I have a lot of feelings about the SHSAT, the exam in NYC used to screen students for the specialized high schools. I’ve taught 6th, 7th and 8th grade at three different middle schools so far (in my 8 years of teaching) – a new and small school in the Bronx, a large comprehensive middle school in District 2, and a selective, screened middle school in District 2. I’ve taught a variety of students in my classes, from a wide variety of backgrounds and prior math experience. I noticed several things that I don’t think gets talked about enough in this on-going debate about the Specialized High Schools, so I’m going to talk about some of those issues here.
The first thing I want to mention is that I’ve noticed is Saturday School. Many of my Chinese students told me they went to Saturday School since elementary school where they often learned how to speak Chinese and sometimes where they received additional math instruction. Depending on the teacher and the specific program, some of those students received very procedural-based instruction, but some of them did gain a better depth of understanding or mastery of the content. Sometimes, they were very familiar with “famous problems’ sophisticated solutions” like the formula for Gaussian addition or the locker problem, which meant they had a mental framework for recognizing when new problems were similar to something they had seen before. Assuming a 4 hour class every Saturday, for about 30 weeks per year, for the 8 years of K-7, that’s an additional 960 hours of math experience. Never mind the fact that some of these schools ALSO gave the students HW to complete and many students may ALSO go to class after school, during the week as well. So some of their improved performance in math class may be due to gaining more experience with the math they had to do in school. (I have a whole post brewing where I’m convinced that much of what we test for with “giftedness” screening is ACTUALLY just “experience” screening).
The second thing I wanted to mention about the SHSAT is the content that’s covered on the exam actually necessitates test prep. Supposedly, the version given to 8th graders only includes math covered by 7th grade standards or “below,” but based on the types of things I’ve seen my students learn in SHSAT prep, I’m doubtful. Let’s take a look at some of the questions that might necessitate more study than just your “standard” 7th grade math curriculum. These questions below are all from the 2019 SHSAT handbook’s sample exam:
“62. The sum of two consecutive integers is -15. If 1 is added to the smaller integer and 2 is subtracted from the larger integer, what is the product of the two resulting integers?”
Theoretically, operations with integers is covered by 7th grade, however the word “consecutive” is not NECESSARILY covered (though it could be). So one part of this is about the vocabulary. If I’m a teacher who’s familiar with the kind of vocab on the SHSAT, I can be sure that I’m giving students access and exposure to hearing, seeing, and using that word in class repeatedly. If I’m a less experienced educator, then I might not know to give those kinds of problems to my students. Furthermore, if I am just problem solving this, without experience with other consecutive number problems, I’m more likely to take longer to figure it out, whereas if I’ve gone to test prep, I probably have a formula memorized for dealing with consecutive numbers or I have had enough experience that I know I can say the consecutive numbers are x and x + 1 and I can write an equation to solve. x + x + 1 = -15 so 2x + 1 = -15 so 2x = -16 so x = -8, and therefore x + 1 = -7. Then, I can change them so that 1 is added to -8 becoming -7 and 2 is subtracted from -7 so it becomes -9. The product therefore is +72, which you would then have to grid in.
There’s a problem requiring students to have memorized geometric formulas (including for surface area of 3D shapes like prisms and pyramids), another one requiring students to understand how to graph a compound inequality (which is NOT technically included in 6th or 7th grade, though some teachers might teach it).
“97. In the set of consecutive integers from 12 to 30, inclusive, there are four integers that are multiples of both 2 and 3. How many integers in this set are multiples of neither 2 nor 3?”
Once again the phrase consecutive integers is used, but now an additional vocabulary word, “Inclusive” is used as well! Neither are necessarily part of the MS curriculum by default.
“91. There are 6 different cookies on a plate. Aiden will choose 2 of these cookies to pack in his lunch. How many different pairs of 2 cookies can he choose from the 6?”
