Mayor de Blasio is axing New York City’s long-standing gifted education programs. He plans to replace them with something else, but his proposal is almost entirely wrong. Fortunately, Eric Adams, who’s almost certain to replace him in January, has a vision of gifted education that’s mostly right, and he’ll enter office in time to fix de Blasio’s blunders.
The Education Gadfly Weekly: Bill de Blasio is decimating gifted education in New York. Will Eric Adams save it?
The Education Gadfly Weekly: Bill de Blasio is decimating gifted education in New York. Will Eric Adams save it?
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose two terms in office are nearing their end, announced the phasing out of New York City’s gifted education program in its current form, and plans to replace it with something not yet fully defined. It’s a vision that’s starkly at odds with that of Eric Adams, who won the Democratic mayoral primary this summer, and who has advocated for keeping the program mostly intact but expanding it into more low-income schools. Neither approach is perfect, but Adams’s is much closer to the mark.
At issue are three defining questions for any form of gifted education: when do you screen students for signs of giftedness, how do you screen them, and what’s then done by the schools for those who get identified.
Before de Blasio’s overhauls, New York City parents interested in having their children considered for gifted education had to opt them into a standardized test available from kindergarten through third grade. Admission was based on objective cutoff scores, adjusted by age. Those who passed then entered separate classes or schools with other gifted students, where they received accelerated instruction in grades K–5. After fifth grade, all of the city’s students can seek admission to the district’s many selective, though often competitive, middle and high schools.
Mayor de Blasio would scrap much of that, following a larger and misguided trend in American K–12 education that, in the name of equity, calls for dismantling gifted programs instead of expanding gifted services for Black, Hispanic, and other historically disadvantaged students. Going forward, the New York Times reports, “the city will evaluate all rising third graders, using past work and input from their teachers, to determine whether they need higher-level instruction in specific subject areas, for one or two periods a day.” No admissions test, and no separate classes or schools. The mayor’s office says it’s seeking feedback on the plan through next month, so aspects could be changed and details filled in before he leaves office. What’s unlikely to change is the axing of substantive gifted education that’s long existed in the city.
Eric Adams could reverse all that. He’s all but guaranteed to win November’s general election in a landslide in a city where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. And just this week, in his first comments since de Blasio’s proposed overhaul, Adams said, “I’m going to reserve my right, if I’m fortunate to be mayor, to determine how we handle Gifted and Talented, to deal with the segregation in our schools...and ensure that we create a system where every child reaches his or her full potential.”
He declined to offer his own detailed roadmap of how he would achieve this. But in past remarks, he’s supported keeping the exam and supplementing it with other methods for evaluating children’s academic skills and potential. And he’s endorsed keeping gifted classes but expanding them to more low-income schools.
Currently, New York City has approximately eighty gifted programs serving 16,000 K–5 pupils. That’s in a district comprising 700 elementary schools attended by half a million students, meaning only 3 percent of the children participate. These programs have disproportionately served White, Asian, and affluent students, so there’s ample cause to take steps to expand access to them.
Adams’s general vision is spot-on except for one misstep: his embrace of an admissions test with universal cutoff scores that is administered to four-year-olds and that parents must opt into. De Blasio’s plan, however, really only gets one thing right: screening every child when they get to third grade. Everything else about the mayor’s plan—the total rejection of testing, the elimination of separate classes and schools, the cramping of accelerated learning into just one or two class periods per day—will harm many of the Black, Hispanic, low-income, and otherwise disadvantaged students it purports to benefit. Because of it, even more of these children will languish in classes that fail to maximize their education.
In January, then, assuming Adams takes office, he ought to advance a plan that screens every third-grader using a universal assessment—like the annual state achievement test taken by every student—but that otherwise sticks to the sensible approach to gifted education he’s previously supported.
First, use that exam to find the top-scoring kids in every single school. This alone—rather than admitting the highest scorers citywide—would greatly diversify the population qualifying for gifted education services. Recent research finds that using “local building norms for gifted identification would substantially reduce group differences in rates of gifted identification.” And when Broward County, Florida, employed this approach, it worked really well for poor and minority children, found Laura Giuliano and David Card, who this year won the Nobel Prize in economics.
