Lake Wobegon on the Hudson

I’m convinced that, somewhere in the bowels of the New York Times organization, there’s a memo specifying exactly how often the Gray Lady needs to run basically the exact same story about the difficulties of affluent Manhattanites in getting their children into elite preschools. More recently, we’ve seen a new variant on similar themes: Stories preoccupied with the quirks of the New York City Public Schools’ selective gifted and talented programs. One such story appears prominently in the NYT today, filled with hand-wringing that, as more and more affluent parents are staying in the city and invest in test prep classes aimed to improve their children’s performance on the gifted placement exam (yes–that’s test prep for pre-kindergarteners), the number of “gifted” New York kindergarteners is sky-rocketing, and now exceeds the number of slots available in coveted programs.

I’m sympathetic to the needs of gifted students, who are often overlooked in our education system generally and particularly in policy debates that tend to focus much more (and I believe rightly so) on bringing up students at the bottom of the distribution than accelerating those at the top.

But let’s be honest about what New York’s “gifted” system really is: It’s much less about meeting kids’ needs (very, very few 5-year-old children are so advanced that they can’t or shouldn’t be educated with their average peers) than it is about rationing access to a limited number of high-quality school slots in New York City. And in doing so, the gifted distinction often becomes a mechanism for reinforcing economic disparities:

On their face, the results, released on Friday by the Education Department, paint a portrait of a city in which some neighborhoods appear to be entirely above average. In Districts 2 and 3, which encompass most of Manhattan below 110th Street, more students scored at or above the 90th percentile on the entrance exam, the cutoff point, than scored below it……By contrast, in District 7, in the South Bronx, only six children qualified for gifted placements and none for the five most exclusive schools.

That’s a stark illustration of the tremendous disparities between low-income and affluent children’s childcare and home experiences in the first few years of life, which lead to gaps in development and learning that can be seen as early as 9 months and grow enormous by the time children enter school. High-quality pre-kindergarten programs can help narrow these gaps, but, as the National Institute for Early Education Research reported this week, states nationally cut funding for such programs by $60 million in the past fiscal year. And Republican budget proposals would cut some 200,000 kids a year from Head Start, the federally funded pre-k program for poor children.

The bigger problem here, of course, is that our public education system and discourse continues to assume that there can only be a limited number of high-quality educational opportunities available for kids, and to fight about how to distribute those opportunities, rather than working to grow the supply of them. Too few good school slots in New York City? Rather than wring our hands about the gifted and talented assessment, why not try to grow the number of good schools there?