This problem is technically a combinations problem, and technically, formal combinations aren’t taught until high school. An MS student who’s never seen a problem like this can probably work it out (especially with numbers this small), but a student who has memorized a formula can work it out more quickly. Factorials aren’t even technically part of the math curriculum up until this point, so while students who’ve done the Four 4’s activity might be familiar with them, it’s not something that’s “safe” to assume. By the combinations formula, 6 C 2, you would do 6! / 2(6-2)! which is (6 * 5 * 4!) / 2(4!) OR (6*5)/2 or 30/2 which is 15. With a number such as 15, you could also make an ordered list, if you called the cookies A, B, C, D, E and F, and then showed AB, AC, AD, AE, AF, BC, BD, BE, BF, CD, CE, CF, DE, DF, EF, also getting an answer of 15. But if you weren’t familiar with this type of problem (which is not precisely required by the math curriculum up until 7th grade), you might not know about it. Plus, the counting principal (which helps you “discover” factorials) is also not a necessity. Again, a student who’s been exposed to problems like this one can easily solve it, whereas a student who has only ever had “school math” (especially if taught by a teacher who DOESN’T know what’s on the SHSAT), might need to spend more time “problem solving” what appears to be a novel problem instead of applying a familiar strategy to an exercise they recognize.
“92. For a presentation, Deion can create 5 slides in 20 minutes, working at a constant rate. Kyra can create 3 slides in 10 minutes, working at her own constant rate. What is the total number of slides the two of them can create in one hour?”
Now, again, problems like this technically are within the scope of the 7th grade curriculum, but once again, this is a “type of problem” that is super familiar if you know this structure, but very complicated and prone to misconceptions if it is novel.
“99. A box contains 5 strawberry candies, 3 banana candies, and 2 orange candies. If Braden selects 2 candies at random from this box, without replacement, what is the probability that both candies are not banana?”
When I taught 7th graders probability, we only covered “with replacement.” WHOOPS! I’m not 100% clear that without replacement (conditional probability) IS in fact a 7th grade standard.
“105. In the infinitely repeating decimal above, 7 is the first digit in the repeating pattern. What is the 391st digit?”
Although this problem would APPEAR to be covered by this standard: “CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.7.NS.A.2.D Convert a rational number to a decimal using long division; know that the decimal form of a rational number terminates in 0s or eventually repeats,” solving this problem efficiently actually requires using modular arithmetic (or at least thinking cyclically). For example, if I recognize that there are 6 digits in the repetend of the 13ths, then I know that to get out to the 391st digit, I need to repeatedly write those same 6 digits. Therefore, I can do 391 / 6 to get 65 and 1/6 or 65 remainder 1. That tells you that the 391st digit is the same as the 1st digit, which is 7. If I’m familiar with this style of problem, then it’s a relatively straight-forward division and remainder problem. If I’m only familiar with the actual standard, then this problem might induce me to tears, thinking about having to write 391 digits to find out what number is in that place!
“86. If w – 1 is an odd integer, which one of the following must be an even integer?”
A) w + 1, B) 2w + 1, C) 2w – 1, D) 2w – 2
While writing algebraic expressions is technically part of the 7th grade curriculum, if you have increased familiarity with odd and even numbers being represented algebraically, then you can recognize that if w – 1 is odd, the next odd integer will be w + 1, whereas w itself must be even (due to the odd/even alternation). Thus, A can be eliminated. Looking at the remaining options, if w is even, then 2w must ALSO be even, so D must be correct, as that takes an even number and subtracts 2 getting to a smaller even number (whereas subtracting or adding one from an even number will give you an odd number). I don’t “mind” this question as much as many of the others, but I do think it requires a level of sophistication with algebraic notation that is NOT normally expected from the 7th grade math content standards and may or may not be gained from your typical math classroom instruction, as dealing with algebraic notation often doesn’t begin until middle school for most students (SOME get it in 5th grade, but not before), whereas dealing with even and odd numbers often happens in elementary school – and rarely to the degree of generalization required to solve this problem.
There’s also some geometry vocabulary that’s not normally used in MS:
“92. R, S, and T are midpoints of the sides of square MNPQ, as shown above. What is the sum of the areas of the shaded triangles?”
While midpoints aren’t unreasonable to infer the meaning of, they’re not typically talked about much in middle school – unless of course you have a teacher who knows to cover them! Midpoints aren’t officially covered until the high school geometry standards!
