The Lesson of New York City’s Elite High Schools

The intransigent problem of racism, as proved by disparate impact, needs to be fixed. And we came upon just such a fix that couldn’t possibly fail because it overcame all the problems that surely gave rise to this insidious reality. There could be no favoritism. No legacy special treatment. No good ol’ boy’s club. No excuses.

There was an answer, and we went all-in to seize upon it: neutral objective tests that would eradicate all the outside influences that maintained a legacy of racism. This was the solution, except it didn’t work.

In the face of growing pressure to tackle New York City’s widespread school segregation, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Saturday a proposal that would change how students are admitted to eight of the city’s specialized high schools, a group of highly sought-after institutions where students gain entry based on a single test.

Black and Hispanic students, who make up 67 percent of the public school population, are grossly underrepresented at the specialized high schools, which include Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science.

And indeed, they are grossly underrepresented, while Asian students are grossly overrepresented.

“The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed — it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence,” Mr. de Blasio wrote in an op-ed published Saturday on the education website Chalkbeat.

“Can anyone defend this?” he continued. “Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?”

The irony here is overwhelming. This was as equal a chance as there could possibly be. The entry test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test, didn’t care about your race or gender. It was harsh. It was cruel. It was, if nothing else, objectively fair. And it was, despite de Blasio’s denial or ignorance, the solution to racism rather than the “roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.”

Most importantly, it distinguished those who could handle the level of work being taught at these elite high schools from those who couldn’t. This was the kicker. Without requiring students to have the capacity to succeed in these schools, they either would fail or the schools would have to dumb down their curriculum.

There was the possibility of remedial education, but that would eat up two things high schools and their students don’t have, time and money. A student can’t give up a quarter of his education to remediation and come out the same at the end. And even if he could, it doesn’t mean he has the chops to be as capable as those who came in competent. Remediation is helpful, but not a substitute for the ability to do the work.

So the very tool that was certain to eradicate racism, meritocracy, is now the culprit?

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest attempt to destroy New York’s elite high schools by replacing the single standard test of English, logic and math with grades, class standing, interviews and other subjective measures, made progress in Albany Tuesday, with Democrats on the State Assembly Education Committee signaling their openness.

The objective test did its job. It eliminated any considerations of race and relied exclusively on merit. It failed miserably to produce the outcome everyone was certain it would, and so the solution swung the other direction, to reintroduce subjectivity into the mix, but this time tilt the playing field so it would produce the desired outcome directly.

He’s right that that’s a problem — but not one that will be solved by diluting entrance criteria to push unprepared students into competitive, academically rigorous high schools.

To remedy the dearth of black and Hispanic students, the mayor proposes expanding enrollment by 20 percent, with additional students who failed to get qualifying scores, but only from majority black and Hispanic middle schools. And he wants to bring in the top 7 percent of each of the 600 middle schools in the city. Consider that many of those middle schools do not report even one student reading or doing math at grade level.

The racial mix will be changed, but not because the students are any more prepared to do the work. And it will come at the expense of the over-represented Asian students, as their chairs will be filled by others.

There are two natural reactions to this gambit, that the failure to score well enough on the SHSAT reflects something about racial intelligence or it reflects something about the nature of the education and environment from which these students come.

Fixing elementary and middle school education in low-income, minority schools is the correct response. Indeed, providing early education as good as the city’s charter schools, to which 25,000 black and Hispanic families, including half of entering students in Harlem, send their children, would seem to be the obvious model.

But “fixing” education so that these students are better educated, have the nurturing environment, if not the aggressive world that Tiger Moms provide their kids, is hard and inconsistent with trends favoring cultural acquiescence. Bourgeois values are racist. Even using standard English is racist. And doing well enough on a test of English, logic and math to gain admission to Bronx Science is, as de Blasio says, totally racist.

Teaching your smartest students that hard work and talent, not status, race or identity, will be rewarded, is a good thing. Destroying the meritocratic, egalitarian ethos will have undoubtedly negative social outcomes.

The solution of an objective test to eradicate racism wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t enough. Rather than take the hard, realistic view of where the problems are, we went, and continue to go, to fantasy solutions that denied the cause and focused only on the desired outcome. The problem isn’t that black and Hispanic kids aren’t good enough, smart enough, competent enough to gain admission, and from there enjoy great success. The problem is we refuse to confront the hard work required to get there by rationalizing reality.

The test isn’t wrong. The well-intended are. And the students who will never get the opportunity to achieve what they’re capable of, but for the excuses and tummy rubs for failure, will never get another chance to achieve the success they might have. And they call this social justice.

