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Equity paradox: Minority, low income students suffer most from lack of gifted programs in Massachusetts

todayJune 7, 2024 3

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Widespread concerns over equity in education have helped fuel a decline in opportunities for gifted minds across Massachusetts, advocates argue, leaving child prodigies and their parents frustrated and forced to turn to costly alternatives to satisfy their child’s needs.  In one instance, a public school program for high-performing fourth, fifth and sixth graders known as the Advanced Work Class was suspended in Boston during the pandemic, with Superintendent Brenda Cassellius citing “equity” concerns.She told Boston’s GBH News at the time, “There’s a lot of work we have to do in the district to be antiracist and have policies where all of our students have a fair shot at an equitable and excellent education.”Even more recently, in Brookline, Massachusetts, a local high school weighed nixing advanced English courses in the name of equity, citing arguments that students of color were put at a disadvantage. Though the school ultimately decided against it, that same district previously eliminated its advanced social studies courses for ninth-graders, according to The Boston Globe.The equity issue has also reached a broader scale, with schools in California cutting advanced programs under that defense. Schools in Seattle recently nixed their own gifted programs in the name of equity as well. In New York City, former Mayor Bill De Blasio infamously announced an end to gifted and talented programs over concerns of racial disparities.CALIFORNIA PARENTS, STUDENTS PROTEST HIGH SCHOOL’S PLANS TO CUT HONORS CLASSES FOR EQUITY REASONSMichelle Barmazel and Karen Blumstein, co-presidents of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education (MAGE), speculate that same fear might also be behind their state’s reluctance to offer more gifted programs.  Blumstein, for one, told the Boston Globe that Northeastern states in particular are concerned that such programs would seem “elitist.” Speaking to Fox News Digital during a recent interview, she said equity concerns are not only baseless, but they also conflict with reality for many families who belong to underprivileged groups.”That idea that it’s elitist cannot be further from the truth because, if we are providing gifted programming in our public schools, then we are systemically providing access to all students, no matter their zip code, no matter their socioeconomic status, no matter their racial background, whether or not they’re immigrants or an English language speaker. It would systematically provide opportunity,” she said.Barmazael agreed, homing in on children and families who belong to certain racial demographics, namely African Americans and Hispanic Americans, as she added, “By not providing it in the schools, we are basically creating a huge equity chasm, and leaving it to only those people who have deep pockets to supplement their kids, to stay in the upper echelons.”A 2019 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sustained Blumstein and Barmazel’s concerns, indicating that different trajectories existed for different races, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses when comparing student scores from their third- and sixth-grade years.”After identifying the top 12 percent of 3rd grade students in 2014, as measured by their scores on the math MCAS, we follow these same students for three years. Less than half (45.2%) of the academically advanced third graders remained in the top decile by 6th grade,” the study reads.”What is even more striking though is the differences depending on the race and ethnicity of the students. By sixth grade, only 21.0 percent (50 students) of the Black and 23.3 percent (130) students of the Hispanic academically advanced 3rd grade students remained in the top decile…”At the same time, 43.6 percent of White students and 71.8 percent of Asian students remained in that top decile.The gaps for low-income students were also similar to those identified for racial and ethnic minorities, the study noted, with only 24.8% of this group remaining in the top decile by the sixth grade.SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS REPLACING GIFTED STUDENTS PROGRAM TO BE MORE ‘INCLUSIVE,’ CITING DIVERSITY CONCERNSRight now, advocates fear only gifted children whose families can afford a private education or extracurricular programs receive instruction that is rigorous enough to satisfy these exceptional students, but, for families unable to dish out the funds, the consequences are long-term.”We get families that reach out to us every week, with their kids in crisis. Kids get depressed. They start getting demotivated, checking out and worse, when they don’t feel that it’s really worth it to go to school, or they’re not being challenged,” Barmazel said.”As somebody explained to me years ago, how would you feel as an adult if your boss said to you, ‘Here, can you please do this work? What’s two plus two?’ Every day, day after day. You would feel disrespected, and you would get demotivated, and you would feel kind of grumpy at this person who is treating you like this.”She explained that, because simple tasks make gifted students feel disrespected, many of these children are labeled with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), a behavioral disorder characterized by children who exhibit persistent anger and defiance toward authority figures.Blumstein said, unfortunately, many teachers now are unfamiliar with how to approach gifted students, since those who were trained and had experience with gifted education in Massachusetts have largely retired, and they took their knowledge with them.”In 2019, the state of Massachusetts did away with the certification in gifted education because nobody had used it in 20 years,” she added. Many gifted children struggle to relate to their peers and feel isolated because of their differences. Some have even been used as mentors to help other students in the classroom since they finish their work earlier than others, Blumstein said, recounting an experience she witnessed in the past.”Mentorship is a wonderful skill, but that child is not there to be your teacher’s assistant and your behavior management tool as an educator. They deserve the opportunity to be learning and growing as well,” she said.RHODE ISLAND SCHOOLS FACE BLOWBACK FOR ‘ASTOUNDING’ MOVE TO CUT HONORS CLASSES: PARENTS ‘UNITED’ AGAINST THISBlumstein mentioned grade-skipping as a cost-effective solution to help place kids where they need to be to correspond with their intellectual abilities. On top of the equity debate, the state also fell short in maintaining such programs over time, especially compared to other states.The 2019 study found that “only 3.7 percent of schools (69 schools) in Massachusetts reported having a gifted and talented program” compared to 57.6 percent of schools nationwide offering such programs.The same Boston Globe report that quoted Blumstein, for example, cited how common gifted and talented programs were in the Bay State during the 1970s, but they began disappearing with budget cuts. A teacher and consultant for gifted children from the Bay State complained in 1990 about the state’s $900,000 allocation for grants supporting gifted education being slashed the year prior, saying it “wiped out” one quarter of the state’s programs in the area.The state’s Office for Gifted and Talented was also dissolved in the early 1990s.”[The Office for the Gifted and Talented] was being run by someone who was very passionate about this, and there were six satellites throughout the state of gifted and talented, and there was support in the schools, and there was training, and there was a certificate, and there was all sorts of infrastructure around it,”  Barmazel said.”That person retired and budget cuts came and focus went elsewhere,” she added.Beyond supplying gifted kids with media – websites, activities, videos, etc. – tailored toward their unique needs, Barmazel and Blumstein’s organization provides support for parents and resources for educators to help enhance understanding of gifted minds and enrich the curriculum through certain strategies and methods. The organization’s website contains material for these groups as well as links to other research and articles about gifted education – including some that focus on the “equity” argument. 

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