Earlier this year, the New York City School Diversity Advisory Group, a group of leaders, researchers, educators, and community members, convened by mayor Bill De Blasio, recommended that New York City scrap its current use of tracking “gifted and talented” students in its schools and figure out a better way to offer enrichment. Under the current system, New York City identifies children for gifted programs by administering a standardized test to a self-selecting group of 4-year-olds. The city then gives those children with passing scores a chance to enroll in gifted classrooms or schools, where they are separated from the rest of their peers. The advisory group described this current system as “unfair, unjust and not necessarily research-based,” resulting in segregation by “race, class, abilities and language” that “perpetuate[s] stereotypes about student potential and achievement.” The group’s recommendations call on community school districts across the city to “pilot creative, equitable enrichment alternatives.”
New York City’s gifted and talented program is a national outlier. Few other places test children at such a young age, use a single standardized test score as a measure, or implement a program based on strict separation of gifted children from peers without that designation in separate schools or classrooms. Perhaps because of this, even many supporters of the city’s gifted and talented education system—who were quick to criticize the advisory group’s recommendations—concede that the current system is flawed and needs to be changed to make it more equitable and effective. Some have suggested adopting new strategies of identification, ones that use multiple measures rather than a single test score, that screen children at around age 8 instead of 4, or that implement universal screening rather than relying on families to seek out testing on their own.
The use of separation raises big questions about the equity of the enrichment approached used, perhaps more so than any other aspect of New York City’s gifted and talented program.
These debates about how to tweak the system that the city uses for identifying “gifted” children are necessary, and have frequently been productive; but they’ve been hamstrung by a lack of attention to the system’s usage of separate classrooms. The use of separation raises big questions about the equity of the enrichment approached used, perhaps more so than any other aspect of New York City’s gifted and talented program. And they’re questions that are relevant in school districts across the country: Do gifted children actually benefit academically from being in separate classrooms? And are they harmed by being in academically mixed settings?
Luckily, ample research is available to help us in answering these questions; and we have found that a strong majority of that research answers the question in the same way. The body of research is made up of a variety of different studies looking at the academic effects of separation for gifted and high-achieving students, including research on de-tracking efforts, gifted programs, and alternative approaches to enrichment. The common finding across these studies is that a system of sorting and separating students based on academic level is neither necessary nor particularly helpful for supporting gifted and high-achieving students.
De-Tracking Does Not Harm Higher-Achieving Students
The body of research on de-tracking can offer us some lessons about the effects of separating students based on ability—whether in an elementary school gifted program or a high school honors course. More than a dozen studies across four decades point to a clear result: academic tracking—the practice of sorting students based on perceived academic ability into different classes—harms the students assigned to lower levels. Students placed in lower-level classes show reduced achievement over time when compared with peers who had similar initial achievement levels but who received access to higher-level courses.
At the same time, research has shown that the performance of students with greater initial achievement is not hurt by de-tracking. High-quality de-tracking programs achieve this result by “leveling up” the curriculum to give more students access to challenging coursework and supporting teachers in the process. For example, Rockville Center School District in Long Island, New York, expanded their international baccalaureate (IB) program from serving just a select group of top-track students to reach all high school students. Some in the community were worried that the district’s “top” students would suffer from being in classrooms that now included lower-achieving peers. But these students continued to achieve high scores on their IB exams under the new de-tracked model, and, in fact, the overall proportion of students scoring at the highest levels on exams increased.
Separate Gifted Programs Are Largely Ineffective
Furthermore, several recent studies, specifically examining elementary school gifted programs, have found that separating gifted students does not help their academic achievement. In 2013, researchers at Michigan State University compared how students of comparable academic abilities perform when they are admitted to a public school for gifted children versus when they remain in the regular-track schools and classrooms. Their sample was 14,000 fifth-graders in a very large urban school district in the United States. Researchers focused on marginal students—those who barely made the threshold for their schools’ gifted and talented programs in comparison to those who had just barely missed the threshold for the program and were in regular classes. Through analyzing students’ standardized test scores in math, science, reading, social studies, and language arts, researchers found that after a year and a half of gifted and talented classes, there was essentially no difference in test scores between the marginal students who were in gifted and talented programs, compared to marginal students who were in regular classrooms.
Researchers found that after a year and a half of gifted and talented classes, there was essentially no difference in test scores between the marginal students who were in gifted and talented programs, compared to marginal students who were in regular classrooms.
A 2019 study of 2,000 elementary schools across three states by the National Center for Research on Gifted Education echoed similar findings: third-grade students in gifted programs were not making significant learning gains in comparison with their peers in general education. The findings suggest that teachers are in need of pedagogical support when teaching higher-achieving students, and there are concerns for whether teachers are well equipped to provide optimal resources for gifted students. Current pedagogical approaches, applied in pull-out programs or self-contained classrooms, were, on average, not helping to boost academic achievement.
Schoolwide Enrichment Approaches Can Benefit Students of All Abilities
While the studies on separate gifted programs show lackluster results, research on approaches that make enrichment available to many or all students in a school are promising. One such approach is the schoolwide enrichment model (SEM), which was developed at the University of Connecticut.
SEM is an approach to teaching and learning that draws from the pedagogy of gifted education to enhance opportunities for all students in a given school. Schools using this model typically identify “gifted behaviors,” including above-average academic abilities, creativity, and task commitment, rather than attaching a binary (“gifted”/“not gifted”) label to each student. SEM advises schools to use flexible student groupings that change throughout the course of a year and bring together students with different achievement and interest levels. Some schools apply these techniques across all classrooms, whereas others use them only in certain subjects or programs. The goal is to create opportunities for all students to be engaged in some type of enrichment, in which students with shared interests engage in investigative learning and explore real-life problems. While the research on gifted programs more generally points to concerns about the lack of instructional support and rigorous curriculum in most gifted programs, the pedagogical tools of SEM have specifically been shown to be effective with gifted students.
This approach of offering enrichment to students across ability levels has been shown to improve outcomes for both high- and low-ability students. In 2006, a study explored the impact of an after-school reading program for students in grades three through six that mixed together students of different ability levels and used the pedagogical tools of SEM. The findings showed that both high- and low-ability students’ participation in the after-school program may have contributed to additional growth in reading achievement. Researchers also explored the impact of a computer-based enrichment program using SEM methods on achievement for a group of gifted-identified students and students without the designation. Researchers found that students who participated in the program, both those who were identified as gifted and those who were not, demonstrated significantly higher growth in reading comprehension than those students who did not participate.
It’s Time to Bring Everyone Together
All of the research discussed above suggests that gifted students do not need to be in separate schools or classrooms in order to be successful. In fact, on average, separate gifted programs do not seem to be effective, and separating higher-achieving and lower-achieving students can be actively harmful to lower-achieving students.
The implications of this for New York City—and other districts with programs that place children who are identified as gifted or high-achieving in separate classrooms or schools—are clear. Identification for gifted programs is a problem, but fixing the entrance criteria for a system still based on separating children into differently tracked classrooms is not enough to promote equity. This very practice of separation is not supported by research. Instead, districts should create schoolwide enrichment programs, and shift services for gifted-identified children toward a model that favors push-in services in inclusive settings, just as the best practices for special education services encourage. We don’t need to just tweak some tests: we need to make a fundamental shift in our approach to enrichment. And well-supported de-tracking is an excellent place to start.