Next, as Adams has said, look beyond test scores. Ask teachers to use a holistic approach to nominate additional youngsters who don’t earn top marks on the exam but show uncommon potential. Consider grades, other scores, and attendance, but also look for sparks that perceptive teachers are adept at noticing. When this is done thoughtfully and with an eye towards avoiding group biases, research shows that it can be an important component in making more students eligible for gifted services, meaning that fewer of those who ought to be admitted will be missed. And as a recent Fordham study of Ohio found, just identifying Black students as gifted seemed to help them do better.
The last element—and admittedly a heavy lift for a vast school system—is to provide a sufficient supply of gifted classes. Adams recognizes this in his call to expand gifted education into more low-income schools. Fortunately, there is a relatively simple and inexpensive solution. The school-specific two-step model would yield enough pupils to fill designated separate classrooms that provide enriched and accelerated curricula in every elementary school. Neither new staff nor new buildings would be required. The same could be done grades 6–8 if the city’s selective middle schools aren’t providing these students with the services they need.
Mayor de Blasio’s announcement last week was bad news for New York City’s gifted students, especially those who are disadvantaged. But Adams’s reaction and seeming readiness to right those wrongs is a welcome and hopeful salve.
Do students have a right to a high-quality education? A proposed ballot initiative filed in California last Thursday says yes. If successful, it would amend the state constitution to say that all public school students “shall have the right to a high-quality public education” and that relevant state laws and regulations must “put the interests of students first.” This would significantly up the ante from the Golden State’s current constitutional requirement for the legislature to “provide for a system of common schools.” Backers of the effort, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, aim to put the question before voters in November 2022 in what is likely to cause an expensive and brutal battle with the state’s formidable teachers union.
The California initiative represents the latest effort to leverage judicial power—in the form of court challenges sparked by constitutional amendment—to solve a problem that billions of dollars and countless policy reforms haven’t: the persistent inequities and inadequacies endemic to America’s K–12 education system. Ten years ago, the landmark Vergara case drew national attention to California and the question of a student’s educational rights, followed by high-profile litigation in New York, Minnesota, and more recently, Michigan and Rhode Island. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that stubbornly refuses to go away, there’s renewed momentum for finding a way to enshrine a student’s right to an effective education.
Measures similar to California’s have been introduced in Minnesota and New Mexico, with kindred efforts underway in other states, focusing on educational quality, literacy, and learning outcomes. The bland pledge to “put students’ interests first” may seem obvious and unarguable, but it’s worth understanding how such language might play out if embedded into state constitutions. Supporters say they are not targeting any specific statutes, but it’s not hard to imagine antiquated school finance laws that underfund low-income districts, for instance, being put in the crosshairs. Or restrictive charter laws that artificially limit their expansion or unduly inhibit their ability to operate. Or teacher tenure laws and seniority-driven contracts. Proponents are basically trying to empower the courts to overrule legislatures and local authorities. You can see why unions are alarmed, even if some potential court decisions could go their way.
One key supporter of the ballot initiative is Ben Austin, founding partner of a new national advocacy organization called Education Civil Rights Now. He offers a compelling narrative for why education reformers should rally around this “new constitutional North Star”:
For decades, the education reform community has attempted to build a movement around technocratic tinkering and school models, which (unsurprisingly) hasn’t worked. Establishing a civil right to a high-quality public education would empower public school parents with the same kind of seat at the table to advocate for the interests of students that has guided other social movements to sustainable victories across generations.
Considering the painful inertia of school systems and state legislatures and their tendency to prioritize adult interests, there’s obvious appeal in doing an end run around the status quo to establish pro-student policies at the state and school board level.
Yet this initiative also raises the broad question of whether we really want to use the courts in this way. Almost seventy years of decisions since Brown have shown that courts can ensure access to education, but also that they do a lousy job in promoting quality. This is because the requirements they impose tend to be bureaucratic and clumsy. What’s more, courts are not good venues for finding compromise, studying tradeoffs, or weighing practical considerations.
All of our children deserve good schools. In this sense, we should embrace the motivation behind this effort, as well as the urgent desire to do something to address California’s stubborn and unmoving education problems. At the same time, we can be skeptical about how much might be accomplished, and concerned about whether this remedy would do more harm than good. The pursuit of a constitutional right to a high-quality education feels like a satisfying recourse to our present educational woes, but we should remain clear-eyed about its limitations when it comes to closing the vast distance between policy and practice.
