Achieving Equity through Mediocrity: Why Elimination of Gifted Programs Should Worry Us all

Below is my column in the Hill on the elimination of the gifted programs, proficiency requirements, and other performance-based elements in our public school system. This was highlighted recently by the elimination of the gifted and talented programs in New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio, which were denounced as racist. I have long been critical of this trend which focuses on reducing disparities in performance by trimming the top rather than raising the bottom of a student body.

Here is the column:

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 De Blasio panel previously declared such programs to be “segregation” due to the lower number of minority students. 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. Now those separate programs will be eliminated and the students returned to the general student body. They can seek “accelerated” materials but will be taught in classes with other students in conventional schools.

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 school 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.

101 thoughts on “Achieving Equity through Mediocrity: Why Elimination of Gifted Programs Should Worry Us all”

  1. Never heard of Josh Thompson even if I live in VA. A quick search for him revealed the following, in his own words:

    Growing up as a closeted gay kid in southwestern Virginia, I always knew the world wasn’t right. I knew that we had to make it better. Yes, I’m a cisgender white man but my gay identity was sort of a window into what it is like for marginalized people. I’ve always known that.

    Ever since I hopped back on Twitter in March of 2017 after grad school, that’s when I started following people who were talking about social and education justice. It felt right. Ever since then, it’s like the universe said this is the work that I have to do. It’s tough, but I have the people and communities out there that I can lean on.

    Feelings. That is what is teaching kids. His support is from Twitter.

    Tomás de Torquemada is due an apology.

  2. “The Pet Goat” school teaching

    On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning, President George W. Bush was in Florida to discuss education initiatives at an elementary school. But that visit was interrupted by the worst terror attack on American soil.

    It was just after 9 a.m. – with students deep into their storybook, ‘The Pet Goat’ – when Chief of Staff Andrew Card interrupted the lesson to whisper something in the president’s ear:

    “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

  3. The case for school choice. Let parents decide. Let each achieve to their maximum whether they are a brilliant scientist or will be skilled in a trade. One size fits all is a race to mediocrity and will fit very few well.

  4. A few thoughts in no particular order:

    If sitting down, paying attention and learning the material presented isn’t “in” in your “culture” I’d suggest your culture is broken and destructive and that you should seek another.

    Having been tested and determined to be “gifted” early in my elementary education I spent a lot of time studying and learning what that exactly means. Research has repeatedly shown that if those students aren’t challenged then extreme boredom sets in and oftentimes manifests as destructive, disruptive, and eventually criminal behavior. There is a reason the average IQ of the prison population tends to be higher than the national average.

    Sadly due to what Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” the vast unrecognized and undeveloped potential of some in minority communities is a tragic waste and is downright criminal. I can only imagine the discoveries and inventions that have never occurred due to our tolerance of chaotic classrooms and lack of rigor and performance expectations from those communities.

  5. Public schools have been failing for decades, despite all the tax payer money that’s pumped into them. Now they’ll hide behind “equity” to cover their failures, and teachers won’t have to teach anymore, they’ll just spout CRT slogans. “Equity” is just failure masquerading as morality. Maybe it’s time for the elimination of public schools–they seem to be doing more harm than good. My fear is that once student levels drop to a certain point, a Democratic government will start putting restrictions on private and charter schools, and on home schooling. The Democrats have clearly shown they’re not above using the force of government to coerce the public into their agenda.

    1. Giocon1,
      I agree.
      It is race to the bottom, teaching at the lowest common denominator, the lowering of standards to that denominator. Everyone gets an “A,” even if they cannot read, write or do math.

      I say over and over again that parents need to get their children out of public education systems that are teaching to those lower standards, or in the name of “equity.”
      Homeschool them in a curriculum that promotes STEM, civics, critical thinking, history in context.

      I also agree when it becomes overwhelmingly evident those in private, charter and home schools are out performing public education, they will attempt to shut those down.

        1. “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.””

          It is possible in public education to have high standards, to engage with respectful dissent, and encourage inquiry, originality and creativity. I was lucky enough to be in such school districts.

          Get the d@mn testing and uber focus on “standards” out of classrooms. Yes, there should be guidelines for an education, but not at the expense of it! Toss out the reductionist nonsense that turns education into a series of check marks. That’d be a start.

          1. “simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”

            It’s a delicate balance. Today we are seeing the destruction of our youth. It presents itself with children that are not proficient in math and English, but they have been indoctrinated.

      1. The public school system can be fixed. Parents and community members need to get together to get the kids the sort of education that will provide a strong foundation for an effective, self-governing citizen.

        Abandoning the system will only further divide us and weaken our ability to self-govern.

        Public schools can balance the dual needs to ‘what every educated American/person ought to know’ and allowing for individual curiosity and development. My public education did a great job of balancing these things. It can be done and has been done.

  6. This, including CRT, in tandem with higher ed (and I would argue, parenting trends) is probably the biggest issue we currently face. It won’t result in mediocrity – it will result in collapse. Bravo, Professor. We do not take you for granted, thank you.

  7. One thing you are missing, with the elimination of entrance exams (in the name of equity) it would be crazy to take more difficult classes and get a lower grade. This is really helping the gifted and talented – not hurting them.

  8. Having spent time in the classroom as a young teacher in a tough school, I learned that children crave sound rules and fair application of discipline. Without it, chaos ensues, learning ceases and the classroom becomes an unsafe environment.

