“Eloise Is Just … Reaaaallllly Special”

New York City’s proposed elimination of gifted and talented programs shines a light on which parents fight the hardest to get their kids into them.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at Bronx Latin School on Sept. 16, 2015.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at Bronx Latin School on Sept. 16, 2015.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Will New York City schools really eliminate all gifted-and-talented programs in the name of diversity? That’s the recommendation of a new report by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), as reported in the New York Times. The report recommends radical changes in the city’s approach to gifted-and-talented education as well as the admissions processes for specialized schools such as Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Latin, and others. As Times reporter Eliza Shapiro diagnoses the problem, “A group of selective schools and programs geared to students labeled gifted and talented is filled mostly with white and Asian children. The rest of the system is open to all students and is predominantly black and Hispanic.” The report is more blunt: Unlike their more affluent counterparts, low-income families struggle to take advantage of test-preparation instruction for the city’s gifted screening tests. Systemwide gifted-and-talented programs contribute to the fact that “the schools of New York City are as segregated as the schools of Mississippi and Alabama.” The advisory group’s proposal has already drawn opposition from several New York politicians, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

New York is not alone in its simmering controversies over gifted education and equity. A devastating exposé published last year (also in the Times) detailed the troubled history of gifted education in my own town, Charlottesville, Virginia, where “white students are about four times as likely to be in Charlottesville’s gifted program” as black students. And as research from the University of Virginia’s Margaret Thornton has suggested, the city’s Quest program for gifted and talented students was founded in part “as a way to keep white students separate from the black students who had recently integrated into the city’s public schools after a time of resistance to desegregation.”

These issues of class privilege and racial exclusion long surrounding gifted education were on my mind while researching my novel The Gifted School, which imagines the fallout when a new public school for exceptionally gifted children opens in an affluent town. As I quickly learned, the topic of giftedness touches a raw nerve with parents and educators across the socioeconomic spectrum. Among affluent parents, in particular, the subjects of equity and inclusion often elicit a heady mix of defensiveness and good intentions.

Many of the leaders I consulted in the field of gifted education (some of them also referenced in the SDAG report) have sought to address issues of inclusion through innovative approaches to identification, assessment, and selection that will surely figure into the city’s strategies around gifted education going forward. Yet despite the best efforts of well-intentioned educators, there will always be a stars-upon-thars quality to systems that so visibly identify one group of kids as gifted and another as, at least implicitly, ungifted. To point out such layered inequities in the system is not to call for a kind of everybody-gets-a-blue-ribbon relativism. Try talking about school to any elementary-age child who hasn’t been placed in a gifted program, and you’re likely to get a version of the melancholy observation, “Oh yeah, Wednesday mornings. That’s when the smart kids leave the room.”

One of the refreshing aspects of the Advisory Group’s report is its identification of “nomenclature” as an especially problematic element of gifted instruction—because let’s face it, the word “gifted” can be cloying, with its vaguely spiritual overtones and its air of lofty elevation. A gifted child? Gifted with what, precisely? And by what bestowal of historical legacies?

Giftedness often functions less as an attribute of the particular child than as an affect of the overinvested parent. Genuine concerns about a child’s need for specialized instruction can shade into a smugness that comes out in burbles of self-satisfaction and, worse, a willfully oblivious embrace of the very segregating effects that gifted programs so often produce. At one of my events, a member of the audience informed the room, proudly, that she sought private schooling for her gifted children because the kids in the city elementary schools were just too wild and disruptive.

Such strong feelings about gifted children and their needs create jaw-dropping spectacles of parental privilege. In The Gifted School, I invented Facebook arguments over the politics of the new magnet school that pale in comparison to actual reader comments on the Times story about the SDAG report:

The leaders of the future are the gifted students, not the mediocre ones.

The left despises individual achievement, so their solution is to bring everyone down to the lowest level.  

What a perfect way to get the middle class to flee the city.

This is the twisted mindset of “G & T” parents—they think their fragile geniuses will be contaminated by “normal” children. This kind of thinking is corrosive to our society and to NYC.

Such reactions to the topic of giftedness can be caustic, often polemical, and ripe for satire. I’ll never forget an exchange I overheard at a school gathering one afternoon soon after moving to Charlottesville. Several parents had just been discussing the city’s “Quest” program when a nearby dad opined, “The gifted programs here are a joke. I mean, if the system’s identifying a third of the city’s kids as ‘gifted’ what does the label even mean?” A pregnant pause, then: “My son, on the other hand, actually tests in the top 0.2 percent of children his age … ”

Many of us know this type of parent, this mode of gifty performance—those proudly pursed lips, that falsely modest dip of the head, the grudging boast: “Eloise is just … I don’t know … she’s reeeeeeeally special.”

No one on the mayor’s advisory group would deny the importance of taking seriously (as my novel tries to do) the struggles of high-ability children in the face of overstressed and chronically underfunded school systems. Any number of parents have approached me after readings with tears in their eyes, recounting the painful experiences their children have endured in schools that fail to accommodate the needs of exceptional learners and out-of-the-box thinkers, who can have a hard time fitting in both socially and intellectually. This sense of alienation can be especially acute in the cases of so-called twice exceptional kids: children with the characteristics of gifted students who also show evidence of learning disability.

Too often, though, school-based gifted programs themselves function less as considered models of pedagogical intervention than as forms of social entitlement for the affluent. As the SDAG report puts it, in New York City, “G&T caters to the economically privileged instead of the intellectually privileged.”

It will be fascinating in the coming months to see how New York City rethinks its commitments to gifted education in light of the SDAG report—and when I say “New York City,” I mean de Blasio himself, who will be charged with making the final call on the report’s already controversial recommendations. One element weighing in the mayor’s decision may be the fact that his son graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s most prestigious specialized schools. The mayor gave a much-publicized commencement speech at Brooklyn Tech in 2015, roping his son into good-natured jokes while urging graduates to dedicate themselves to correcting injustice and inequality.

Now, four years later, the SDAG report finds these same inequities at the competitive heart of the city’s education system. The future of giftedness may well prove as tempestuous as its past.