Gifting Till It Hurts

New York parents are famous for the lengths they will go to make sure their children are given a leg up in life from the earliest possible age. While the parental passion slides easily into obsession, and in some cases surely does a child more harm than good, overall it’s a huge plus for the city to have families so deeply concerned with the well-being and education of our littlest citizens.

One flash point for parental ambition has long been the public school system’s “gifted and talented” programs. Many parents see them as the first rung on the ladder to success, and go to great effort to make sure their kids are accepted into the programs. The problem, as the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, has noted, is a lack of accountability and transparency in these programs, resulting in opportunities for parents with connections to receive preferential treatment at admissions time. The chancellor has been working on ways to level the playing field, and rightly so.

Toward that end, last week Mr. Klein announced a plan to lower admissions standards to the gifted-and-talented programs, by allowing kindergarten and first-grade kids into the program who score in the top 10th percentile on a nationwide scale (currently they have to score in top fifth percentile). There has been a surge of applicants lately, and it turned out that many of the students were failing to hit that top fifth percentile.

While lowering the bar will indeed help kids in struggling neighborhoods, who might not test well but would thrive in such a program, it raises the risk that, as gifted programs expand, those students not in the gifted programs will be even more short-changed. As a larger and larger percentage of a student body is labeled as “gifted,” what happens to those who do not attain this special status? Will they receive the same care, attention and resources as their anointed peers? Or will two classes of students be created, gifted and non-gifted, along with two classes of teachers, and two classes of curriculum?

The chancellor’s goal of bringing coherence to the gifted-and-talented programs is laudable, but he should resist pressure from New York parents to widen the gifted net, and instead do the dull and hard work of fixing the whole system from the bottom up.