31 thoughts on “The Lesson of New York City’s Elite High Schools

  1. Jeffrey Gamso

    At the risk of self-promotion, I confess to having attended Bronx Science.

    I’m not digging out the yearbook or conducting other research to try and calculate the demographics, but in that distant past it was overwhelmingly white. It was also the smallest public high school run by the Board of Education – or so they told us. Neither, of course, is true today which is either good or bad – or perhaps just one of those things.

    But, and as relevant here (sorry for the quasi-digression), there were regular efforts to shut us down (and Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech – we were a triumvirate in those days). The language wasn’t “diversity” in those days. The complaint was about why the students in those schools should get special (code for better) education So about once a year, we’d miss a morning of school and, instead, go down to march around City Hall Park demanding that our schools survive – so that we could continue to get the education befitting our, ahem, brilliance.

    Same song, different verse.

    1. SHG Post author

      Many of my son’s fencing friends went to Bronx Science, and they were mostly Asian. As the kids fenced, the parents talked. The Asian mom’s and the Jewish dad would discuss where our kids would end up, being disfavored demographically despite the efforts put in by our kids (and us) to do everything right to succeed.

      There were also black kids who fenced (Charles Blows’ daughter is a great foil fencer, who won the Fencers Club High School Invitational in women’s foil the year my son won in men’s epee), who were every bit as much of the “club” as white and Asian kids, and were every bit as worthy. And they did succeed, being nationally-ranked fencers, being brilliant students, being admitted to great universities and being embraced as great friends. It can be done. It just takes work.

      1. B. McLeod

        It takes families who value those things as opposed to being content with generational stasis on the public dole. Without motive on the part of the student, it does not matter how much money we throw at this, and realistically, for at least grades K through 3, that motivation is going to have to come from the parents. We can’t expect a five-year-old to aggressively pursue social mobility through education if there is no respect for that concept among the adults of the family. Parents of every ethnicity are capable of understanding this, but not all of them will. They need to stop punting to “the village” (unless they intend to raise an idiot).

        1. SHG Post author

          If you look a bit harder, you might see that not only is this an unacceptable premise, but if anything, the juice is flowing in the opposite direction and sucking Bourgeois values out with it.

          1. B. McLeod

            I see that it is politically unacceptable (much like the “takes work”). But, reality is going to be very stubborn here. Ignoring the purpose and value of education until the child is in middle school, then demanding that the child be given the same opportunities as classmates who have been literate since second grade is never going to work. Even if you put semi-literate students into the elite high schools, they will be behind the 8-ball. At graduation, they (and their skill levels) will be whatever they are. The game of pretend can’t last forever. The only positive aspect I see to this at all is that maybe the experience will produce adults who will understand what they need to do for their own children, when it is time to do it.

            1. SHG Post author

              But if no one is literate in second grade (except Asian kids, because there ain’t no way mom is going to let that happen), then we’ve achieved social justice equity.

      2. Skink


        Isn’t high school supposed to provide useful stuff? Fencing? Were they gonna become pirates or join the Royal Navy and find Blackbeard’s treasure? Did practice include Jimmy Buffett songs? Was equal time given to the practicals, like how to kill your mugger and leave no evidence?

          1. Fubar

            Texas won’t let you smoke marijuana,
            But I’m too cool for school, so I’m gonna
            Strut right down the street
            Lookin’ cool and elite,
            While sportin’ my shiny katana!

          2. Morgan O.

            Don’t forget tha duels are now legal in Canada. So if a Canuck besmirches his honour (or maybe even his honor), he has a reasonable chance at satisfaction

  2. Ken Mackenzie

    This is an interesting defence of an objective competition to rank applicants. In “Harvard In The Eye of the Tiger” you defended affirmative action and commented, “Not everything is scorable. There are ephemeral values as well.”

    The distinction between your two positions seems to be about maintaining the minimum standard. Harvard, however it selects, will still only choose students who can cut the mustard. The High Schools have a less deep talent pool, so will have to take some ill-equipped numpties and also-rans, then either fail them or lower the bar. That need not be so. The schools could adopt Harvard’s use of diversity to select from among the good enough.

    Even then, the bright Asian/White/Turkman student who misses out for the sake of diversity has a justified sense of grievance. The High Schools are less stellar than they might have been. And so is Harvard.

    1. SHG Post author

      You caught the nuance, that as long as they have the capability, then diversity is a valuable additional factor. But they must first have the capability to succeed before ancillary factors come into play.

