A Better System for Our Children: Supporting the Enrichment of All

By David E. Kirkland

On Friday, September 20, 2019, the New York Daily News published an op-ed I wrote supporting the recommendations of the NYC School Diversity Advisory Group—of which I am a member—to rethink gifted education.  This is why I wrote the op-ed. 

In 2017, when NYCDOE first released its plan to increase diversity in NYC schools, I was among the first to support the effort. Not because the effort was bold, but because it included the SDAG. My argument then, as it is now, was that the SDAG (a group comprised of many constituencies) would create a conversation that empowers communities to determine the course of integrating NYC Schools, which it has done. 

However, I did not anticipate that the ensuing debate about gifted education in New York City would be so polarizing—and not be about children but about the need of some adults to define themselves and their children as exceptional, which is essentially about the persistence of racial hierarchy and the extremes those in power pursue to maintain its illusions. This is why many people are fighting to preserve a system that not only ensures systemic inequity but also expands it. 

At the heart of these illusions is a lie. Unfortunately, we have been led to believe in the primacy of “giftedness” and refuse to let go of the merit myths that some people are just worthy of reward and that some children possess supernatural gifts that require us to distinguish them from others. However, our children (regardless of their races) are merely casualties of this lie, sacrificed on the altar of our beliefs. They deserve better. 

Close to 70 percent of the students attending NYC Schools are Latinx and Black; however, the conversation about gifted education, about integration, has virtually ignored them. Instead, a central focus has been placed on White families, who constitute 15% of NYC schools. This focus has centered questions about how to best serve White families, how to keep them happy and in the system, how not to offend them, etc. Simultaneously, we have ignored the very serious concerns of the vast majority of the students who rely upon the system, focusing first and closely on the concerns of people positioned to exploit or exit it. 

Thus, many of the opinions clamoring to preserve and even expand gifted education in NYC are informed not by data but by ideologies that grow out of white supremacy, e.g., the idea that keeping White families in New York City’s deeply segregated public education system is more important than fixing that system. Such ideologies suggest both that White people are exceptional and that White children require a separate space in which to learn. They also play on stereotypes of the so-called deficiencies of Black and Brown bodies in contrast to some conveniently concocted White norm that suggests White bodies, by virtue of their exceptionalism, fictive merit, or other devices employed to legitimate the lie, require separate and unequal education. 

However, separate is never equal.

Many of the children who actually qualify for New York City’s Gifted and Talented programs begin this process of marking their “distinction” from birth (and before), enduring test-prep courses while potty training, and receiving other kinds of social advantage to ensure that the system identifies them as “gifted,” a term that is too often code for “not Black or Brown.”   

That we have become so comfortable with ranking and sorting babies seemingly oblivious to how this arrangement contradicts every principle of our democracy (though not our historical reality) is bemusing. It is the kind of cryptic yet confusing paradox that too many of our children live each day. 

We tell some of them to dream in the midst of their nightmares. We boast of meritocracy while those who work the least hard, in some cases, are the most rewarded. We tell them that “all God’s children are created equally” while ranking them unequally from birth. 

These contradictions are symbols that shed away at any possibility for recovering logic in the debate over gifted education, or even the larger debate to end segregation. Our fixation with things like “giftedness” is, itself, illogical, just as our fixation with redesigning systems of segregation feels immoral. Gifted education in New York City exists not to heal the brokenness that we have caused through segregation but to cement it. 

Of course, the consequences of this brokenness are not felt evenly. For the vulnerable, we who have been displaced, ignored, vilified, and devalued, the burden of brokenness becomes elastic, stretching from one generation to the next. 

Eliminating programs that prop up such systems that leave vulnerable children as casualties of white supremacy and racism is not about waging a war on smart people because, in New York City, gifted education is not about smart people. In New York City, gifted education is a contract made to legitimate segregation. It often declares intelligence as the property of the privilege. It is dangerous. 

Expanding a dangerous program that does not deal with the issues of racism and white supremacy is neglect. Further, calls for racial isolation and separate G&T programs for Black and Brown students that also fail to deal with the issues of racism and white supremacy is obtuse. If we are serious about fixing the system, then we will have to deal with (and not run away from) the root causes of its brokenness. 

Perhaps one reason we have not dealt with these issues is because people least impacted by them have the privilege to opt-out—to either ignore, deny, or feign ignorance toward them. As Michelle Alexander suggests, this indifference, too, is a form of racism and white supremacy. 

The recommendation of the SDAG to reimagine G &T is anti-racist work. I support this work not only because it is bold, courageous, and the right thing to do, but because it positions us to finally abolish a system shaped by white supremacy and racism. Tearing down is at times the first step to building up, just as abolishing prejudicial systems is at times a first step to liberating students.

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David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at davidekirkland@gmail.com.