“74. A large circular dinner plate has a radius of 20 centimeters. A smaller circular plate with a circumference of centimeters is placed in the center of the larger dinner plate. What is the area of the part of the larger dinner plate that is not covered by the smaller plate?”
To solve this problem, you must know the relationships between circumference and area of circles (and their diameters/radii) without having those given to you. Dealing with pi also often adds an extra challenge for students, though that doesn’t necessarily rule this question out as doable.
In 2016-2017 or 2017-2018, the SHSAT got updated to better reflect the 7th grade standards (though I confess I haven’t actually seen a REAL SHSAT, because those are sealed and not released by the city/state). Prior to then, there were more questions on the test that required additional instruction (also, it included more 8th grade topics, but since it’s given in October of 8th grade, depending on your school’s sequence, you might not have covered those topics by then!). There were a bunch of questions about prime factorization (not officially a standard, though it often gets covered in 6th grade or before) and several involving scientific notation (which was often covered in later 8th grade).
Actually, now that I’ve looked over the SHSAT materials in more detail, I’m actually wondering why so many of my students were taught the Pythagorean Theorem by the test prep classes, as well as operations with radicals – those DON’T seem to be covered on the exams (anymore – I only went back to 2015-2016 for this, so maybe they used to be?).
Also, as an aside, I wonder what the questions themselves are actually screening for. Here’s one that I’m not convinced will tell you who’s going to excel at the specialized high schools:
What is the greatest common factor of 2,205 and 3,675?
A. 147 B. 245 C. 441 D. 735 E. 1,225
To be calculated without a calculator! Now, thinking about the steps you would need to take for this one, you have a few options: you can just try dividing the two numbers by each of the 5 options… But the long division by hand is bound to be a pain in the ass. Alternatively, you could try using the “ladder method” or prime factorization to find the GCF of 2,205 and 3,675… but starting with 3 and 5, you might not easily get to 735 – certainly not quickly! So there’s a potential waste of time.
What is the greatest prime factor of 5,355? F. 17 G. 51 H. 119 J. 131 K. 153
Another one where I’m not convinced it’s a good use of time. 51 is not a prime, neither is 119, nor 153. For 51 and 153, they can “easily” be identified as divisible by 3 (IF you know the divisibility rules – which I don’t think are required by the standards) by adding up the digits to get 6 and 9, both of which are divisible by 3. 119 is not divisible by 3, so it might take a little bit more work to verify that it is not prime: If you happen to know the rule of divisibility by 7, you might recognize it, or you could just try dividing it by 7 (personally, that’s my go-to, as I can’t remember the divisibility rule for 7s). Still, you’ve wasted a bit of time ruling out the non-primes, and you still have 17 and 131 to check. I suppose you can start with 131, as that is the bigger of the two numbers. Dividing 5355 by 131 will take some time, but you can see that it will give you 40 with a remainder of 115. So by process of elimination, it must be 17, and you can skip the extra division to confirm that.
Now, I’m going to go back to my original claim: I don’t think the standard mathematics curriculum IN MIDDLE SCHOOL CLASSES will prepare a student to successfully get into one of the specialized schools without going to extra math classes (and ELA, probably, but I’m focusing more specifically on the math, because that’s my area of expertise). Now, when I consider the ways in which teachers are prepared to teach and focused on their curriculum development, I would say that most middle school teachers (unless they’re teaching an SHSAT prep course) have never done an in-depth analysis of the kinds of questions on there, and are not looking to embed those questions into their curriculum or deploy them as extension/challenge questions for students who finish early (even though there are actually some questions that could be tackled by kids as young as 6th grade! And I may steal some this year!). So there’s an opportunity gap here: knowing what the exam is and recognizing that you do actually need to prepare for it. The DOE’s website is misleading about it (bordering on lying, in my opinion): “The test measures knowledge and skills students have gained over the course of their education. Keeping up with schoolwork throughout the year is the best possible preparation.” I don’t disagree that you can’t do well on the SHSAT if you haven’t done these things, but I honestly don’t think that’s sufficient. And to tell the students that it is sufficient is to rob them of the preparation time.
