handful. And once we prove that all children are capable of tackling that level of material, let’s keep raising the bar even higher and higher, so that every child receives the education that’s appropriate for them. Without the need for meaningless labels.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this! Great summary of the g&t situation, and helpful highlighting of the reasonable expectation that all students can rise to higher expectations.
    I appreciate the time you took to respond to the original press department’s rather obfuscated reply.

  2. This is a really insightful article and cleared a lot of misassumptions. If only everyone in the school systems as well as parents read this. Thanks for clearing this all up.

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