As one paper put it, there is a “paucity of robust research” on project-based learning. Yet in the ed-school world and in many journals and professional organizations, it’s often touted as a pedagogical gold standard. This is traced back to John Dewey and William Kilpatrick and is contrasted with so-called traditionalist “fact cramming” and “assembly line” methods. An earnest goal of many professors and organizations, then, is to perform the first studies that secure evidence of its efficacy. Who can find the first picture of Sasquatch?
One study published earlier this year purports to have done so, i.e., proven that project-based learning is as effective as its proponents claim. The publication Edutopia celebrated it as “compelling evidence.” The researchers implemented intensive project-based learning programs in AP U.S. History and AP Environmental Science classrooms. The history class featured “student debates over historical and contemporary constitutional issues, mock presidential elections, and, for the culminating project, creating a political action plan intended to move an agenda item (e.g., immigration policy) through the political system.” The science classroom functioned similarly, building itself around projects as the primary means to cover the curriculum.
It was surely engaging and, in the end, students in the PBL classrooms scored 8 percentage points higher than the control group on their AP exams. At first glance, it seems convincing. Under further scrutiny, however, the research is questionable; the picture is fuzzy.
There’s an essential question in such randomized controlled trials: “Compared to what?” In this case, the treatment group in the project-based classrooms received “curriculum, instructional materials, and robust professional development supports for teachers.” They compared this group to a control group of classrooms doing “business as usual.”
Call me crazy, but I’d imagine any class that received robust professional development and instructional materials designed and tested by researchers might see improvements pretty much regardless of the instructional approach in question. If I spent extra time reflecting on my practice and conferencing with local professors, my teaching would probably improve—regardless of whether it was PBL or direct instruction. There are simply too many variables for this study to prove much of anything.
And that’s without even getting to the difficulty of defining what exactly project-based learning is. Like a Rorschach test, the phrase signals quite different things to different users, so gauging its efficacy is all the harder. Even the most prominent adherents of teacher-led instructional practices still incorporate projects of some kind, even if they are not the basic classroom structure.
This study would be inconsequential if it existed in isolation. Much more concerning is other research that finds that PBL actually risks learning loss. A similar study implemented a project-based approach in eight different classrooms. To the researcher’s dismay, the results went in the opposite direction:
- Adopting PBL had no clear impact on either literacy (as measured by the Progress in English assessment) or student engagement with school and learning.
- The impact evaluation indicated that PBL may have had a negative impact on the literacy attainment of pupils entitled to free school meals.
The authors of this second study themselves admit that “the existing international evidence on the effectiveness of PBL is relatively weak.” Reviews of the literature confirm this conclusion. One seminal paper led by Paul Kirschner, professor of education at The Open University, says that any minimally guided instruction like PBL “is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.”
Kirschner attempts to explain why PBL falters in its application. In short, it ignores “the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture.” In simpler language, there’s a vast base of research into how the human brain learns. While we learn elementary skills like verbal language through play and experimentation, more complex topics and skills—ancient history, scientific concepts, written language, the stuff of culture—require explicit instruction and practice.
We cannot experiment our way into memorizing the multiplication tables. Learning the nature of the solar system requires clear explanations, examples, and analogies. Writing necessitates models and practice.
What’s more, projects can be wildly inefficient. Time spent distracted, dealing with the project itself, figuring out software, and suchlike is less time for covering models, receiving direct instruction, practicing, and other productive uses of class time. Barak Rosenshine wrote an excellent summary of the most effective strategies for teachers to use, things like questions, modeling, and structured practice. Any time spent cutting and gluing a diorama means less time for these.
To be clear, none of this research is an irrefutable repudiation of PBL. There are countless anecdotes of PBL models working. High Tech High, a successful charter network in California, is full of such examples. However, anecdotes are only that.
Project-based learning might work. Sasquatch might also exist. Even so, the evidence available today suggests that PBL doesn’t deserve its place on the pedestal, and that I can camp in the woods without worry.