  3. wilbur

    I remember when the claim was that standardized tests themselves were racist. The argument was that test questions referencing everyday white stuff, like how many ounces of punch would be needed for the spring cotillion or figuring the square footage of a yacht sail, placed underprivileged test takers at a disadvantage, and that’s why there was a disparity in test results.

    I’m glad they solved that problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as I admire your attempt to describe a spinnaker, here’s an example of racism in standardized testing:

      One question, for example, asked which of the following words best matched the word “cup” — “wall,” “saucer,” “table” or “window”? Michael’s friend Eddie, presumably an African-American, chose “table,” because in his house, Michael said, there are no saucers to put under the cups.

      In one sense, it’s a problem, as exposure to words that describe things that don’t exist in a black kid’s world. In another sense, is the word that obscure that a black kid never came across it in a book, TV or elsewhere? We all come across words with which we’re unfamiliar. Can that problem be fixed?

      1. wilbur

        Is it impolitic to point out that even if you have never encountered the word “saucer”, the other three choices can be easily examined and ruled out?

        That’s how you take a test. Maybe the absence of test-taking skills is part of the problem.

  4. Erik H

    The head-busting part for me is how they reliably talk about only one side of the balance.

    If someone were to say “We are giving Bob a spot, because Bob is black. We are taking a seat away from Al, who is Asian. This is an acceptable trade off” then at least they would be honest and we could discuss it. Who knows; perhaps there is some unusual view in which the trade makes sense.

    But in today’s idiocracy the politicians say “Bob gets a seat” and they never openly discuss what happens to Al.


    1. SHG Post author

      Trade-offs don’t sound nearly as wrong when you only talk about the upside and ignore the downside.

      1. Ken Mackenzie

        While your opponents only talk about the downside. That’s the way nearly all public policy decisions are debated now.

        The media tend to emphasise the downside in most policy choices. It makes a more heartrending or outrage triggering story.

    2. Hunting Guy

      Joseph Stalin.

      “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”

    3. Svetoslav Shterev

      It’s not true that only one side is talked about. Depending on their denomination, SJWs will tell you they’re taking seats from the evil whites and/or males. Asians are part he Schrodinger whites – they’re minorities when “white men” oppress them, but they’re whites if we’re talking about their education or their wealth.

  5. B. McLeod

    It’s the same argument that is made for “diversity” in law schools (and indeed, everywhere). If any ethnic minority is underrepresented, even though it be for absence of qualifications, their problems are everybody’s problem to fix. However, even if one accepts the notion of expending massive resources trying to push that hippo up a steep hill, the rational answer can’t be to fudge the test. Instead, the “fix” has to be somehow implemented in the lower schools, making the underrepresented minorities capable of competing in the high school entry tests. So, no more fudging grades or granting “social promotions” in the lower grades. No child should be permitted to move past any grade without mastering the basic skills taught in that grade.

    1. SHG Post author

      If they really want a fix, then they stop enjoying that combination of fantasy and reality that’s guaranteed to fail while squandering resources and patting themselves on the back for their wokiosity.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    This reads like a stereotype of conservative complaints about”affirmative action”. Instead of admitting failure and doing the hard thing of getting the under represented groups capable of passing the test they did the easy thing and called the test racist and dumbed down the admission standards.

  7. Lee Keller King

    “There are two natural reactions to this gambit, that the failure to score well enough on the SHSAT reflects something about racial intelligence or it reflects something about the nature of the education and environment from which these students come.”

    Has anyone considered that it might be a cultural thing? (See, e.g. Black Rednecks & White Liberals by Thomas Sowell).

    But then I suppose that blaming a person’s culture for their lack of achievement is also racist, or classist, or something. 🙁

    1. SHG Post author

      I include culture as part of environment. It’s a huge factor, but one can’t criticize culture, no matter how counterproductive it may be. Then again, if the culture isn’t conducive to education, hard work and achievement, then immunizing it from criticism or change is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  8. KP

    Its all OK.. As China overtakes the USA in everything and America becomes a poor backwater like Spain or Portugal, the Asian students will all emigrate to China to work hard and become wealthy.

    Amazing how giving politicians power can drive a country backwards.

  9. B. McLeod

    When I was in school, there was a local Chinese family in which the kids were all sharp as a tack. One of them perfect-scored the SAT. Unfortunately, they were a short-lived crew, and the last of them passed away some years ago, never making it to 60.

  10. WAN

    The people who criticize meritocracy based on results they don’t like do not grasp that what they in turn promote is really just cronyism – giving positions to friends / allies despite the lack of qualifications.

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