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GATE or gatekeeper? The argument that academic tracking creates racial segregation in schools

An illustration of university entrance gates.
An illustration of university entrance gates.
Rob Dobi/For NPR

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With the recent college admissions scandal and spotlight on underrepresentation of black students in New York’s specialized public high schools, questions about equity in education have been in the air.

In her recent Atlantic piece “The Other Segregation,” UC Merced sociology professor Whitney Pirtle argues that we should be paying attention to another form educational inequity: academic tracking.

Each school district typically has its own gifted and talented education (GATE) programs. The pathway to GATE differs depending on the district, but typically teachers tap student who they think might be gifted to take a test -- if they pass, they are separated out from the rest of the school and put on a different academic track with more challenging teachers and accelerated curriculum and activities. But who does a teacher deem “gifted” and how might their biases play into that decision? Whose parents have the knowledge or resources to push their kids towards GATE? According to Professor Pirtle, GATE programs have created schools within schools, where education is separate and unequal, and where black children don’t have access to the same opportunities. She cites research from the Center for American Progress, which found that while black students make up 17 percent of the population, they make up less than 10 percent of GATE students, as well as her personal experience as a parent.

We take a closer look at the pros and cons of academic tracking, as well as what might be done to address the racial disparities within GATE.

If you were a student or the parent of a student in a GATE program, what was your experience? Or if you were outside of the GATE programs, how do you feel it affected your education? What issues of privilege or inequity did you encounter?


Whitney Pirtle, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Merced; she is the author of the recent Atlantic piece “The Other Segregation” 

Sandra Kaplan, professor of clinical education at USC and chair of the Education Committee for the California Association for the Gifted; she was also the president of the California Association  for the Gifted and the National Association for Gifted Children

Lucy Hunt, an LAUSD district coordinator of Gifted/Talented Programs