One of the first things I learned as a native New Yorker starting out as a young teacher almost more than 35 years ago was that the public education system in New York City is institutionally racist by design. This begins the moment a poor child enters a school building, and the effects are compounded as time passes. And while socio-economic and race-based discrimination are not congruent, both occupy much common space in the Venn diagram of discrimination. I have my complaints about Mayor Bill DeBlasio, but he is quite astute about public education. His attempt to desegregate New York’s specialized secondary schools is, like the decision to institute universal pre-K, a bold and positive move. A school system that supports segregation at any level dispenses injustice at every level. No child is ever better off in a segregated school.
The biggest problem facing public schools in New York City is poverty. Roughly 10% of the students in the NYCDOE are homeless. By most estimates about 25% of all NYCDOE students live below the poverty line. (In my experience, families tend to under-report poverty due to fear of stigmatization.) Because poor students tend to live in poor school zones and because poor school zones tend to have poor schools, “cumulative academic malpractice” (as I call it) is often compounded with each “promotion.” The inverse is true in the case of schools that cater to white middle-class students whose parents often build specialized schools their children’s educational plans before those children have even entered middle school. It is true, also, that if the Asian families currently protesting the possible elimination of the SHSAT as the sole criterion for admission are to be believed, that many Asian families in New York City begin early to prepare their children for standardized tests in general and the one standardized test that gets a student into one of New York City's "elite" specialized schools.
These families are perhaps disappointed because they recognize that training to test frequently forecloses upon broader learning. Children and adolescents who spend too much extra-curricular time learning testing strategies often fail to learn second (and third) languages, make art, take part in athletics, gain experience working in areas of social justice.community service. In my experience, I have noticed that over-achieving New York students for whom English is a second language often sacrifice learning to enjoy reading and writing well in English in order to attain the more urgent (for them and their families) goal of learning to take tests. Quite often, even among poor families, parents put a ‘pay for As’ incentive in place. I understand that many parents see this as a way for their children to "get ahead," but as an educator, I believe this approach siphons much of the pleasure from learning and stunts ingenuity.
In New York City, poor children, through no fault of their own, have diminished access to lotteries, charter schools, test preparation programs, extra-curricular arts, scholastic enrichment, school supplies, internet, and even libraries. For a child born poor, black, Latino in New York City, discrimination on the basis of socio-economics begins the moment they/she/he enter/s “the system” because the entire system designed to keep the poor, poor and to offer white middle and upper middle class families a safe, free K-12 education. For children living in poverty, every year compounds the problem New York City's unofficial "separate but equal' policy presents. What a child learns in one year is requisite for what is introduced the following year. A child who fails to learn to add two whole numbers, for example, cannot learn to multiply. Students who start out in poor schools in poor neighborhoods tend to remain in poor schools in poor neighborhoods. “Social promotion” allows students who have failed to gain mastery to move ahead. Rare is the student who will admit in seventh grade language arts that they/she/he don’t/doesn’t know what a verb is, but seventh graders who don’t know what verbs are are legion. By middle school often even highly intelligent students, having a sense of how much they don't know, begin to retreat and isolate. Parents (and perhaps cultures) who are focused on “academic success” will often interrupt a student's failure to thrive academically, but often the parents of indigent children are just not able. This pulling away is far more prevalent in schools and neighborhoods in which students are poor. This powerless likely explains much of the despair and powerlessness that give way to drug and alcohol abuse, gangs, unplanned pregnancy etc. Poor parents are far less likely to know when their children are falling behind and are therefore less able to intervene when their children are struggling academically. Throwing eight or ten weeks of free SHSAT test prep at poor middle school students attending struggling schools in poor neighborhoods does little. A student who reads at a third grade level in eighth grade gains nothing from cramming for these examinations.
And not all poor children are the same. In the current debate relating to admission to New York’s specialized high schools, the question of what a “minority” student is has been submitted for scrutiny. Many Asian families are organizing in New York City to protest the possible elimination of the policy that uses the SHSAT score as a the sole admission. About 70% of all NYCDOE students are black and Latino, but more than 60% of the students in these schools are Asian and fewer than 10% of students in New York City’s specialized schools are black and Latino. The argument Asian families organizing to preserve the current criterion centers on the notion that the one test best demonstrates merit. Many argue that as people of color, as "minority students" they are entitled to retain their stronghold on the specialized schools. The problem with this argument is that in the schools they are not the minority. They are the majority.
