Smart kids need not apply

By Michael Goodwin

New York Daily News
March 19, 2006

It's a sorry state of affairs when lawsuits are seen as the solution to all problems. But a legal demand may be the only way gifted children can shatter the obstacles confronting them at the city's Education Department. Think of it as the Campaign for Equal Educational Opportunity.

Prejudice against smart kids seems to be acceptable among some educrats. Imagine if the school system put a limit on the number of slots available for teaching immigrant children English. Would that pass muster?

Of course not, but that is what is happening with gifted and talented programs. Thousands of smart kids are stuck in dumbed-down classes because the city has too few gifted slots.

Imagine a top school official who repeatedly caused doubts about her commitment to special education students. How long would she be kept in charge of those programs?

But smart kids have no civil rights. Feel free to whack away, Carmen Fariña.

Fariña is the deputy chancellor and as such, runs much of the school system. She plays the key role in virtually every decision about what is taught and how.

Doubts about Fariña's commitment to the gifted programs began the day she took office two years ago. Publicly and privately, she has belittled the programs in ways that suggest she subscribes to the militant liberal view that standardized IQ tests, the yardstick for entry into the programs, are racist and elitist. (My daughter attends a gifted program.)

Fariña has used her power to undermine the city's existing programs, right down to smearing parents who fight for them. In a recent rebuff to parents who complained to The New York Times about confusion and threatened to leave the city, Fariña said: "Sometimes social issues make parents leave. They should be honest about their motivations."

Would she ever say that about an immigrant parent seeking bilingual services? Not unless she was looking to end her career.

Fariña has carried out her campaign with the tool of a skilled bureaucrat: verbal obfuscation. She has implemented "an assessment that measures the fullest range of verbal, nonverbal and spatial skills," for admission to the programs. She has been guided by educator Joseph Renzulli, whose bio says he sees giftedness as "malleable" and boasts that he has "broadened the conception of giftedness." Or, as critics put it, Renzulli believes every kid is a bit gifted.

That may be so in theory, but when it comes to gifted programs, the city has an effective cap on seats. There are about 44,000 students in the programs, or 6% of all students in kindergarten through eighth grade. By contrast, more than 12% of students are in special education. Of course, the law requires those programs, while gifted programs are not mandated.

Worse, the city has expanded the definition of eligibility in some schools to include subjective assessments. Nursery school teachers evaluate each student in a process where IQ test scores are combined with the subjective evaluations. These evaluations count for one-third of a composite rating that determines who gets into the gifted programs. No wonder parents are confused and angry.

Fariña, in an interview, insisted she has tried to bring "rigor and clarity" to a disorganized system and blames the federal government for forcing the city to scrap single-test policy. She also cited her own teaching career as evidence she supports gifted education. Finally, she says changing the standards has brought more "equity."

I would like to believe her commitment to excellence is real, but my suspicions linger. That's why I think a lawsuit may be needed to prove the city is not endorsing prejudice under the guise of "equity." And that gifted children, like all children, are getting the education they need.

Originally published on March 19, 2006

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