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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

What Price Diversity?

 

 

Since the spring of 2018, I have been pondering Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to "diversify" New York City's three specialized or "elite" public high schools by getting the state legislature in Albany to abolish the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) that is required under the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971 for all students who wish to enter these high schools.

 

De Blasio's argument is that these tests prevent all but a very few African American  and Latino children from being invited to attend these schools, and that such de facto segregation makes a mockery of the city's professed claims to be truly liberal and democratic.

 

He wants to diversify the student bodies of these schools by increasing the number of African American and Latino children enrolled in them even if these children don't perform well enough on the SHSATs to be admitted on the same basis as the white and Asian-American children who currently occupy almost all of the seats at these schools.

 

This places me in a quandary.

 

On the one hand, I am all in favor of diversity, and I try to practice it in "(An Appropriate Distance) From the Mayor's Doorstep," my online art column.  I write about African American, Latino and Asian artists whenever I can sincerely do so (I write about a lot of women artists as well). 

 

However, I write about such artists ONLY when I feel that they are producing high-quality work (or if dead, produced it when they were alive). It has to be work that is as good as or better than work that white (and/or male) artists are making (or made).

 

In other words, I feel the only valid way to be a good art critic is to combine diversity with quality. Not either/or but both/and. 

 

I feel the same way about the school system, and I am not at all sure of the Mayor's ability to preserve the high academic standards currently prevailing at the specialized high schools, given the methods that he and his schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, are currently employing – and/or plan to employ – to achieve the diversity they seek.

 

In other words, it is not the "what" that I am questioning.  It is the "how."

 

Also I am dissatisfied with how my favorite hometown newspaper has been covering this story lately. As I see it, The New York Times has been creating more heat than light on this subject and ignoring too many of the issues involved. So in addition to this being a critique of New York City's current administration, it is also going to be a journalistic critique.

 

WHO AM I?

 

Who am I, you may ask, and why should you want to listen to me?  Easier to say, who I am not.  Not a representative of any education-oriented non-profit or special-interest organization. Not a public-school teacher or a public-school graduate. Not a recognized critic of journalism.

 

In other words, nobody whose thoughts could get accepted in any mainstream publication as an authority on this subject – even if I could keep those thoughts down to a more reasonable length.

 

However, I found this topic an extremely rich vein to explore, and I like to think that at least some of what I have dug up about it has not been said elsewhere

 

I do claim experience as a business-news journalist in my youth and as an art critic and art historian more recently. This career began right after college with thirteen years as a researcher and a writer on Time magazine, a publication whose professionalism in its heyday was accepted as nearly as (if not altogether equal to) that of the Times.

 

Equally or perhaps even more relevant to this article, I also have experience as a college teacher, and a life experience in which nearly 70 of my 84 years have been spent in and around New York, observing and talking with my fellow New Yorkers.

 

Finally, I have a desire to illuminate the increasingly agitated present by placing it in a more dispassionate and socio-economic or historical context.  Perhaps the fact that I have no direct stake in the outcome is the reader's best guarantee that I can be fair to all parties. And perhaps nothing and nobody can guarantee that.

 

GROWTH STATISTICS

 

The problem is one of long standing, in the sense that historically very few Latino or African-American students have been able to gain admission to these specialized high schools – despite the fact that in since the later 1950s, these two minority groups together have become more than half of the city's population.

 

The three original "elite" schools – Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School-- were founded between 1904 and 1938.  For the earlier part of their existences, their student bodies were predominantly white -- and predominantly Jewish.  

 

According to my admittedly limited reading of New York City history, the preponderance of Jews in the city's better schools didn't surprise or bother anybody too much -- but the presence of so many Eastern European Jews arriving in the city itself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did give rise to considerable anti-Semitic sentiment on a broader scale.

 

Beginning in the later 50s, the number of Latinos and African Americans in New York began to grow, and more and more white people left the city for the suburbs. 

 

This emigration was not only lower middle-class people in the outlying boroughs, disturbed by the minority influx;  it was also upper middle-class people – even from classy neighborhoods like the Upper East Side -- who simply wanted more space.

 

In the movies, this migration was personified by Cary Grant in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House."  In literature, one may follow the trajectory of this class through the short stories of John Cheever, with the earliest taking place in Greenwich Village, "The Enormous Radio" taking place in the East 40s, and "The Swimmer" taking place in exurbia.