Now, some of the test-prep classes are very procedural and focus on memorization of formulas and “drill and kill” on a variety of the “most common” types of problems, showering kids with tons of worksheets and packets to practice skills they are shown in classes on the weekend or after school. Sometimes, these courses include content beyond grade level and may “ruin” discovery-based lessons (as was the case at my last middle school, where most of my 7th graders ALREADY KNEW the Pythagorean Theorem – which is technically an 8th grade standard!!).
The second big issue that I have with the SHSAT (and testing in general, to be honest), is the amount of money we pour into it that COULD be going to bettering school programs. Consider for a moment the fact that the testing industry is a $2.5 billion industry in the US (in 2015), and yet we can’t find the funds to fix the heating system in Baltimore schools, the water system in Flint, or any of the host of other problems that affect student learning(often in poverty)? New York City is currently paying Questar $44 million for 3-8 ELA and Math state exams (when they won out the current contract over Pearson), and according to the NYC Data website, our current budget spent $458,923 in FY 2015 and $542,515 in FY 2016 on the SHSAT alone (and another $100,000+ on the gifted and talented screening). Consider what we could do for our students with an extra half million dollars! And that doesn’t even include the money being spent on offering “free” tutoring – it’s free to the students, obviously, but not free for the city to provide – that’s gotta be budgeted for somewhere (though I couldn’t find the details on that cost, as it’s broken up into too many different programs that I don’t know all of the names for – there’s the DREAM program, among others). Plus, there are private companies that do test prep as well – some free or application-based while others for profit. All of the money that’s flowing in those pockets could be going towards improving ALL of our schools!
There are a variety of articles about specialized HS admission in general, the $13.4 million that the city pays Pearson over 6 years for administering/creating (scoring?) a test that no one knows the validity of, the current debate over eliminating the SHSAT, the reaction of Stuyvesant Students to the proposed changes, the culture of test prep, the monetary bonus that the specialized high schools get (which is part of why they can offer so many extras – that and their size in general!), the problems with (un)fair funding of schools in general, the new Chancellor’s reaction to screening/admissions policies, but I’m going to focus on some of the issues I think are missing from these debates. Or at least, the ideas that have occurred to me.
Now, let’s put the SHSAT aside for a moment, and handle my other concerns about the specialized high schools in general. Something that I don’t think is talked about enough is that the culture of those schools is very competitive, and not every student thrives in that kind of environment. I know for myself, when my parents asked my 8th grade self if I wanted to apply to the specialized high schools (and leave Catholic school), I declined. At the time, I said that I would rather be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond (but not every 13-year old knows that about themselves!). I recognized even then that a school like Stuyvesant takes the students who were at the top of their class in middle school, and then immediately, half of them make up the bottom 50% of the class! I knew that level of competitiveness would be demoralizing for me, and I chose a more supportive school environment – and I’m glad that I did.
So this leads me to one of my big questions: what is it about these schools that makes them “specialized”? Supposedly, some of it is the culture of the students who “worked so hard to get in” that they continue to push each other forward – but I’ve never actually attended their classes, so I can’t really comment on it (though I did observe at Stuy when I was in grad school, I remember being bored by the lectures and wondering if the school catered to kids who thrived in that particular kind of classroom set-up). I know they’re able to offer more higher level math classes – but to some extent, that’s because they expect all 9th graders to come in having completed AT LEAST algebra 1 (which is typically 9th grade math in NYS, but many 8th grades offer regents courses to “accelerate” students). To some degree, because of the size of the schools (and having enough money to pay veteran teachers), they’re able to offer a variety of courses to students – things that are more specialized or specific than the general offerings of most NYC high schools – but that’s about access to resources. I know some of the educators who work at the various specialized high schools (mostly through MfA), and I don’t know that there’s anything “magical” about their curriculum choices or their pedagogy that other good teachers can’t also implement at their own schools. But, I do know that many of the teachers at the specialized high schools have MANY YEARS of teaching experience under their belt. And while it’s true that years alone is insufficient to guarantee a good teacher, the fact that so many of them are MfA Master Teachers speaks highly of their pedagogy. And this brings me to an article about segregation of the NYC schools in general that I was reading recently. When it comes to school segregation, “New York City is among the worst offenders. Among the city’s 1.1 million public school students — the largest school system in the nation — children of color have an 80 percent chance of attending a school where the student body consists of fewer than 10 percent white children. Fifty percent of white students attending New York City public schools are concentrated in 7 percent of the schools” (from the article I just linked to).
