Are schools for “gifted” students promoting segregation? Here’s an argument that they are, from Wendy Lecker, a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and senior attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity project at the Education Law Center.
By Wendy Lecker
From Brown vs. Board of Education to Connecticut’s landmark case, Sheff v. O’Neill, to the language of the Connecticut constitution, the law has been clear. Children have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a public education that is not impaired by isolation based on race, ethnicity, national origin or disability. Therefore, it is unconstitutional to develop and fund education programs that intentionally or unintentionally limit access to educational opportunities based on racial or ethnic backgrounds, or disabilities.
Yet recently, it was announced that schools exclusively for “gifted” children will be opening in Windham, New London and Bridgeport. Whether intended or not, the proposal takes Connecticut back to the ugly era of school segregation.
These three districts plan to pull what they characterize as “gifted” children from their schools and create separate schools “to highlight and encourage the potential” of these particular students. The schools are modeled after the Renzulli Academy in Hartford, named for University of Connecticut professor Joseph Renzulli, and serving “gifted” children in kindergarten and in fourth through ninth grades.
Admission to this school is based on Connecticut Mastery Test scores, grades and a teacher recommendation, although a representative at the school explained that the scores are the “big part” of admissions.
Decades of research have proven that standardized tests are an unreliable and inaccurate measure of student achievement and do not measure student potential. In fact, the data reveal that the strongest correlation is between test scores and socio-economic status.
The gross injustice of relying on these tests scores is apparent at the Hartford Renzulli Academy. In 2011, the school had no English Language Learners (ELL) or any students with disabilities. In 2012, the school had but one ELL student and only 6 of the 120 students were classified as students with disabilities.
The notion that you cannot be “gifted” if you do not speak English or if you need special education services is absurd.
Beyond the faulty admissions criteria, segregating so-called gifted children into a separate school contravenes what we know about a child’s educational development. Children blossom at different times. A child who may not display his gifts at 10 may develop them at 13, given the appropriate access to learning. Conversely, a child who may read at an advanced stage at age 5 may find that her classmates have caught up to her developmentally by age 7, thus erasing her perceived “gift.”
Cementing children into a classification at one age, and denying them access to higher-level learning deprives those in the lower level of that chance to blossom. Until now, even Joseph Renzulli asserted that his gifted pedagogy was designed to work in all school settings for all children.
The most disturbing issue of all is that creating separate schools for “gifted” children violates Connecticut law and policies prohibiting school segregation. While the equal protection clauses in most state constitutions only bar discrimination, Connecticut’s expressly bans segregation as well as discrimination.
In Sheff v. O’Neill, our Supreme Court ruled that segregation has pernicious effects on children whether that segregation is intentional or unorchestrated, and ruled that the state must act to prevent and eradicate school segregation.
Connecticut’s state Board of Education recognized that segregation has a destructive effect on children’s educational opportunities. In its 2010 resolution against tracking, the board wrote that grouping by ability “limits achievement and stifles expectation and opportunity for college and successful competition in the workplace” because it denies those in lower levels access to a more challenging curriculum and higher expectations.
The board unanimously disapproved any practice that permanently groups students for instruction. As the board noted, the practice of tracking disproportionately burdens poor, African-American and Latino students.
The state board resolved that any school district that assigned students to a particular level based on assessed or perceived readiness had to disclose this fact to parents and report to the state the research proving that this separate placement was necessary, the length of time it planned to deny children in lower levels access to learning with higher-achieving peers, and the demographic characteristics of those children denied access to higher-achieving peers.
Now, only three years later, officials stand silent as Connecticut abandons its commitment to desegregation. Indeed, it appears that our leaders are acting to speed re-segregation.
In recent years the state has dramatically increased funding for privately run charter schools that routinely exclude non-English-speaking students and students with disabilities. And now, we have a proposal for “gifted only” schools, equipped with “gifted only” water fountains, “gifted only” bathrooms and “gifted only” lunchrooms.
Something is very wrong here.