 

In my private life, I think of Jimmy and Jeannette Egan, two of my mother's friends who left a spacious apartment on upper Park Avenue around 1948 for a somewhat roomier house in Westport, CT. 

 

Although Jimmy made a good living in advertising, I am sure the fact that their son could attend the local public high school instead of an expensive private school like Dalton was a factor in the decision to relocate.

 

In any event, moves like these meant that in the 50s, an estimated 800,000 whites left the city.  In the '60s, the total number of whites leaving the city grew to a full million, while the number of nonwhites increased by 62 percent.

 

Beginning in the 1970s, those elite public schools began to be less white and more heavily Asian-American – and especially Chinese.   This reflected the fact that Asian-Americans were becoming the city's newest sizeable immigrant group – and the further fact that the Chinese especially seem -- like the Jews – to place a very high premium upon academic success.    

 

Today, the population of the city is about 25 percent African American, 28 percent Latino (both white and of African descent), 35 percent non-Latino white and 12 percent Asian-American. (NB – don't expect any of my listings of percentages to add up to 100—I leave out percentages listed for minor categories, such as "Native American" or "Other.")

 

Yet the city's 1.1-million public school students are 41 percent Latino, 26 percent African American, 16 percent Asian-American and 15 percent white.

 

"Inside Schools," an online advisory service for parents, reports recent statistics on the racial makeup of all the public schools in the city.  Extrapolating from these, I found that of the 12,000 students attending the three original specialized high schools listed in Hecht-Calandra, 66 percent are Asian-American, 21 percent are white, and 10 percent are African-American or Latino.

 

The situation is not quite as extreme at the other five more recently founded specialized high schools that admit students upon the basis of the SHSAT. Of the 3400 students in these schools, 49 percent are Asian-American, 32 percent are white, 17 percent are Latino and 10 percent are African American.

 

The most extreme imbalance is at Stuyvesant High School, the oldest and best-known of the group, where 74 percent of the student body is Asian-American and only 4 percent is African American or Latino.

 

The most balanced enrollment of these eight schools is to be found at one of the newer five, the High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College (HSMSE).  There, only 37 percent of the student body is Asian-American, 27 percent are white, and 26 percent are Latino or African American.

 

A ninth specialized high school, the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, bases its admissions upon auditions and portfolios instead of the SHSAT. Its student body of 2800 was 20 percent Asian-American, 45 percent white, 17 percent Latino and 10 percent African American.

 

THE WHITE FOLKS

 

The smaller percentage of white children in public schools reflects two factors in particular: 1) the large number of white children attending the city's approximately 900 private schools (both religious and independent), and 2) how many white people, especially those from out-of-town, treat the Big Apple.

 

Over the years, I have many times observed these people arriving as students or young adults, getting their hot careers started and meeting their significant others. I see them especially crowding & happily chattering into the bars and restaurants of my neighborhood on the Upper East Side.

 

When they marry, though, and start a family, like my mother's friends, they often move out of the city to the suburbs or out of the area altogether, among other reasons to give their children the best possible educations. 

 

Some move back into the city when the children are grown and some New Yorkers who never left simply outlive other ethnic groups.

 

One way or another, 35 percent of New York's population in the 25 to 29-year-old bracket is white, but only 31 percent in the 40- to 44-year-old bracket is white – and 40 percent of the population in the 75- to 79-year-old percent bracket is white, too.

 

Of the whites in those three age brackets, those in their 40s are likely to be earning the most money.  Those who have moved to the suburbs may still be working in the city, but they spend most of their money in suburbia, to say nothing of paying taxes to their local authorities and not to New York City.

 

Such people also vote in the suburbs – the less affluent ones providing the suburbs with a middle class that the city increasingly lacks – and that it needs, to provide the fulcrum which enables a democracy to balance off the needs of the haves and the have-nots-- a middle class that can shift its allegiance back and forth between the lower classes and the upper ones.

 

MAYOR DE BLASIO'S PROPOSALS

 

Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has been arguing since his first election campaign for mayor in 2013 that African American and Latino children are being closed out of the city's elite or specialized high schools simply because they are African American or Latino.

