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What’s “Enrichment,” Anyway? Can It Really Replace Gifted & Talented Programs?

When I give my Getting Into NYC Kindergarten workshops to community organizations, I explain the differences between New York City’s two types of Gifted & Talented programs.

The five Citywide G&T’s are Accelerated. That means that, because there is no such thing as a G&T curriculum, these schools take the standard NYC school curriculum and teach it one year in advance. They’re doing the 1st grade curriculum in Kindergarten, the 2nd grade curriculum in 1st grade, and so on up the line. It’s why the kids lucky enough to score a seat at one of these schools (about three-fourths of those who qualify are denied a spot due to lack of space) have a leg up in the Specialized High School Admissions process. The Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is an above-grade exam that features material not covered in a standard middle school.

The dozens of district G&T programs are NOT accelerated. They are enriched.

“What does enriched mean?” I ask my audience. A strategic pause, and then the punch line, “Nobody knows.”

That line always gets a laugh. Followed by a frown.

Huh? What? How could the Department of Education offer a program the nature of which is undefined?

I explain that, because there is no such thing as a G&T curriculum (see above), teachers in an ‘enriched’ district program, on paper, have the freedom to ‘enrich’ their lessons… as they see fit.

This basically means that every teacher and every school is making it up as they go along.

Some choose to add field trips. Others set up hands-on learning projects. Still others add extra books, on-line courses, or instructional videos.

And some… do nothing at all.

I’ve had parents with children at the same school, one in G&T, one in General Ed, tell me, “My kid in G&T? She has a pretty mediocre teacher. (We know, we know, all NYC teachers are equally good, but let’s pretend that might possibly not be the case, for the sake of this thought experiment.) My kid in General Ed? His teacher is fantastic! My kid in General Ed is learning more than my kid in G&T!”

In other words, “enrichment” is teacher (and school… and budget…) dependent.

Last month, the School Advisory Diversity Group released a series of proposals for integrating schools. The one that got the most press is the suggestion to phase out separate G&T classes in favor of an Enrichment For All model.

Chalkbeat reports

(W)hat, exactly, could that look like? The report itself doesn’t offer a clear answer, but experts and those involved in writing it said it might involve something called “schoolwide enrichment models” — an approach that tasks school staffers with identifying students’ interests and then developing mini-courses, more detailed units of study, and electives for older students centered on those topics….

For younger children, that could mean setting up small groups of students who are pulled out of their classrooms to learn the basics of photography. In middle and high school, staff can give students questionnaires about their interests and use that information to set up electives that could include topics ranging from robotics to journalism…

At BELL Academy in Queens, some middle schoolers have created stop-motion movies and others have painted artworks to raise awareness about bullying — projects that were covered by some of the school’s student journalists….

That’s awesome. 

No, really, I’m not being sarcastic. I’m all for the arts and more specialty electives. My daughter, a struggling learner, has benefitted so much from being able to participate in student council, where she can show off her non-academic strengths. (Talking; she is very good at talking.)

But the key word here is: Electives. How does being able to take photos, direct videos, and make robots keep boredom at bay during traditional subjects for kids who are reading chapter books in Kindergarten and experimenting with math algorithms in 2nd grade? Because the report isn’t suggesting replacing traditional subjects with the above, is it? It’s proposing them in addition to. That’s what “enrichment” means.

(Dear readers, based on your experience with the DOE, raise your hand if you really believe this department is capable of doing a comprehensive job of identifying students’ interests and then developing mini-courses, more detailed units of study, and electives… centered on those topics… on a citiwide scale for over a million students with a multitude of interests without massive teacher retraining and a huge infusion of funds?)

Also at my workshops, after I explain that there is no difference in curriculum between General Ed and district-enriched G&T, the question inevitably comes up, “Then why should I bother having my children tested and jumping through all those DOE hoops, especially when half the children who qualify for district G&T don’t even get a seat, either?”

There are two answers to that question.

One is that, for some families who are zoned to schools where less than 5% of students are performing at grade level, a G&T program is their best chance to escape for a higher-performing one

And two, even if the teacher is borderline mediocre, even if there is not a single extra enrichment to be found, the kids who come into district G&T, because they have taken the same test, come in with a more similar basis of knowledge then the children in a General Ed program. And children with a more similar basis of knowledge are easier to teach. Especially for a borderline mediocre teacher.

As a result, the class can move faster and cover more material. (Listen to interviews with mothers who chose district G&T, and one who moved her child from General Ed to a citywide school, for precisely that reason.)

Different children come into school with different skills and different amounts of prior knowledge. Note, I didn’t say gifts or talents. Though that is also true, the latter is difficult to measure. So, sure, ditch both the test and the labels. I’ve always said they were silly.

It doesn’t matter why those children have different skills and prior knowledge. Most often it is because of the privilege of their homes. Or because they’ve been formally prepped. Or — and I know some teachers refuse to believe this — because some kids do teach themselves, without being forced to by their parents, due to a passion for the subject.

Skills and knowledge — a.k.a. mastery — can be tested for concretely in a way that “giftedness” cannot. Kids can then be placed in appropriate classes (like martial arts belts, or dance technique classes, or vocal range), regardless of age and its prescribed grade level. When all parents know that all kids can get all their academic needs met at every school by being allowed to progress at the speed just right for them, they’ll have less incentive to segregate themselves in the few “high-performing” institutions.

Sure, get rid of G&T and the segregation no one is denying it brings. But don’t claim that enrichment — at least as currently (un)defined and implemented — (or the other suggestion, magnet schools) is capable of filling the academic gap. Because it’s that academic gap, more than any lack of extracurricular activities, that’s the main impetus driving families of all races, ethnicities, and social classes out of their zoned schools, as they search for something even a tiny bit better.

What do you think?

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