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.