Note:  A version of this article appears in this morning's New York Sun.


By Henry J. Stern
May 18, 2006

The reaction to last week’s articles, “Teaching Facts to Kids” and “Bright Kids. New Counselor”, has been substantial.  Many of you wrote in support of our positions, which were that teaching cultural literacy and educating the gifted are important, and should not be neglected or diffused by the Department of Education.
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The City of New York has long had an ambivalent attitude toward the education of gifted children.  Years ago, bright children were skipped to a higher grade.  This saved years of drudgery for them, but the skipped students were younger, and often smaller than their classmates, which was said to create or exacerbate adjustment problems.

Another program was special classes for the ablest children in each grade.  They were variously called Op classes (for opportunity), R classes (for rapid advance, in junior high school we skipped the 8-A semester) and IG classes.  The teachers told us that IG stood for individual guidance, but we believed it meant intellectually gifted (but don¹t say so).

Today these classes are under attack, from federal and city bureaucrats and from activists dissatisfied with the ethnic composition of the gifted population.

These educrats appear to believe that since the gifted already have a head start because of their ability, why should school resources be used to increase their lead over the less-gifted?  Some have the grand view that every child is gifted in one way or another. If so, each child should be educated according to his gifts.  Those who excel in reading, writing and arithmetic should get more advanced work in those areas.  We wonder if the word ‘arithmetic’ is still in educrats’ vocabularies since the rise of new math, fuzzy math and set theory.  But that is another issue. 

New York for many years has had specialized high schools for the gifted; Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech require an entrance examination.  La Guardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts requires an audition and a transcript. The highly regarded Townsend Harris High School at City College was abolished by Mayor La Guardia in1942.  (“When I make a mistake it’s a beaut,” the Fiorello observed in another case.)  Townsend Harris high school was revived at Queens College in 1984.

These schools have long been under fire as elitist, and in 1971 the New York State Legislature passed a special law (Hecht-Calandra) to prohibit the Board of Education from abolishing entrance exams at these schools, which would conform their student bodies to the spirit of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Recently, high schools were placed under the supervision of local superintendents, some of whom are ideologically hostile to gifted education.  Others are themselves not gifted. They show their bias in decisions on resource allocation.  The problems are not, however, all the fault of the locals, some years ago a fruitless search by a former chancellor for a Nobel Prize winner for a school principal’s job led to the loss of a qualified and popular candidate for the principalship.  He retired to become principal of a suburban high school, and the educrats hastily found an undistinguished replacement.

Chancellor Klein has been supportive of gifted education, although he attended a neighborhood high school, William Cullen Bryant.  His parents lived in Woodside, Queens, far from a specialized high school.

Mr. Klein pursued his education at two schools for the gifted, Columbia College and Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude from both.  Mr. Klein is more understanding on this issue than some of his ideologically blindered subordinates.

District 3 on Manhattan’s West Side is one of the city’s most progressive neighborhoods, where many parents live who are bright but not rich (they might be schoolteachers).  They want their children to get the best possible education, but they cannot afford to pay the $27,000 a year now charged by private schools.  Local officials should give these parents a helping hand, rather than constructing obstacles to weed out all but the most tenacious or litigious.

The methods used by school officials that frustrate parents include the separating of siblings, requiring busing for young children if they were to attend gifted classes, and refusing to create additional places for the gifted if more children get sufficiently high test scores.

A brief article in this week’s New York Magazine discusses the issue.  The protesting parents are treated like stage mothers, and the educrats’ defenses are swallowed whole.  New York still deserves credit for covering the situation.

The West Side parents are relatively powerless. Their only remedy appears to be a lawsuit, and the judges are unlikely to upset the decision of ‘educational authorities.’  Who daresay the Department of Education’s apparently egalitarian decision was “arbitrary and capricious?”

The trouble with the Gifted Rating Scale, theoretically intended to measure children's creativity, musicality and leadership, is that it is based on the opinions of teachers who may have seen the children for only a month.  The scale is subjective and describes qualities that are difficult to quantify.  In a competitive situation, where seats in gifted programs are rare, it is unfair to allot them on the basis of vague, easily manipulated criteria.

If the GRS were used to supplement objective tests, on the ground that different measures could find additional gifted children, that would be a reasonable alternative.  The DOE, however, is not adding seats but excluding young children previously considered gifted because they had high test scores.  The educrats would reach Nirvana if Leland Stanford and Alfred Binet were burned at the stake.

People anticipate that the GRS will be used as a tool to produce 'desirable' ethnic mixes.  This new standard of political correctness for the DOE brings their version of affirmative action all the way down to kindergarten.  It does not, however, seem to distress the Tweedlings to grant or deny educational opportunities to five-year-olds because of the color of their skin.

The undeniably gifted chancellor would be wise to change the way the youngest of the gifted are treated.  If a college turns you down because of your race, you can apply elsewhere.  However, if your neighborhood public school denies you placement in an appropriate program for any arbitrary reason, you have unjustly suffered a serious loss.  Discrimination against whites and Asians is as wrong as discrimination against African Americans and Latinos.

#297 5.18.06 1102wds

Henry J. Stern
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