educational justice

The Gifted and Talented Debates Aren't About Rigor They're About Access

An interesting, complicated, and rather polarizing trend is going around in American education, and it has to do with special admission schools and the designation of “gifted and talented.”

Around the country, steps are being taken to, based on your point of view, reform/adjust/improve/destroy/ruin these selective educational tracks.

In the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, the Democratic nominee advocated making the admissions process for selective magnet schools more accessible by reducing the emphasis on standardized testing. Similar moves are taking place in Philadelphia and New York.  

Meanwhile, some cities are revisiting their processes for identifying individual students as gifted and talented by widening the net to include more than 80% of students, as opposed to the national average of 6%.

Some argue that these changes are long overdue, particularly in places like Philadelphia, where special-admission magnet schools are disproportionately wealthy and white. The special admissions process, as well as the gifted and talented programs, it is argued, play the role of segregator, ensuring access to quality education to those for whom it is reserved.

Others, however, decry these methods of reforming, (they would say “lowering”) standards. These changes done in the name of equity, detractors argue, actually do more harm by holding back students who are doing well, and not doing anything to truly serve students who need more support.

Regardless of which side of the argument one falls on, the very fact that such an argument over access to high-quality education exists at all proves an inescapable truth. 

In America, there is no such thing as a true “public school” because education in America is not a public good, available to all without one’s portion being larger than another’s. The truth is that education is a commodity—a good that is bought and sold on the marketplace with the greatest quality available solely to those who can afford the cost, monetary or otherwise, of admission.

The fight over selective admissions and gifted and talented programs addresses symptoms without focusing on causes. Truly addressing the vast injustices in education, requires getting down the systemic level for it is this level from which all injustices stem. This is what I cover in, and why my new book is titled, Dismantling a Broken System.

In this case, America’s entire question of who gets access to quality and rigorous education is not about the raising or lowering of standards. It’s about our choice as a nation to voluntarily limit the collective pool of educational resources (by refusing to see education as what it truly is, an investment to be maximized, and instead view it as an expenditure to be cut), and then inequitably distribute the resources with the wealthy and powerful getting more and the poor and marginalized getting less.  

The debates over gifted and talented and special admissions are worth having—the agitation reflects the will to seek educational justice.

At the same time, however, there is a larger conversation to be had—how to ensure a quality education not just for students who get accepted into those schools and those programs, but for all students everywhere.

Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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