 

As so few them appear to be able to score highly enough on the SHSAT to be invited to enroll in them, his argument is that the test must be biased, and if different entrance requirements were instituted, the number of African American and Latino children in these specialized  high schools would rise.

 

The mayor's latest proposed solution to diversify all these schools was the topic of a June 4, 2018, press conference, where he was joined by sympathetic legislators from the state government in Albany, and sympathetic members of the City Council. 

 

A transcript was emailed to me by a communications officer for the Department of Education. It reads more like a football rally or an old--fashioned Southern revival meeting (of either race) than any press conference I ever attended. 

 

As the mayor explained his proposal, he many times paused for applause–-and many times got it. At

one point, he even called for an "amen" – and got that, too. 

 

The mayor spelled out his plan in an only slightly less emotional style in an op-ed column on June 2 in Chalkbeat, an online newspaper covering the field of education, and emailed to me by the same communications officer. 

 

The essence of this column was repeated in a story in The New York Times also posted online on June 2, 2018.  It was not, as nearly as I can tell from the paper's admirable database, in its print edition, but this oversight was remedied in a much longer and more spirited article posted online the next day, and headlined "As Calls for Action Crescendo, de Blasio Takes on Segregated Schools." 

 

Still, this second story only ran on Page A17 of the print edition on Monday, June 4, and didn't mention the fact that de Blasio's ambition, according to his Op-Ed piece, was to increase enrollment of Latino and African-American students in the elite schools to 45 percent – as opposed to the 10 percent who in the spring of 2018 had received invitations to enroll on the basis of their performance on the SHSATs.

 

"Can anyone defend this?" he had written.  "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 mayor proposed to rectify the situation through two initiatives, the first of which requires that Hecht-Calandra be repealed or abolished.

 

New entrance requirements would then be based upon the state-mandated math and English tests already given to every student every year anyway, plus other criteria, such as a student's grade point average in the middle school they attended.

 

The second initiative, by now being implemented, offers 20 percent of the seats in the specialized high schools to needy students who scored just below the lowest scores achieved on the SHSAT by those students who had already been admitted. 

 

This program had already been in existence for some time and is known as the "Discovery" program.  Its participants have to take a special 'prep" course over the summer before they enter the specialized high school.

 

However, previously "Discovery" included only 5 percent of the seats in the specialized high schools.  In addition to expanding the number of seats to be offered from 5 percent to 20 percent, de Blasio and his advisors also changed the entrance requirements. 

 

As revised, they now require that to be admitted to the specialized high schools under the "Discovery" program, a child had to be not only to be needy itself, but also come from a school in one of the highest poverty areas.

 

It is not clear to me exactly why these criteria were chosen.  Was it purely from altruistic motives of wanting to help the children in most economic need?  This undoubtedly would be the way most of the mayor's supporters would interpret it.

 

However, I – being perhaps something of a cynic – find myself wondering whether this is not being done in order to comply with the various Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action, which -- ever since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978 -- have been circumscribing  it in one way or another.

 

So far (and without any definitive rulings since Donald Trump became president), the court over the decades seems to have held that race can be A factor in determining whether or not a student is to be admitted to a given school, but that it cannot be the ONLY one – and that admissions must be based upon a more complex set of circumstances.

 

A further possibility is that de Blasio assumed that most if not all of the applicants for the program in these poorest districts will be African American or Latino.

 

Whatever his reasoning, he  calculated that  the number of African American and Latino students receiving offers from the specialized high schools under this revised entry requirement for the Discovery program would almost double, from around 9 percent to 16 percent.   

 

He didn't specify how long it would take for these schools to reach his desired quota of 45 percent, but what he did say was enough to set off alarm bells in the Asian-American community.  

 

THE ASIAN AMERICANS REACT

 

On June 6, the Times carried a story about the reaction to his proposals from the Asian –American community. It was headed up by a picture showing Asian-American demonstrators rallying in front of City Hall, and also dealt with a news conference at the Golden Imperial Palace in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, attended by more than 100 people.

 

Later on, Asian American parents and community organizations would file a lawsuit seemingly and similarly based upon the assumption that fewer Asian-American families live in the poorest parts of the city and that the "Discovery" program's entrance requirements therefore specifically targeted Asian-American children.

