By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It probably was inevitable that the left would turn against New York City’s elite public schools: Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Latin School, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Tech. It is the devolution we have seen in schools all across the country, from the days when the civil rights establishment insisted its goal was Martin Luther King’s goal of having everyone “judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin,” to the rise of racial quotas and affirmative action programs.
New York City’s elite schools would appear to be everything Martin Luther King wanted: a strict meritocracy. Admission is colorblind, based solely on a student’s score on the SHSAT (the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test). There is unquestioned equality of opportunity for eighth graders in New York City to gain admission by taking this test. There is no equality of results, however. Of the 3,292 students at Stuyvesant this past year, 73 percent are Asian, 22 percent white, 2 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent black. Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech have higher percentages of minority students: 5 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic at Bronx Science; 14 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic at Brooklyn Tech.
In New York City, the ethnic makeup of the public schools’ 1.1 million students is 15 percent Asian, 15 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 28 percent black. For NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s teachers union, this shows self-evident injustice. According to the online edition of National Review on July 3, they have joined to push for a bill in the state legislature that calls “for additional criteria to be used in making admissions decisions” to the elite schools. The “additional criteria” are grade-point averages and class rankings. As reported in Crain’s New York Business, de Blasio told reporters, “We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds.”
New York City has been aware of this imbalance at its elite schools for many years. The New York Times reported in 2010 on a plan by New York City to offer a “free test-prep program” for black and Hispanic students. But the plan was challenged as discriminatory, forcing the city to open the program to all of the city’s students, regardless of ethnic background. As a result, the Times reports, the enrollees in the program are now 43 percent Asian. Hence, the imbalance in the student body at the elite schools remains.
There seems to be little room for compromise on this issue. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced the opinion of many in the city at a press conference in 2012: “I think Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be. There’s nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be.”
The current mayor, de Blasio, disagrees: “I do not believe a single test should be determinative, particularly something that is as life-changing for so many young people.”
The Bronx Science Alumni Association agrees with Bloomberg, calling the current admissions process a “pure meritocracy, with one standard that is transparent and incorruptible.” Brooklyn Tech’s Parent Teacher Association agrees, noting that 60 nationalities are represented in the student body at Tech, with English the first language for only about one-third of the students, 60 percent of whom qualify under federal guidelines for free or reduced lunch. Tech’s PTA states flatly, “Specialized public high schools are the solution, not the problem.”
There is no denying that admitting students to these schools on the basis of their high school grades would result in a lowering of standards. Being one of the top students at the many underperforming schools in New York City does not necessarily indicate significant academic achievement. But that fact can also be used to support de Blasio’s position: How can a student from a broken home and a crime-ridden neighborhood, no matter how gifted and hard-working, who attends one of the disorderly and nonfunctioning grade schools in New York City be expected to compete on the standardized entrance tests with students who attend a school in one of the city’s solid middle-class neighborhoods, especially if that student comes from a home that stresses education and personal responsibility?
There is another angle to consider: Former Mayor Bloomberg’s guideline of basing admission to the elite schools solely on a single entrance test was easier to live with in years past. When I was a boy, the public school kids from my neighborhood who did not get into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science did not end up in a high school anything like the dangerous and nonfunctioning high schools that can be found in much of modern New York City. I heard stories from friends of the conditions in Flushing High School, Bayside High School, and Forest Hills High School.
There were teenagers in those schools who were antisocial types. More than a few had criminal records; many others had simply not been caught yet by the police. But there were also solid honors and college prep courses and a rich array of extracurricular activities available. A conscientious and gifted student was not held back in life because he or she attended one of these schools, whose graduates were admitted to Ivy League schools and other impressive colleges in numbers that rivaled the best Catholic high schools in New York City.
The same cannot be said of students from many inner-city neighborhoods in New York City today. A failure to gain admission to one of the city’s elite schools can result in a serious setback to their lives.
It is the dilemma that the country has been trying to solve for decades now: How do we open doors to quality schools for promising young people from dysfunctional families, neighborhoods, and schools, without watering down the standards that make successful schools successful? Right-thinking people will be reluctant to go along with Bill de Blasio’s method — which, in the final analysis, is the relaxation of standards. But what is the alternative? First Teachers welcomes our readers’ reactions.
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.