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Achieving equity through mediocrity: Why elimination of gifted programs should worry us all


Journalist H.L. Mencken once denounced public education as an effort “simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” Mencken’s fears may be coming true in a way that few of us thought possible just a few years ago.

While much of our public debate today has centered on the teaching of the concepts of systemic racism and white privilege, a far more worrisome trend is sweeping our public school system. Across the country, school districts are removing advanced programs and even standardized testing to achieve an artificial appearance of equity. Indeed, it promises a kind of equity through mediocrity that all families should reject.

This movement was on display this week after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the elimination of the Gifted and Talented (G&T) program for the city’s school system. G&T programs have been denounced by some as racist because a disproportionate number of white and Asian students are in the advanced programs. The move is part of a campaign to eliminate racial disparities not by elevating the performance of minority students but by removing standardized testing and special programs that highlight such disparities.

Despite billions spent on public school systems, there remains a chronic failure to achieve bare proficiency in reading, writing and math for many public school students in cities like New YorkDetroitWashington, D.C., and Baltimore. The response by many is to declare standardized testing or meritocracy as racist, while other districts eliminate special programs or schools for gifted students. In Oregon, the governor and legislature went further and eliminated any graduation proficiency requirement in reading, writing or math.

De Blasio’s move will do little to advance students, while likely accelerating the departure of many families from public schools. Gifted students are unlikely to get the attention or advanced work they need to stay intellectually engaged; some will underperform or drop out.

It also is not necessarily good for other students. Gifted students are likely to push down the scores and ranking of other students. Currently, students in the other programs can still excel and achieve high class rankings in seeking college positions. Now, they likely will find themselves less competitive if classes are dominated by gifted students, and teachers will struggle to keep both sets of students engaged.

Rather than improving the performance of minority students, these districts are eliminating testing, requirements and programs that recognize disparities in performance. It is like making your track team more competitive by eliminating the fastest runners or just eliminating the clock. Suddenly everyone is magically performing in perfect harmony. 

This movement goes beyond grades.

Recently, a Virginia teacher denounced classroom discipline as a form of “white supremacy.” In a short video, Blacksburg High School teacher Josh Thompson described the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports — or PBIS — as “white supremacy with a hug”: “The idea of just sitting quiet and being told stuff and taking things in a passive stance is not a thing that’s ‘in’ with many cultures. So if we’re positively enforcing these behaviors, we are by extension positively enforcing elements of white culture, which therefore keeps whiteness at the center, which is the definition of white supremacy.”

He is not alone. The Biden administration is looking at class discipline as an area of racial discrimination, and other schools districts have barred expulsion or suspensions due to classroom disruptions as racially inequitable. In one English school, teachers were banned this month from even referring to the conduct of students as “good” or “bad.” Headteacher Dr. Julian Murphy said that “I don’t want [teachers] to be shouty and make pupils feel guilty.”

The question is how all of these changes will shape a rising generation. There have long been complaints about the “trophy generation” — young people raised on the expectation that you get trophies for just participating. This new trend is the inverse, effectively eliminating any trophies for higher performers.

Consider the current trajectory of all these moves: Students will be taught in schools that increasingly are unable to enforce good classroom behavior (assuming they can even refer to “good” behavior) with suspensions or expulsions; standardized testing and basic proficiency requirements will be eliminated to remove performance rankings and tracking. Many institutions, like the California university system, are eliminating college standardized testing in order to address racial inequities. Some have even called for random selection for college admissions. As Alison Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Board of Education, stated recently, “When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing … those are racist systems.”

The result is a perfectly equitable — and a perfectly irrational — educational system.

It is unclear how this country intends to compete in an already challenging global economy. Other countries like China must be delighted to see these moves to eliminate G&T programs.

The most immediate response is likely to be the increasing departures of families from public schools. School choice and vouchers are becoming a more widely supported cause, including by a huge number of Democratic and independent voters. Yet the abandonment of public schools would be a terrible loss for many of us who have been lifelong supporters of public education. (My parents helped found a group in Chicago in the 1970s to stop the “white flight” from public schools. There, the loss of white and affluent families was not just reducing diversity in the schools but leaving schools without political and economic support. My wife and I sent our kids to Virginia public schools and feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in Fairfax County, with exceptional schools and teachers.)

These trends are now reversing such efforts. Teachers’ unions and politicians often treat families like captives in these systems, with little to no voice on curriculum or policies. That issue is at the center of the close governor’s race in Virginia, after Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe declared: “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Those parents ultimately can speak, however, by leaving public school systems. The result would be an educational system as divided as our society — racially, politically and economically. Moreover, we will have an increasing gap in the levels of performance between private and public schools, creating an image of public schools as the default educational option for students who are less competitive. That would be a disaster not just for minority families but for the entire country.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags Alternative education American competitiveness Bill de Blasio charter schools Education Education reform public schools School discipline School voucher Social inequality Standardized test Tracking

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