Continuing to look at that article sheds some light on the funding inadequacies that set some schools up to have skilled practitioners in front of every student with money spent on professional development to enhance their teaching quality, whereas schools in neighborhoods with children of color and people of lower economic backgrounds struggle to recruit and retain quality teachers. Many teachers at those struggling schools are within their first five years of teaching – I taught at a school that was struggling in the South Bronx my first year teaching, and among our teaching staff, there was an incredibly high number of first year teachers (something like 13!?). A student could go through 12 years of education and have a first-year teacher EVERY YEAR. While it’s true that some first year teachers manage to overcome the obstacles to do good work, I think even exceptional first year teachers become better with experience, and their later students benefit even more from their skills. Additionally, PA (parents’ associations) at schools raise very different amounts of money to support the school, depending on the financial capacity of the parents – at both of my last two schools, the PA’s managed to raise thousands of dollars to pay for arts instruction and partnerships beyond what the parents at my first school could ever have afforded.
With all of our “school choice” initiatives in NYC, we have created schools that are “dumping grounds” for the students that “no one else wants” – for example, in District 13 (Unison’s School’s district), 25 of the 27 publicly funded schools (including charter schools) require participation in an application process. “But as I see it, what the city described as competition turned into a segregation filter: Choice was only an option for those with the time, literacy, and determination to navigate a complex and nonstandardized admissions system. These are major hurdles for the most vulnerable families. The burden of their failure to navigate such a system hurt no one more than their children, who no rational person would argue should be able to manipulate this complexity at the age of 11.” So in effect, school choice has reinstated and reinforced school segregation in NYC. With charter schools expelling (sorry, counseling out) students twice a year (in October, after they get the money for kids with disabilities and in April, right before the state exams), there’s an influx to the schools with open seats – which are often the schools few people who understand how to “work the system” would ever choose.
Now, you might have noticed that I’ve zoomed out from just focusing in on high schools to looking at the quality of schools across the grades, from PK (and 3K!) to 12th. A big part of that is because you can’t just start trying to “equalize” the playing field in high school – it needs to start in pre-school. Otherwise, you might be setting up a student for failure. Going back to my own experiences, when I got to engineering college, I struggled in my math classes because I’d never developed the types of math study skills I needed to succeed, as I’d always been a “good student.” At the time, I had a fixed mindset, and I thought my struggles meant that I had reached the limits of my capabilities and that I didn’t belong there (especially when compared with my peers who seemed to get it easily). I now recognize that if I had taken the time to form study groups, go to tutoring (not just office hours), and to try to make sense of the material conceptually (even though it was more often taught procedurally to me), I might have done better (though no guarantee that I would have enjoyed it any more!). I also couldn’t easily develop these skills in college, having never needed them before.
So this brings me to the next part of this debate. This interesting article talks about expanding access to the gifted and talent program in elementary schools (I would bet some districts, more heavily populated by Black and Latinx people, have fewer GT programs in general) and maybe even creating a GT program for middle schools (since right now, it ends in 5th grade, but then the specialized HSs are essentially thought of as the GT of HS, so there’s a weird 3-year gap where some middle schools have either tracks or just general acceleration that take the place of GT unofficially). Now, this article also raises some points about why this increase in access to GT programs wouldn’t actually address the underlying segregation issues, two of which I’ve copied here:
- “Gifted programs are already deeply segregated, so an expansion isn’t likely to spur more diversity absent other measures to increase integration.
- Gifted programs would still rely on an entrance exam to determine admissions — and create a new test for middle school students. Integration advocates trace the diversity problems in gifted — and specialized high schools — back to admissions tests. Critics say that the tests advantage students with the time and resources to prepare.”