    It is racist and unfounded to assume that a child is incapable of excellence because of the color of their skin. Giving a young student less education than they deserve is criminal and it cheats the student.

    The soon to be departed mayor of NYC is a communist and a person who loathes this nation. He seems determined to do as much damage as he can on his way out.

    If their goal is to create a generation that cannot think for themselves then they are well on their way. There is a dearth of gifted teachers because of the policies and people such as the NYC mayor who cannot resist sticking their nose in the middle of something where they have no cause to go.

  9. Want to end this fast? Apply the “equity” principles to sports. Eliminate speed, agility, and strength as prerequisites for competing in all NCAA sports and then extend to the professional level. We can all pay $$$$ to watch astrophysicists try and shoot free throws. But then again, this absurdity is what Marx always had in mind.

    1. Dennis,

      Good point.

      If we want to make the NBA “look like America” then no more than 13% of the players can be black.

      Apply the new race-based rules to everyone.

  10. I’m pretty sure they’re doing the same kinds of things in China – and in Russia

    1. Whig98 — Not at all: “Schooling in China consists of three years of kindergarten, six years of primary school, three years of junior middle school (also known as secondary school), and senior middle school (high school). After completing these years of schooling, students then have the opportunity to continue to higher education.

      “A limited amount of university spots puts a lot of pressure on students to ace the Gaokao, the nine-hour national higher education entrance exam, which only 40% of students pass the first time.” Now compare that to the “protected and safe” environment US snowflakes demand.

  11. Interesting parallel: the nazi’s called Relatively Jew physics, the left calls mathematics White Supremacy. Breed morons for dependency. How have Americans allowed it to go this far?

  12. How to destroy the greatest country in the world in a few short years. I hope everybody who voted for these people is really proud. I was in a gifted program and then we moved to a place where there was none. I had to go back 2 grade levels. It was not only boring but psychologically devastating. Smart kids a lot of times don’t have another identity besides being smart. That’s their thing. Take that away from them and they are going to be lost. But that’s what today’s left wants. Create as much despair as possible. Restrict our horizons so we forget we could ever see the sky.

    1. A few years back I was asked to tutor a high school student who was not doing well in math. His parents were a partner in an accounting firm and an engineer. After sitting with him for 2 sessions the math he was not doing well was absolutely too easy for him and bored him to death. I told his parents who sent him to private school the following year and he excelled.
      Absolutely hateful to force everyone on the same level instead of maximizing their abilities.

  13. Competition is an inherent human quality that spans 100s of thousands of years. Inequity of some kind will never go away due to the fact that some people have more drive, more creativeness, more intelligence, more determination than others.

    What is a tragedy about our schools is increasingly they do not supply the environment where each child is encouraged to reach their potential and are not given the resources and instruction to do so, because of the perceived inequity that implies.

    I am reminded of the old anecdote of a teacher who decided to teach their students a lesson in equity by assigning each student the class grade average. Quickly the high achieving students lost motivation to work hard for “As”. (This is called “the profit motive” in economics). The class average thus continued to fall until the entire class was failing. Bur hey at least it was equitable.

    The other tragedy is the refusal of progressives to acknowledge the social pathologies underpinning a lack of achievement. Blacks have a 70% single parent birthrate, 60% grow up with no father in the home. 35% of young black men have a felony arrest by the time they reach thirty. Is there any wonder why blacks chronically underachieve?

    But no Democrat nor progressive wants to touch this because its “victim blaming”. We need to bring back the concept of shame and quite frankly victim blaming. (It used to be called “positive peer pressure”).

    1. Progressives think “EVERYONE MUST THINK ALIKE” MUST THINK ALIKE, MUST THINK ALIKE. Don’t step off the Progressive Plantation. YOU MUST THINK ALIKE!!!!

  14. Education is the great equalizer. No matter race, or social standing, education will lift you up. Poor minority, single head of household child? You are equal to the white male, with parents earning 7 figures. But not now. Schools have stripped the poor kid from excelling, from receiving recognition of above average academic proficiency.
    The rich kid? No problem for him. Mom and dad hire a tutor and send him to physics summer camp.
    Public education will be the primary vehicle to separated the rich from the poor, and create several castes in our society.

    But this is exactly the core principle of socialism. EQUITY means all must be equally mediocre. The exceptional must be cancelled. Exceptional cannot exist, only equity is acceptable.

    1. The now infamous quote by Terry McAuliffe encapsulates the pivotal debate about education. You can draw a dotted line to McAuliffe’s blunder from all facets of education today as articulated by the Left. It has Bill Ayers fingerprints all over it.

      One would like to think that the results of Virginia governor election on Nov 2, will be a trouncing of the Marxist / CRT / Leftwing Democrats politburo. That presumes there exists election integrity.

      I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach
      – Terry McAuliffe

  15. We can see what “equity” accomplishes.

    Vice President Harris.

    What a dolt. The only thing she has ever accomplished is leverage her skin color. ( also shatters the notion that all lawyers/judges, are intelligent)

    1. She also used some other personal attributes to obtain state paid jobs given to her by Willie Brown in return for her applying herself to self advancement efforts….in a mutually beneficial relationship with Wille Brown as you might recall.

  16. Lefties really don’t like Asians – just look at the result of recent regulations.

    But Lefties don’t think much of blacks either – they have very low expectations of blacks and believe that blacks cannot compete on a level playing field with whites or Asians.

    This focus on race belongs in the early 20th century, not in 2021.

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