Lately I have been astonished by the arguments of those who insist that New York’s specialized schools should remain segregated. People accusing Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza of being anti-Asian are themselves advancing a racist, "separate but equal" argument. They’re not defending the test; nor are they defending existing policy of admitting by the test. Those challenging the resolution to expand the criteria for gaining admission to specialized schools are defending the right of Asian and white students to keep these public schools free of black and Latino students.
At present, admission to these schools is decided by the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test) alone---no transcripts, no portfolios, no references, no resumes. Unlike many of those currently championing the usefulness of this particular test, I have seen and used many obsolete versions of the SHSAT to help students prepare for them. The language arts aspect on the test is not very challenging, and students who read for pleasure are unlikely to have any trouble with the verbal sections. The test is somewhat math-heavy. I believe many of those protesting De Blasio's and Carranza's thinking about the admissions policies of New York City's specialized high schools are doing so because they know that rigorous in the humanities areas as they are in math, the competition would be greater. The math-heavy aspect of the SHSAT filters out intelligent students who have attended struggling schools. At present. knowing that there is substantial math on the test causes many New York City middle school students to eschew it and the schools that require it entirely. As a result, the specialized schools lose out on many accomplished students who may have superb verbal talent.
While many of the best and brightest students in New York do not even take this test, others plan ahead and often prepare, sometimes for years in advance, for it. A reasonably expert tutor can earn upwards of $200 per hour for SHSAT test prep in “Brownstone Brooklyn.” My two daughters fared very well on the SHSAT but refused to even consider attending these schools. I begged both to select Brooklyn Tech. “Please, please! It’s practically around the corner! You don’t even need a Metro card! Think of how late you can sleep! You can roll out of bed at 8:15…” Why they refused is interesting. They complained that these schools were too full of students who care only about getting As. The stories of cheating scandals abound.
During the early 1990s I taught research writing at the City University of New York’s Baruch College where I had a few Stuyvesant graduates each semester. They were intelligent but in almost every case I can remember, underprepared in the area of English composition. In most cases, they were English language learners. For me, the English language learner aspect was never a problem. To the contrary—I saw it as a strength. But I often encountered fellow faculty members who thought it proper to remand all students struggling with “standard English” in costly, non-credit-bearing remedial classes. In my opinion, modifying criteria for passing English 101 was best for such students. Diversity is good. Knowing more than one language is great. Making allowances for people who have had unique struggles is also great—and proper to the goals of education. It is exactly this ethos that has made the specialized schools available to bright math and science students with weak verbal skills.
There is a claim from some quarters that somehow black and Latino New Yorkers and their educational justice allies are somehow militating to “take” the schools from Asian students." These schools are public, however, and do not belong to any group. They can’t BE taken. There is no talk of expelling anyone. No Asian student will be prevented from applying for admission. The truth is that the SHSAT only admission criterion keeps many superb students, many of them Asians, from even applying to these schools. From almost any pedagogical standpoint, one single standardized test is insufficient for assessing readiness for any kind of scholarship. There won’t be a new plan in place until fall of 2019. Mayor De Blasio has floated the idea of taking a percentage of students from all middle schools. That could work. I think I’d prefer to see a more holistic approach and the implementation of a vigorous plan (with supports) for recruiting students from struggling school.
My son, who is a young man now, did not take the SSHAT. He is autistic, required small classes, and would never have been a viable candidate for any of the specialized schools. A handful of his fellow students He attended the second most “elite” (It was not.) middle school in Brooklyn’s most well-reputed school district did test into those schools in 2008. His public middle school principal, hoping to juke her specialized school admissions stats, gave select families the contact information for the expensive SHSAT tutor. That’s how deep the corruption runs. The SHSAT and Standardized Test fish rots from the head.
Cambridge, June 11, 2018