New York City schools may have a problem. Or they are what parents and students in New York City have made of them. This doesn’t mean there aren’t significant exceptions, but in trying to identify whether a problem exists that it needs fixing, or whether a fix will accomplish something beneficial, it’s valuable to remember that the existence of exceptions doesn’t negate the reality of the majority of students. We have a tendency to obsess over the outliers at the expense of the many these days. You may have noticed that.
The School Diversity Advisory Group formed by Mayor Bill de Blasio found a problem, that black and “Latinx” children were underrepresented in the City’s gifted schools.
Today they have become proxies for separating students who can and should have opportunities to learn together. Most “screened schools”and “Gifted and Talented” admissions
processes are in tension with meeting the goals in Making the Grade, including and importantly, the goal of effective educational innovation that takes advantage of existing research. These schools and programs often fail to serve disadvantaged students and Black and Latinx students and have often failed to take advantage of some of the research and innovations that have developed since their inception.
It’s undeniably correct that the admissions processes for gifted schools are in tension with the goal of diversity, with “tension” doing a lot of work here. Gifted programs are mostly white and Asian, and other students are underrepresented if one believes that proportional representation would invariably happen but for a problem. That’s the detail that’s glossed over, taken for granted, begged in assuming that but for a problem, this disparate representation would not occur.
Consequently, the commission arrived at a solution: eliminate gifted schools and screened programs to create something of far greater benefit to “gifted” students: diverse schools.
As a fan, I find value in the notion that diversity is a worthy goal. But that’s not the question presented. Diversity comes on top of a rigorous education. Diversity is neither the equal of, nor superior to, a rigorous education. The most diverse classroom in the city that doesn’t teach physics is not going to produce students with competence in physics. As obvious as this seems, it eludes the New York Times.
New York’s public schools are among the most racially segregated in the country.
That’s partly a result of decades of policies that have allowed parents of well-off white and many Asian students to steer their children to the most sought-after public schools, while largely consigning the Hispanic and black children, who make up an overwhelming majority of students, to underperforming schools.
To say “partly” is facile at best and disingenuous at worst. But the Times doubles down by characterizing the problem as “parents of well-off white and many Asian students” steering their children to the best schools. Is imparting an appreciation of education “steering”? Is getting their children to go to school every day, show up on time, study, work hard, “steering”?
Even if it was, and it’s not, what prevents the parents of black and Hispanic students from steering their children to the same schools? What makes the schools they go to now “underperforming”? Is there some invisible hand the prevents them from “steering”?
The report also called on the city to end the use of admissions screening criteria for middle schools and high schools in cases where they have been shown to disadvantage minorities, those with learning disabilities, students for whom English is a second language or students living in homeless shelters. About a quarter of the city’s middle and high schools consider grades, attendance and other criteria to admit students.
The Times carves out three groups of students who have separate, special needs, but lumps them together with the “disadvantaged minorities.” Special needs are special, and should be addressed, but they neither reflect the majority nor the problem at hand. Why do admissions screening criteria, “grades, attendance and other,” disadvantage minorities?
The commission outlined specific practices selective high schools use for admission that disadvantage black and Hispanic students, like attendance and lateness. Three-quarters of black and Hispanic students miss more than five days of school per year, according to the report, one measure used by some schools. That’s a snapshot of the grinding, generational poverty they face. Last year, one in 10 students lived in temporary housing, immersed in the trauma of homelessness.
Whether “grinding, generational poverty” afflicts all black and Hispanic students is one question. Why poverty makes students unable to show up for school every day, or show up on time, is another. Clearly, the 10% of students living in temporary housing doesn’t explain the 75% of students who miss more than five days of school.
But if one assumes away all the real problems because they’re hard to address, they’re “in tension” with ideology that precludes ascertaining the real reason why black and Hispanic students aren’t qualifying for admission to the better schools, the gifted programs, and comes up with the easier, more politically correct solutions, then one can create the appearance of diversity while helping no one.
[E]xtensive evidence in this report suggests the existing use of screens and Gifted and Talented programs is unfair, unjust and not necessarily research-based. As a result, these programs segregate students by race, class, abilities and language and perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement.
There are two fundamental approaches that could have been taken to address the lack of diversity in gifted schools. One is to improve the education of black and Hispanic students, their appreciation of education, their language abilities (both Spanish and AAVE), their attendance, so that those who had the potential could gain admission into schools where they would be challenged and provided a rigorous education.
The other way is to eliminate the rigorous education, the gifted schools, the “use of screens” that prevented unqualified students from being admitted while “well-off” white and Asian parents “steered” their children to a better future.
The best way to keep students in the system is to improve all the city’s schools. But the pursuit of that goal is no substitute for addressing inequality right now.
Diversity and inclusion do not compel mediocrity. It’s a choice. Whether it’s “inequality” remains unclear because no one cares to dig into the real reasons for it, but what is clear is that “fixing” the manifestations of problems at the expense of the ultimate goal of education means that instead of lifting up underperforming students, they are holding down the overperforming students.
Perhaps this will accomplish greater diversity, but the price will be the rigorous education of the gifted. This doesn’t help the black and Hispanic students who can’t gain admission, but harms the students who can. Was that what the Times was shooting for?