Gifted and Talented Education in New York City


When writing a thesis, it is helpful to reflect on the reasons you originally became interested in your topic. You'll find that the more connected you are personally to your topic, the more likely you'll be passionate, and therefore dedicated, to your project. It is also helpful to look back on what originally motivated your project, as it can help give you ideas further down the road.

Why Gifted and Talented?

When I was in school...

I did not know I was different from other children until I was put in a classroom where children were not gifted. In Kindergarten, my closest friend read her first sentences a full week before me. I was not the first student of the month, but I was the first to understand addition and subtraction. I was not first at everything, but I was very capable and I learned everything my teacher taught us. In first grade, my teacher was strict and it made all of us sit still in our seats, raise our hands to be called on and take turns when playing. I was again, not first in my class to type properly on a computer, not the first in the spelling bee, and not the best at art projects. I was the best reader, I could write very well and I learned quickly, I did well, I got good grades. At the end of that year, my teacher told my parents that I could skip the second grade, but the school district did not allow for that. Instead, I was placed in a mixed classroom with the lowest achieving students and anyone who did not get a seat in the other second grade classes. I had apparently been in the highest achieving class the year before, but no one ever told us that was the case, or that students were tracked. I thought I was just a kid in a normal classroom. Sometimes I would get the best test score, I never got below a 95, but I did not know that made me different. Until I was in a class where a 100 did not mean I had learned anything, I did not know there was something different about the way I learned.

The second grade was perhaps the beginning of my, and my parent’s, understanding that there was something different about how quickly I learned, and about where I belonged in the scheme of a school. There were children in my classroom with behavioral issues, students with intellectual deficits, and then there were also just children who like me had ended up there because the school ran out of room to place them with others who were learning at their pace. I will never forget that year: a girl in my class smacked me in the school yard while we were reciting the pledge of allegiance. Another girl snuck a dead pidgeon she found in the yard into her desk and my teacher had no idea for more than a week. I was punished a few times, sent to the corner, and to write lines on the board, because I would not recite the alphabet. It was about the middle of the school year, and the majority of the other students still did not know the alphabet. The year prior I had read my first chapter books.

My parents were livid when I was hit in the school yard, because it was not until a month or more into the school year that they even became aware I was in this class and they noticed the pattern of me coming home without homework assigned, or with things I already knew, and that I had no books to bring home like I had the year before. When they spoke to the vice principal, he told them there had not been any room left in the highest achieving class, and I had been placed in a mixed class with the lowest achieving students and anyone else who didn’t have a space in another class. My mother, who was still learning English and testing for American citizenship at the time, marched down to the school to meet with my teacher. She gave him a piece of her mind, and I was told to do exactly what I was told moving forward, but I was not in trouble for not reciting the alphabet. My mother distinctly remembers that I sat at a small round table in the corner of the room with the rest of the children who were too advanced for the class. She had been welcomed by the teacher to sit in for the day and she finally understood why I suddenly hated going to school. My parents taught me things at night, multiplication and division, I devoured chapter books and “big kid” books, my father forced me to read the newspaper and write him little reports about current events. Anything I learned that year was because my parents took the time to teach me. The vice principal told them to switch my school, that there was a special program in some schools for kids who needed accelerated curriculum. He gave them an application, and they went to a meeting at the school to turn in a portfolio of all my accomplishments: my report cards, my school projects, my many certificates for literacy, good behavior, student of the month (twice a year most years). I got in, no testing, no appointments, no interviews, no fuss.

In the third grade, I went to a school about six miles away from my home. I was placed in the talented and gifted, TAG, class. The first day, the teacher reviewed using a ruler. I had seen the meter stick in my house and rulers my father had from engineering school, but I had never used one. My parents weren’t teachers: they taught me arithmetic, current events, and encouraged me to read. That year I felt like a sponge, soaking in everything my teacher had to offer, from writing my first three paragraph essays to world history and earth science. The long trips to school felt worth it and I was a much happier kid again. More importantly, I was seen, heard and understood. I felt like I had a place in the classroom and like my teacher and my classmates really understood me, polar opposite to the year before. I wasn’t acting up because I was a “bad” kid, but because what I wanted more than anything was to learn in school. I did not have to be number one, I did not have to be the best, but I wanted to be around other students who were the best because that was how I learned. ◆

...Last Year

I don’t think I nodded as much for anyone else’s presentation as I did for Elizabeth’s. Nicole’s class was my first graduate course, an elective on Urban Education Policy. We were presenting our final papers, semester long research pieces on an issue facing urban public schools. Everyone’s work was rife with social justice, seeking equality, equity and integration. I wrote about special populations and researched how charter schools in New York City were serving students with disabilities, English language learners and students in temporary housing. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to my classmates present such a wide variety of issues that all felt like a call to duty for me, but Elizabeth’s riled me up. Elizabeth had researched the gifted and talented program in NYC public schools and the severe stratification and segregation that the program was causing in the system. Her final recommendation was to eliminate the program entirely in favor of enrichment models in all schools, or in other words to raise standards for all students. I vehemently agreed with her, her data was clear, her presentation and her argument were strong. We had studied the history of public education in the United States and had circled around the same question throughout the semester: who was public school for, and how do we provide public education in an equitable way? What does it mean that public schools are for everyone?

Elizabeth’s conclusion resonated with me: students of all abilities would be better served if we integrated classrooms and raised expectations and rigor for all students. That makes sense, from a standpoint on equality: the gifted and talented program was isolating talented students, who were identified in a problematic way, and giving them a different set of standards and accelerated learning. Why don’t we have high expectations of all students? Not long into thinking about her argument, I felt guilty. How was it that I, a student who benefitted from a gifted and talented program, was also a proponent of eliminating it? Wasn’t there something worthwhile about the program that had served me so well, that had saved me from a class that was focused on helping students who were behind, when I was so advanced?

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t value my own gifted and talented experience, but that I felt so far removed from the program Elizabeth had described in her project. A standardized admissions test? Special gifted and talented schools? Lotteries? Seats? None of this was familiar to me. I had not taken a test at four years old, made to sit still for an IQ test. I wouldn’t take an IQ test to determine my “giftedness” until I was 10, and even then it meant very little compared to my academic achievement. How do you know someone is gifted at four? I was never truly sure I was gifted until long after I had left the public school system, and even then sometimes I think I just work hard and things come easier to me. Maybe that means I need special attention in a classroom, less time to complete tasks, but it isn’t about me being “special” in an elite or prestigious way. I needed something else, as a child, that my second grade teacher could not provide the way my teachers before and after him could. I learned differently from other children, and in the same way he had to help get struggling children to grade level, I needed teachers who could help me learn at my level. There were other children like me, I had been in class with them for years, and what I remember most about elementary school was that I was the only light skinned face wherever I went. District 29 was and is majority black, latino and lower income. So how is it that years ago I was in a gifted program filled with low-income children of color, but today gifted and talented is overwhelmingly white and affluent?