As supporters celebrate and opponents dissect the Year of School Choice, a timely new report tries to make sense of the way parents value, assess, and act upon available information for making education choices. The study, by Shira Alicia Korn Haderlein of the University of Southern California, is said to be a new twist on previous single-question opinion surveys, but ultimately seems to be more of the same. While it likely illustrates some true aspects of parental preferences in education, it’s limited by the fact that no participants were involved in evaluating real schools or making actual choices for their kids.
Participants were recruited via Amazon’s MTurk Worker platform, which pays individuals across the globe to complete tasks such as the survey used in this study. The adjunct CloudResarch portal filtered respondents based on “quality.” In all, 1,277 individuals took the online survey in two waves during June 2021. Wave 1 comprised 859 respondents who resided in the U.S. and reported being parents. Wave 2 comprised an additional 368 respondents who met the Wave 1 criteria and also identified as Black or Hispanic. In a pre-survey process using other respondents, Korn Haderlein narrowed a list of thirty-three school attributes possibly related to parental choice down to the most popular six: academic achievement status, academic achievement growth, quality of school leadership, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and racial demographics of the student body. It is important to note that some big stuff—class size, extracurriculars, social-emotional-learning programming—didn’t make the cut. Additionally, while all respondents were parents, the specific ages of their children were not available. Thus, a respondent could rank “graduation rate” low on their list, not because it’s unimportant, but because their child was only in fifth grade. The final group of respondents was also more female and more educated than the general population.
The twist here is the three-step survey design. Respondents were first asked to rank the importance of the six school attributes, as is typical for a one-step survey of preferences. They then reviewed a set of twenty hypothetical school report cards in which various levels of the six attributes were randomly mixed. (For example, high academic achievement, decreasing growth, below average chronic absenteeism, an even composition of White and non-White students, etc.) Respondents were asked to assess school quality based on that report card on a seven-point Likert scale. Finally, they were given two hypothetical schools with randomly-assigned levels of the six attributes, arranged for maximum contrast, and asked to which of the schools they would send their child.
On average, respondents ranked academic achievement as the most important attribute for them, followed by graduation rate, achievement growth, school leadership, demographic composition, and absenteeism rate. School leadership and demographic composition each had a small group of adherents who ranked it most important but majorities ranked those last. Black and Hispanic respondents ranked chronic absenteeism as more important to them than did their White peers.
As for evaluating school quality—no real surprise here—all attributes mattered. The schools with the overall most positive attribute mixes were deemed by respondents to be the highest-quality schools. Consistent with the ranking data, achievement status was the most impactful predictor of parents’ school quality perceptions. The higher a school’s hypothetical achievement, the higher its quality was deemed to be. Chronic absenteeism brought up the rear in that regard. Student demographics was the only attribute that varied across racial groups, with Black and Hispanic parents rating diverse schools of higher quality than those with mostly White or with mostly non-White students. White parents, by contrast, assigned lower quality ratings to schools with mostly non-White students.
In terms of choosing between two hypothetical schools, the overall preference was to enroll their child in whichever school had the best overall attribute mix. However, analysis indicated that achievement growth was more influential than achievement status in determining final choice, and that chronic absenteeism rate mattered less in the final choice than its previous rankings by respondents would have indicated. White parents were somewhat more likely to choose more diverse schools than all-White schools but less likely to choose schools which were majority non-White. Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to choose diverse schools over both schools with mostly non-White and mostly-White students.
Korn Haderlein suggests that her results are more reliable than the results of one-step preference surveys, and more reliable than revealed preferences via actual choices, which suffer from a host of confounding variables and less-than-perfect informational access. She asserts that parents here “have ample information and unlimited schooling options” within the bounds of this survey due to its more meticulous design. Even if true, that is not the case in the real world. While it is heartening to read that academic achievement likely ranks at or near the top of every parent’s list when evaluating the best possible fit for their child, making real school choices involves distance, non-academic concerns, and other tradeoffs far more difficult to tease out through even the most involved survey design.
SOURCE: Shira Alicia Korn Haderlein, “How Do Parents Evaluate and Select Schools? Evidence From a Survey Experiment,” American Educational Research Journal (September 2021).
The persistence of racial segregation between and within school districts has motivated some in the school choice community to develop diverse-by-design charters (DBDCs), which are defined as schools without a 70 percent majority of students of any race or ethnicity, plus 30 to 70 percent low-income pupils. A new study from Columbia University’s Teachers College examines absenteeism, suspension rates, and academic outcomes in these schools. It finds mostly positive results, though its methodology is questionable, in part because it is not clearly explained.
