Editor’s note: This essay was part of an edition of “Advance,” a newsletter from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that is published every other week. Its purpose is to monitor the progress of gifted education in America, including legal and legislative developments, policy and leadership changes, emerging research, grassroots efforts, and more. You can subscribe on the Fordham Institute website and the newsletter’s Substack.
The idea for Harlem Academy was borne from an educational needs assessment I worked on as a graduate student in 2001. Parents and community leaders were frustrated by the lack of educational opportunities for promising, low-income children in Harlem and its surrounding communities. So in 2004, we opened an independent school to fill that gap.
Unfortunately, in the decades since that initial research project, the need has not dimmed, and Black and Latino students remain severely underrepresented within the city’s coveted Gifted and Talented (G&T)program.
Meanwhile, at Harlem Academy, we’ve seen first-hand the impact of a rigorous academic program on a child’s trajectory. Our students enter with median baseline scores in the 74th percentile, a level that would generally miss the mark for gifted admissions. By eighth grade, their median scores reach the 90th percentile, achievement that opens a door to top secondary schools and ultimately to college. Among the students in our four most recent classes, 98 percent went on to four-year colleges, including Carnegie Mellon, Howard, NYU, Princeton, Tufts, Wesleyan, and Yale.
Knowing the life-changing impact of these opportunities, I was enthusiastic when Mayor Adams announced the expansion of the G&T program in New York City. This was a direct reversal of his predecessor’s flawed plan to end the program because of its persistent inequities. Adams recognized that eliminating the program would not solve the problem of segregation in New York City; higher-income families would simply find other options, while yet another door would close for everyone else.
The mayor’s big-picture goal of expanded access to G&T and his specific strategies for achieving it are a step in the right direction: more seats in kindergarten, a new third grade entry point in every district, and a shift away from sole reliance on an IQ test for admission. Now, kindergartners are nominated by their preschool teachers or interviewed by the city’s Department of Education staff, and the top 10 percent of second graders based on their performance in core subjects from each school is invited to apply to the third-grade G&T program.
As the administration continues to develop its policy, here are a few points I hope the mayor considers:
- Use a variety of tools for identifying students who could benefit from G&T programs. The city has effectively traded one skewed tool (an IQ test) for another (teacher recommendations or grades). Knowing that any given measure is somewhat flawed, the city should strive to mitigate bias through some combination that goes beyond a singular teacher’s assessment of performance and potential. At Harlem Academy, we hold playgroups, collect recommendations, meet with families, and administer a standardized assessment to get a sense of the whole child. It may be too expensive for the city to do everything we can as a small independent school, but the mayor would better meet his goal of equity if he found a way to incorporate multiple measures of potential, and to apply them universally to all students in the system.
- Keep standardized tests in the mix. Standardized tests often favor higher-income students who are more likely to be prepared for them—both formally and informally. At the same time, standardized tests can identify potential a teacher might miss. By comparing students relative to socioeconomic peers, we mitigate income-driven biases while benefiting from the insight gained from using a consistent measure. The city could implement a similar strategy as it hones its admissions protocol.
- Add more opportunities in the city’s lowest-income districts. Even after the mayor added 100 new kindergarten seats, New York City’s highest-income districts still have twice as many gifted programs per kindergartener as the lowest-income districts. (See the New York City Department of Education demographic snapshot for the economic need index and number of kindergartners in each district, and MySchools to filter for the list of kindergarten G&T programs in each district.) For Harlem Academy’s prospective families, our location in Central Harlem and proximity to Washington Heights and the Bronx is a significant draw. Low-income neighborhoods should have at least as many seats as their wealthier counterparts, particularly since the burdens of the additional commute are likely to weigh more heavily on families with fewer resources.
- Don’t ignore middle school. Mayor Adams left the decision as to whether to incorporate selective admissions in middle school to local superintendents, rather than guarantee those spots. Ultimately, this decision will greatly reduce the number of selective middle school programs. As reported in Politico, “Only fifty-nine out of those 478 schools will use grades and test scores to decide who to let in, a 70 percent decrease compared to before the pandemic. Of those, twenty-four will screen all students, while thirty-five will use competitive admissions only for certain programs.” We need to ensure a continuum in services from kindergarten through high school, rather than forcing promising middle schoolers to navigate a gap in programming.
Mayor Adams knows that the need for more opportunities for promising, low-income children in NYC is as urgent as ever, and he’s made some important changes. I hope he continues his efforts to ensure that every child has access to an education that challenges and supports them to realize their fullest potential.