Accountability · Educational Equity · Finding the Right School · School Choice

Is NYC Education an Even Playing Field For All Families?

In response to my posts about how New York City parents can raise the odds of their children getting into a Gifted & Talented public school program, a reader wrote to sarcastically congratulate me on destroying what had previously been a perfectly even playing field.

Her child, it seems, took the G&T test with absolutely no prep whatsoever, effortlessly scored in the 99th percentile, and was deservedly placed into their first choice school. If their family could do it, the reader (whose name I won’t divulge) insisted than everyone can do it, and anyone who asserts that other factors – racial, socioeconomic, cultural – might come into play to contradict that confidence is just full of sour grapes and/or lazy.

Similar sentiments have popped up on my Facebook page, as well.

For now, I will ignore the fact that only one-third of the children who qualify for a seat in a Citywide G&T program are placed in one via the lottery, or that some neighborhoods have no G&T programs at all.

I want to focus on that perfectly even playing field issue.

I will start with a single word:

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. (Yes, it’s still one word. It just has many syllables.)

Now I will elaborate.

Last month, I wrote a tribute to my late mother-in-law, who, as an African-American woman living in Harlem in the 1970s, still managed to get two of her children into Hunter College Elementary, a school funded with public money where seats are reserved exclusively for the “highly gifted.”

The school, to this day, is only 4 percent Black and Hispanic (combined), and 1 percent Free Lunch. When the embarassed school administration turned to my mother-in-law for advice about what they can do to raise those numbers, her first suggestion was, “how about you don’t charge hundreds of dollars for admission and testing fees?” (Reduced fees are now available, but you have to know about them.)

So, yes, there goes that even-playing field for Hunter, right off the bat. (And we’re not even counting the cost of test prep, which, if  you believe doesn’t happen, well… you’re wrong.)

But what about the G&T exam, my critics cry! It costs nothing to take  (more test prep aside), and is even offered in multiple languages (although, ironically, all the G&T classrooms themselves are English only). So anyone can sign up, and then, may the best tot win!

The “anyone can sign up” part, is true. However, my conversations with teachers in Head Starts and multiple non-middle-class Universal Pre-Ks where many of their families barely speak English, and even the ones who do have trouble understanding all the hoops the Department of Ed makes them jump through, suggests perhaps it isn’t as easy as all that.

But is anyone seriously going to argue that a child from an English-speaking, college-educated home who has been read to since birth, not to mention taken from one “enrichment” (what are they, uranium?) class to the next, enters the testing room at the exact same level as a child from a non-English speaking home where parents are too busy trying to make a living to stay up nights stressing over whether a STEM camp or a literacy workshop would serve their little one’s unique learning style best?

It’s the old argument about equality versus equity. Sure, all kids may encounter the same test (although, for the record, quality of testers varies wildly, and even the most prepared might still find themselves with a tester who doesn’t enunciate clearly, rushes through the questions, or intimidates the child). But all kids’ lives haven’t been equal up to that point. So how can the test be a true evaluation of inherent intelligence (whatever that is; experts agree any IQ assessment administered before age 10 is basically useless)?

Unfortunately, where your child goes to Pre-K, and especially K, can continue to echo up until, by high school choice time, the majority of NYC kids, thanks to a subpar elementary education, have very few choices left.

For those who see my arguments above as advocating “mediocrity for all” (yes, I get those emails, too), nothing could be further from the truth.

I am actually a staunch supporter of raising standards across the board. The only reason I want to get rid of G&T testing is because I don’t think G&T classrooms are that impressive (many are outscored by General Ed schools), and would rather see all children allowed to move through all subjects at their own pace. It would increase school diversity and save the DOE money, too, and we all know that’s the ultimate driver of all government decisions.

I also believe in accountability via testing. A test score doesn’t tell you everything about a school. But it tells you something. Unlike the Mayor, I have no problem with keeping the SHSAT test for Specialized High Schools, either. I just want to see better K-8 schools leading up to it.

And as for that even playing field I’ve been accused of disrupting, if you actually believe it exists, then, I’m going to keep publishing my tips.

And we’ll call it even.

What do you think?

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