The study was conducted with forty-six diverse-by-design charter schools in five cities—Los Angeles, San Diego, the Bay Area, New York City, and Denver—most of which admit students via lottery. All were in operation for at least three years, members of the Diverse Charter Coalition, and had diversity and integration explicitly mentioned in their mission statements. The quantitative portion of the study compared data on absenteeism, discipline, and student outcomes from diverse-by-design charters with data from comparison schools. (There was also a qualitative portion that isn’t reviewed here.) Comparison schools are public schools within a five -mile radius of the DBDCs that are attended by at least one student who entered the lottery but were not selected. (Why the authors include entire schools where a single lottery applicant attends, but not nearby schools where none does is unclear.) The study controlled for student race, free lunch eligibility, and grade level. The authors used Civil Rights Data Collection for suspensions rates in New York and California, but they do not seem to share the sources for the attendance and student outcome data.
Surprisingly, the study finds that in just three of the five cities were diverse-by-design charters more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the comparison schools. The authors do not speculate as to why, in two of the cities, schools designed to be diverse are less diverse than nearby schools that may not be actively pursuing that goal.
The study also found that chronic absenteeism was lower in DBDCs for Hispanic students in all five cities and lower for Black students in four of them. And that in two of the five cities, the overall suspension rates for both groups were lower in DBDCs. In New York, their Black students were more likely to be suspended than in comparison schools, but Hispanic students had lower rates.
As for student outcomes, diverse-by-design charters in four cities had higher English language arts scores among students than in comparison schools. But in only two jurisdictions, Denver and the Bay Area, were math scores higher for DBDCs. And in New York, scores were lower in both subjects. In California’s three cities, diverse-by-design charters have been around long enough to graduate students, and their Black and Hispanic students have higher graduation rates.
It is important to note that diverse-by-design charters are, like charters generally, often unique among themselves and subject to different laws, regulations, and forces depending on where they’re located, making it difficult to compare them and generalize. But their mostly positive results suggest that the model holds some promise.
SOURCE: “Moving the Needle on Desegregation: Performance Outcomes and Implementation Lessons from Diverse-by-Design Charter Schools,” Teachers College Columbia University (June 2021).
On this week’s podcast, Brandon Wright, Fordham’s editorial director and coauthor of Failing Our Brightest Kids, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent move to overhaul gifted education in New York City. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the distribution of school resources in America, and what it means for disadvantaged students.
Amber's Research Minute
Kenneth Shores and Hojung Lee, "The Distribution of School Resources in The United States: A Comparative Analysis Across Levels of Governance, Student Sub-groups, And Educational Resources," Social Science Research Network (August 2021).
- Schools must follow researched-based approaches for recovering from pandemic learning losses. —Doug Lemov
- Northwestern University and Curriculum Associates have partnered to propose solutions to problems such as absenteeism and successful pathways to algebra. —Northwestern
- Meanwhile, NWEA, Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, and CALDER have teamed up to help school districts gather real-time data and tackle pandemic recovery. —The 74
- “Furious parents at school board meetings have a right to speak. We should listen to them.” —Washington Post
- Some schools are unwisely spending their Covid-19 aid on unnecessary athletic improvements, like building synthetic turf fields. —Associated Press
- In Rutherford County, Tennessee, Black children were arrested for a nonexistent crime. Those responsible have not been held accountable. —ProPublica
- School quarantine protocols are keeping kids out of classrooms, costing them learning time and the chance for healthy socialization, with little impact on contagion. —Washington Post
- “Philly overhauls selective admissions policy in bid to be antiracist.” —Chalkbeat Philadelphia
- Americans increasingly embraced school choice during the pandemic, testing the country’s historical commitment to traditional public education. —Christian Science Monitor
- While research supports phonics-based early literacy instruction, 75 percent of teachers use curricula that rely on what they erroneously believe is a more engaging approach. —Emily Oster’s Blog
- “Social justice crusaders are putting kids in foster care system at risk.” —New York Post
- Some changes the pandemic brought to education, such as the use of more tech, more flexible class schedules, and more parental engagement, are here to stay. —USA Today