My last school was one of those middle schools that unofficially thought of itself as a GT school – it was certainly a feeder school for the specialized high schools, as many, many, many of our students went to them. And this leads me to the other reason you can’t start trying to equalize the playing field in HS – if the ability to solve math problems well is partially related to experience solving math problems (i.e. when you recognize that a new problem looks familiar, you’re more easily able to find a strategy to solve it), then more experience solving more complex math problems will result in a student who is more prepared to solve other more complex math problems. What one 8th grader knows at one school in NYC is NOT uniform across the board. My last two schools showed me that. I was teaching my 7th graders at the screened school things I didn’t even teach my 8th graders in the non-honors program at my prior school! We taught them about the Pythagorean Theorem in 7th grade (instead of 8th) and we included instruction about the “special” right triangles (30-60-90 and 45-45-90), and solving problems involving composite figures, inscribed figures, and circumscribed figures. And if they were in the accelerated class at my last school? Well, they even learned about trig ratios! Now, while none of that is officially on the SHSAT, if you think about the skills needed to solve those problems (comfort drawing in lines that aren’t there, comfort reasoning about diagrams’ angles and side lengths, etc.), they’re certainly honing that skill, and more comfortable deploying it on a problem on the SHSAT.
Now, this brings me to a small aside that I need to talk about. And I say this as someone who was in a GT program in elementary school (both for the 1st and 2nd grade that I was in public school, and the enrichment program in 3 – 8th grade at Catholic school). I’m not 100% convinced that “giftedness” exists or can be tested for or that it MATTERS. I have begun to think that much of what we think of as “giftedness” is actually related to a combination of experience and deliberate practice (though the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell has been “debunked,” I still think there’s something to it). I’m really not convinced that there IS such a thing as “giftedness” that requires a DIFFERENT school nor that “giftedness” is actually a meaningful predictor of… anything. And I’m not alone! There’s research and articles debating whether or not giftedness exists and whether it matters. And our GT programs screening tests are norm-referenced, which means the students get scored against each other and then are placed based on being in the top ten percent… Or top three percent, depending on the space in the program! There is much controversy surrounding the history of IQ testing and race and eugenics, which I don’t think is talked about often enough by the people who tout IQ tests and giftedness tests as somehow being able to see the potential inside someone and give them more resources so they can reach their full potential (rather than recognizing that IQ testing began as a way for us to judge some humans as “more worthy” than others). I think there’s a fundamental, unanswered question here, which is “Is every human child in our school system equally worthy of our time, money, and resources?” And, sadly, the answer is often “No, some kids deserve more,” though the actual measure we use to determine WHICH kids deserve more varies person to person (and I should say, as a person committed to equity and justice for all, I acknowledge that some kids need MORE of the system’s money to support them in overcoming obstacles that other people don’t have to face, so please don’t misinterpret my statement to mean that I think we should spend the same amount of money on each kid – in fact, I think the kids who are struggling the most probably need more of the right resources dedicated to supporting them in achieving their dreams and being successful).
Now, I read articles like this, that insist on giftedness, and I think it’s important to specify here that I DO believe in neural diversity. I have recently discovered that I have ADHD, and my stepdaughter is on the Autism spectrum. Both of these things mean that our brains work differently than neuro-typical brains. This means we might react differently to stimulus than other people. This means that we might benefit from different types of activities or instruction than others – but it doesn’t mean we should be isolated in a room with only people who have the “same kind” of brain we do (I put same kind in quotes because I don’t even think that another person with ADHD is necessarily “the same kind” of person I am – there are too many factors and variables for that one feature to necessarily link us).
I’m going to share an anecdote with you from my own personal life experience. My mom is a professional reader – no literally! Before retiring, she was a book editor. She has her PhD in literature from Harvard. So she has a lot of experience reading and a LOVE of reading. When I was a baby, she read TONS of books to me. I started pre-literacy stages as young as 2 (I was turning pages and reciting the words to my favorite book, “Chicken Soup with Rice by 2), and by kindergarten, I read over 200 books as part of a school “read-a-thon.” In first grade, I read the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, independently and had no idea it was “technically” a fifth grade reading level. I continued to read well above grade level throughout my life (though I often chose/choose to read what my middle school ELA teacher, Mrs. Smith, called Brain Candy, such as romance novels from my mom’s publishing company or genre fiction, which I still think is highly intellectual, but often scoffed at by literary folks). So let’s examine this situation: what’s the cause of my above-grade level reading? Is it the habit of going to the library every week as a child that was instilled by my mom? Is it her genetics of “good reader” that got passed on to me? Is it the sheer quantity of words and books I had read by the time I was 2? I’m not sure – but I’m also not sure that it matters.
