Friday, October 31, 2008

Start Early

In their relentless pursuit of "reform" the DOE implemented a new gifted and talented admissions policy this year. Every interested child entering kindergarten and first grade took two tests. Those scoring in the 90th percentile or above got to enroll in the gifted and talented program. At the time the new policy was announced, it was painted in terms of fairness and equity. I seem to remember reading that this uniform policy was going to make G&T programs available to more kids across a wider demographic gain. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I kind of new that wasn't actually going to happen. Turns out, I was right.

According to the New York Times, the new policy has resulted in a smaller, whiter cohort of children entering the G&T programs across the city. All I can say is, what did you expect?

I think that there are probably some pretty good justifications about running the system the way the DOE is trying to do now. It does provide a certain standard bar that eliminates the "friend of the principal" possibilities that used to exist. It also ensures that being in a G&T program means that at least at some level, the children are gifted and talented. Both of those are valild justifications for running the program this way.

It was always ridiculous, from the very start, to say that this was going to increase access and diversity in the programs. Haven't these people heard of the achievement gap? Haven't they heard that it starts at a young age?

The possible value of this program for education researchers and reformers is that it pretty convincingly demonstrates that the achievement gap exists before the kids ever enter the school building. Keep in mind that these are kids entering kindergarten and first grade. At least half of them have never set foot in a school building. And yet, black and hispanic children do not score as well as their white counterparts. My guess is that this would track along economic lines too, but I don't see the data on that in the Times article.

To me, this sets out in pretty clear terms that when we talk about the achievement gap, we cannot blame its existence entirely on substandard schools. True, the schools are where this can change, but we need to look beyond the schools also. Early childhood education, parenting classes, nutrition and health care - these are the things we need to look at before children ever walk into their first day of kindergarten.

Either a car or an insurance company is running ads now that says the safest way to survive an accident is to never get in one. Well, the best way to close the achievement gap is to never let one open. These test results give us a better clue of where we can start working.

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