When the results of Stuyvesant High School’s entrance exams broke, the numbers were staggering. Not merely bad as a stand-alone number, but worse than last year, despite the “push” to improve the number of black students offered admission. And before some fool says it, the school is not too white, as Asians, unsurprisingly, make up the majority of students. The end result: only seven black kids, out of 895 freshman slots, were offered admission to Stuyvesant.
These numbers come despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to diversify the specialized high schools, which have long been seen as a ticket for low-income and immigrant students to enter the nation’s best colleges and embark on successful careers.
You can vow anything, much to the applause of those who wish unicorns could prance on rainbows, but there were only two ways to make it happen. Reduce the entrance standards, which had the obvious result of reducing the competency level of students attending the school, and thus reducing the value of the Stuyvesant’s education, as students unprepared for its rigors would fail to perform at its current level.
Or in the alternative, admit unprepared students and watch them flunk out, all the while undermining the education at Stuyvesant, since they would bring down the level of performance, disrupt the classroom and still end up without a Stuyvesant diploma.
Students gain entry into the specialized schools by acing a single high-stakes exam that tests their mastery of math and English. Some students spend months or even years preparing for the exam. Stuyvesant, the most selective of the schools, has the highest cutoff score for admission, and now has the lowest percentage of black and Hispanic students of any of New York City’s roughly 600 public high schools.
Complaints that this single exam was unfair to students was a handy, yet unhelpful, excuse. It was fair in the sense that it was race-blind and the same for every student. The excuses were no different than complaints about the SAT, that it punished students who failed to speak standard English and were more inclined to black vernacular speech. It was unfair to students unfamiliar with such bougie concepts as draperies on windows, for a question that used drapes as an example would add a layer of unknown to the real problem being tested. And mostly, it left poor students who couldn’t prep for the test at a disadvantage.
Attempts to diversify the schools without touching the test have failed. Neither the expansion of free test prep for minority students nor a new plan to offer the specialized high school exam during the school day made a dent in the admissions numbers.
The problem with facile excuses is that they’re mere excuses, simplistic problems we can easily point to as a means of explaining away distinctions when we don’t want to face the hard, cold real problems. And then there’s the other side of the equation, that if we jury-rig admissions to allow more black students to enter, someone else gets denied.
Lawmakers considering Mr. de Blasio’s proposal have faced a backlash from the specialized schools’ alumni organizations and from Asian-American groups who believe discarding the test would water down the schools’ rigorous academics and discriminate against the mostly low-income Asian students who make up the majority of the schools’ student bodies. (At Stuyvesant, 74 percent of current students are Asian-American.)
Why should “low-income Asian students,” who make up a disproportionate majority of the students, be denied admission if they earned it? How do they manage to get in when black students do not? Maybe our heroine of the moment, Alexandra Ocasio-Ortez has an answer.
“My question is, why isn’t every public school in New York City a Brooklyn Tech-caliber school?” she asked, to applause from the audience. “Every one should be.”
This, inter alia, is why her sweet words will solve no problems: Nice as it would be if every school could be Harvard, then no school would be Harvard. But more to the point, not every school can be great, because most students aren’t Einstein, most teachers aren’t brilliant pedagogues and most parents just don’t care all that much about education. Like de Blasio, AOC has nothing to offer but empty platitudes. No child will be saved by vows of fantasy.
What if we had any sincere desire to change this, to give every student with the potential to be Stuyvesant-worthy the opportunity? Bear in mind, the average IQ is 100, so most students at best will be low-level performers in school and there’s nothing to be done about it. But we can make them the best students they can be, whatever that may be.
The problem, from a cold, hard realist perspective, is that this is at least a 20-year solution. It involves all the “stakeholders,” as the trendy call them: students, teachers, parents, adults in the community, police and politicians. Schools in poor neighborhoods are bad, but don’t blame the walls or desks. There are the students who enter with neither interest to learn nor appreciation of education. There are parents who can’t read to their children because they can’t read. There are children without parents because they’re in prison, or food to eat before leaving for school because their parent blew it on drugs.
No teacher can teach a class when half wants to fight. And the other half, that wants an education, can’t reveal weakness for fear of getting beaten by the tough kids.* Nor does the teacher enjoy being threatened. Even the most ardent and enthusiastic teacher is going to give up when confronted with impossible to teach kids who would rather do anything but learn.
These are all problems that fit within the paradigm of what the woke call racist. Why work hard when it’s an entitlement now? Who wouldn’t prefer magic beans rather than hard work? And no 20-year solution will inure to the benefit of a politician of whom easy, immediate fixes are demanded?
But who really cares about these kids? The people who want to face the hard problems with real, proven solutions, like the dreaded Tiger Mom, calling out a culture of failure as well as a culture of racism, or the sweet, dulcet tones of those selling the snake oil of social justice to create a pretense of equity that is assured to reduce all to mediocrity at best?
The low-income Asian kids work their butts off to succeed, and they do. They know the answer, but that’s why they’re the majority of students in Stuyvesant and others are not. The path is obvious, but it means confronting the unpleasant reality of the lies and failures we pretend don’t exist. And it can’t be done overnight or with a magic bullet. It takes work.
Instead, we condemn black students to a future of failure by perpetuating the fantasy that it’s solely a product of racism, of victimhood. and they can’t be blamed for doing little to help themselves. Tell it to the low-income Asian kids who suffer to succeed.
*Lest this be misunderstood by the intellectually challenged, there are black students who desperately want to learn, to work hard, to achieve, but they are victims not only of societal racism, but their fellow students who make the education they seek impossible.
It’s not that black students are dumb, lazy or incapable. It’s about black students being denied the education that would allow them to rise to their full potential by other black students who turn their classrooms into Fight Club. Denying this means it will never stop.
There are brilliant and successful black people, lawyers, doctors, artists, who didn’t get there by making excuses. They worked for it. It’s not for lack of capability, or that they didn’t have to confront and overcome racism, but that they did and still succeeded.