Sunday, November 22, 2009

The New Absurdities?

For an hour at a time they sit erect at their desks puzzling over one challenging question after another. Some questions are fairly readily solved; others prove to be a little too difficult. Sometimes a weak smile appears on their faces as they receive approval for getting a right answer, but more often they wrinkle their brows in consternation as they struggle to make sense of the problems posed to them. They are part of an increasingly large group of New Yorkers whose families are paying as much as $145 an hour to get them ready for the big tests that many parents believe will determine their children's professional futures.

These studious test takers happen to be just 3 and 4 years old and the tests they are preparing for will decide whether they are admitted to New York City's gifted and talented program for kindergarten children. As the New York Times reported yesterday, more and more New York City parents are finding it difficult to afford private school, and are looking to the public schools' gifted programs as the next best thing. As one parent put it, "Even though we live in the West Village and there are great public schools, obviously, any opportunity to step it up a notch in caliber, we would like to try."

Absurdity #1: Using a standardized test to determine entrance to a gifted and talented program, which is, at best, modestly correlated with academic ability.

Absurdity #2: Test prep for 3 and 4 year olds which has only a modest impact on how they will perform on these tests.

Absurdity #3A: Private schools regard such test prep as "unethical" because, as the director of admissions at the elite Dalton School observed: "It completely negates the reason for giving the test, which is to provide a snapshot of their aptitudes, and it doesn't correlate with future success in school." Right...but all the advantages that come with being privileged and rich are okay.

Absurdity #3B: Somehow aptitude is your innate ability that cannot be...or should not be...influenced by environmental factors or efforts to manipulate the score through test preparation. Sometimes known as the SAT/Kaplan Test Prep Absurdity. (Amazing aside: The Washington Post bought Kaplan back in the 80s and the only thing keeping it afloat financially right now is the fantastic business Kaplan continues to do.)

Absurdity #4: The New York City Public Schools encourage test prep for gifted and talented admissions as a way of "leveling the playing field."

Absurdity #5: As one gifted and talented test administrator noted, "Some kids can do well without preparation, but children who are familiar [with the test questions and how the test works] have an edge." She added that with respect to equity, "it's ridiculous."

Absurdity #6A: The head of gifted and talented programs in New York City concludes: "I would hope that parents make decisions around this program because they feel that this is an educational option that their child really needs, as opposed to I have to get my child into this program because that's the only place where they are going to get a good education." What planet is this person living on? There are some good public schools in New York City, but they are relatively scarce. Can she really blame parents for wanting every possible advantage for their child?

Absurdity #6B: The widely held point of view that: My child's life is ruined if she or he doesn't get into this gifted and talented program.

The Umbrella of Shame for These Absurdities: Everything we know about the kind of education that changes the life chances of the least privileged children in this country is exactly the kind of opportunity offered in gifted and talented programs. So why is it this country does not have the will to make this opportunity available to every child? Because what many of these parents are really looking for is not so much a superior education as it is isolation from difference. The more their children can be educated with children who are just like them - well off, white, privileged - the better they like it.

1 comment:

  1. So, what does a 'gifted/talented' program offer that is different from a regular class? Teacher quality? Smaller class size/more individual attention? Better infrastructure? Safer conditions? More parental control? Honestly, I don't know. But here are somethings I am certain about, One, every kid is different. Different genetic potential (sorry but it's true)different home situation, different personality and interests. Two, every kid deserves high quality teachers, smaller classes, individual attention, a safe school environment and good educational infrastructure. So why don't we start with that and build a public system that can provide these things?
    I wonder what our society would look like if we put our children at the center and made our policy decisions based on what would make our children the best they can be.