Driving equity in gifted policies: Insights from Harlem Academy in New York City
Four points for leaders to consider as they continue developing policies that promote equity and excellence in advanced education.
Editor’s note: This week, Advance features a guest article by Vincent Dotoli, the founder of and head of school at Harlem Academy, a K–8 independent school dedicated to driving equity of opportunity for promising students. The other elements of the newsletter were compiled by Brandon Wright, Advance’s regular writer and editor.
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.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“Julie qualified [for her school’s gifted program in fourth grade], but my husband and I don’t believe in tracking or separating kids. We did not allow her to move into the gifted track. She took it hard at first... We’re now halfway through the year and Julie’s still heartbroken. She’s also begun saying classes are boring and too slow. Clearly, she isn’t thriving socially or academically.”
—Slate, parent letter to “Care and Feeding” advice column, January 19, 2023
THREE STUDIES TO STUDY
“Gifted boys’ perceptions of their academic underachievement,” by Ophelie Desmet and Nielsen Pereira, Gifted Education International, Volume 38, Issue 2, May 2022
“We examined how six gifted boys perceived the onset and development of their academic underachievement and what they identified as contributing aspects. Across the six boys’ experiences, a similar pattern of onset and development of academic underachievement emerged. The boys discussed a lack of academic challenge, investment in hobbies, issues with time management and self-regulation, family transitions, and peer relations as contributing to their academic underachievement. These aspects influenced the boys’ value beliefs (e.g., not caring about grades) or maladaptive beliefs about themselves (e.g., lower self-worth), which contributed to disengagement and underachievement according to students.”
“What Longitudinal Research and Large-Scale Population Representative Studies Can Tell Us About Gifted Students and Education Policy 50 Years After the Marland Report,” by Jonathan Wai, Lisa Bardach, and Bich Tran, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, Volume 45, Issue 1, March 2022
“The Marland Report included many correct observations about gifted education. Some findings, for example, were based on Project Talent, a large‐scale population representative longitudinal study of the US high school population. This paper uses the intersection of cognitive aptitudes and gifted education as a framework and synthesizes studies using prospective longitudinal data from numerous sources. Additional retrospective data on US high achievers are reviewed, as are longitudinal findings from other countries. All these sources will be used to reevaluate a selected set of claims made in the Marland Report. Specifically, we explore (a) the definition and understanding of gifted students; (b) the identification of and longitudinal research on gifted students; and (c) we briefly discuss the context of the Marland Report in the wider history of education policy and reform in the US, including how to best support talented students using information from the field of education policy.”
“Are Gifted Students Adapting Their Self-Regulated Learning Processes When Experiencing Challenging Tasks?” by Lisa M. Ridgley, Lisa DaVia Rubenstein, and Gregory L. Callan, Gifted Child Quarterly, Volume 66, Issue 1, January 2022
“Self-regulated learning (SRL) promotes both current and future academic achievement and must be adapted based on task demands... The current study used a two-stage approach to examine the extent to which Honors College students are able to adjust their SRL approaches based on task demands. Stage 1 provided baseline data on which types of Graduate Record Examination data analysis problems each student found to be difficult or easy. Then, in Stage 2, students were provided individually designed, easy and difficult problems... [The] findings suggest that, although gifted students may be aware of deeper, more effective strategies, they may not transfer these skills to difficult learning tasks. Thus, one recommendation would be to provide gifted students with more opportunities to practice building and transferring adaptive SRL processes when faced with a challenging task.”
WRITING WORTH READING
“I think refusing to let my child join the gifted program at school has backfired. Big time.” Slate, advice column by Nicole Chung, January 19, 2023
“National Working Group on Advanced Education: Summary of third meeting,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, January 19, 2023
“Decrease in staff for gifted students proposed in Baltimore County Public Schools, concerning stakeholders,” Baltimore Sun, Sabrina LeBoeuf, January 18, 2023
“Leaked NYC schools video shows implicit bias a key concern as gifted and talented program expands,” Gothamist, Jessica Gould, January 18, 2023
“NYC could find out if ‘gifted & talented’ is good for all kids. But will it?” The 74, Alina Adams, January 16, 2023
“Readers respond: Keep challenging gifted students,” The Oregonian, Letters to the editor, January 16, 2023
“Should grade-skipping be more common? here’s what the research says,” Foundation for Economic Education, Patrick Carroll, January 13, 2023
“Why I’m against the economic argument for educating gifted children,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Victoria McDougald, January 12, 2023
“Understanding your gifted child,” Psychology Today, Barbara Klein, January 12, 2023