I think that what’s MORE important is the way in which we (teachers) react to students who are presenting like I did. When I was in first grade, I went to my local public elementary school. I remember we used to use these readers where we had to read a short passage and then answer some multiple choice questions about it (presumably to assess our comprehension). I don’t recall anything specific about them beyond that, though I do think they seemed ancient and old fashioned to me at the time. I remember getting bored because I would devour those readers, and be done with five of them in the time that many of my classmates needed to read one or two of them. So I would often start talking, to engage with other students, to be stimulated again, and to enjoy myself. My mom tells me that my first grade teacher (a second year teacher) moved my desk into a corner by myself because I was too chatty (until my mom came to the school and protested, using her white, middle class privilege to demand that I not be in trouble because of my speed at reading). Now that teacher was feeling overwhelmed because she didn’t know how to handle me (and the multitude of other challenging behaviors the 30 first graders were giving her, especially when the previous year, she’d only had 25 kids). I sympathize much more with her now, having been in her shoes as a novice teacher. (I should also point out that I was in my school’s GT program at the time, but it was a small pull-out session, once a day? a few times a week? I don’t recall, so I was mostly in the gen ed room for most of the day). I only lasted in that public elementary school for two years before my mom decided to move me to Catholic school (where I flourished – but that’s a post for a different time).
However, what I think was lacking there, and often lacking from the discussion of “gifted education” in general is differentiation. I honestly think that if my teacher had been skilled in differentiated instruction (and probably had a smaller classroom size and more adults in the room!), the situation might have been very different. I think differentiation done right is one of the TRICKIEST things to do and yet, also, one of the most important things. I think there is intense value in NOT segregating kids by “ability” – I think we need to value each other, and the community that we can build when there is true diversity in the room. I won’t lie and pretend like I’ve got it all figured out: I’ve been teaching kids 8 years now, and I still struggle with differentiation at times – how to plan it, how to enact it, how to keep it manageable. I’ve done work around improving my differentiation with Rhonda Bondie, and I definitely think she’s on to something there. I also think that rich problems provide ample opportunity for self-differentiation (my preference, as a teacher!), where students can choose what avenue to explore, can deepen their understanding at its particular edges, etc. I think being given the right environment, where you can explore and ask your own questions – and try to answer them (even in math class!) is far more valuable than being mindlessly zoomed ahead through a “standardized curriculum,”
The reason I bring up all of these issues in a discussion about the specialized high schools is because I want to get to the heart of the matter. This question about how to ensure black and latinx students are equitably represented at the specialized high schools is really a different question: how do we ensure that ALL students in the ENTIRE city, no matter their zip code, etc., have a high-quality education that prepares them to be a successful adult? And that’s a harder question with no easy answers.
ALL students (not just the 18,000 served by the specialized HSs) deserve a quality education that prepares them for adulthood. ALL schools should be able to provide a quality education for ALL students so that school choice becomes an irrelevant detail. Instead of focusing on the “quality” of the schools, school choice (if we continue that system) could allow students and families to focus on other aspects of a school’s culture – perhaps the special focus (i.e. choosing to go to the academy of film and TV because of an interest in becoming a camera operator) or choosing a school that is known for trips to museums or whatever other features of a school make it unique – but ALL students are assured that the quality of their education would be equitable, no matter the school they select. To do that, I fully believe we need to tackle integration (which we’ve been discussing for YEARS, probably even decades, as this article about how to tackle segregation is from 2015), equitable school funding, teacher recruitment, retention, and training, especially focused on practical differentiation, and incorporating WAY more culturally responsive/trauma responsive teacher training (and expanding restorative justice and the focus on community building within the schools). Honestly, if students from EVERY NYC HS felt confident that the quality of their education was as good as if they had gone to the specialized high schools, then there wouldn’t necessarily be as much demand over the 18,000 spots (in a school system that educates 1.1 million, that’s a tiny sliver).