 

Signs at the June rally and speakers at the June news conference both suggested that de Blasio's proposals were "racist," a charge which de Blasio and  Schools Chancellor Carranza, both denied.  (For the benefit of out-of-towners who may be unfamiliar with New York City politics, de Blasio is white, but married to an African American and hence the father of two African American children. Carranza is a Latino.)

 

THE MIDDLE SCHOOLS & THE ARGUMENTS

 

Bringing greater diversity to the city's specialized high schools by abolishing the SHSAT is only the spearhead and political symbol of the even more ambitious plans of de Blasio and Carranza to equalize opportunity throughout the entire school system. 

 

Up to the beginning of the 21st century, New York City public school students mostly attended schools in or near the neighborhoods where they lived. The schools were segregated not because there was any legal impediment to their being integrated but because the neighborhoods were segregated, too.

 

The better schools, the ones with higher attendance rates, more demanding curricula, more extracurricular activities and higher graduation rates, tended to be in the more prosperous and white neighborhoods.  The schools with higher absentee rates, less demanding curricula, fewer extracurricular activities and lower graduation rates, tended to be in the less prosperous and increasingly African-American and  Latino neighborhoods.

 

Seeking to bring more opportunities to students thus disadvantaged, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in the early years of this century, introduced the element of "choice" to the school system.  Children and their parents from all over the city were free to attend schools anywhere in the city – all they had to do was apply.

 

Not surprisingly, a great many children from all over the city wanted to attend the better schools (especially the middle schools and the high schools, from grades 5 through 12). Also not surprisingly there was no room for them all.

 

To enable the supply of available seats to match the demand for them, these schools often if not always adopted "screening" policies. Typically, to get into one of these better schools, a certain minimum score on the state-mandated English and math tests was required, as well as  a certain minimum grade point average.

 

Alas, this has done nothing to make it any easier for African American or Latino children to gain admission to the better schools.

 

A major article in the New York Times, written by Elizabeth A. Harris and Ford Fessenden and published on May 5, 2017, was headlined, "The Broken Promise of Choice in New York 's City Schools."

 

Although it conceded that the high school graduation rate had risen more than 20 points since 2005, it went on to say that "school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school."

 

The bottom line, as even Harris and Fessenden conceded toward the end of their article, was simply that there were not enough good schools to go around.

 

This is still a problem, but has done nothing to discourage Chancellor Carranza (and Mayor de Blasio) from their campaign to diversify not only the specialized high schools, but also the entire school system. 

 

Not least, they are targeting those middle schools, mostly in whiter neighborhoods, which produce a disproportionately large number of students who do well enough on the SHSATs to get into the specialized high schools.

 

Before and after Mayor de Blasio's opening gun last June in his campaign to demolish the SHSAT, the Times ran stories on proposals to similarly integrate the city's more selective middle schools – or anyway, those in which white students predominated -- by introducing low-income and academically underachieving African American and Latino children into these schools. 

 

Some of these proposals came from Carranza's office and some were initiated by the more public-spirited white parents on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Park Slope, Brooklyn – in the face of bitter disagreements from white parents who were conceivably less public spirited or who simply felt more strongly that such policies would lower the quality of the education their own children would receive.

 

The argument of the public-spirited in favor of more diversity was not only that was that segregation was morally wrong and ought to be ended, but also that disadvantaged minority children simply learn better when attending racially integrated schools than they do when surrounded only by other disadvantaged minority children. 

 

This argument was first and/or most famously propounded in 1966 in "Equality of Educational Opportunity," a monumental study of the still-largely-segregated U.S. school system called for by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

The study was eventually based upon 600,000 questionnaires filled out by students and 60,000 questionnaires filled out by teachers from 4,000 of the nation's public schools. It was put together by a team headed by James S. Colman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist hired by the U.S. Office of Education to study the effects of segregated schools,  and it is often known simply as "The Coleman Report."

 

The architects of the Civil Rights Act seem to have assumed that schools in which African American children predominated had had less money spent on them than schools in which white children predominated, but Coleman didn't find this to be the case. For this reason, his findings have been used by conservatives to decry additional school spending, as well as by liberals seeking to justify integrating schools.

 

 "The Coleman Report" of 1966 was used in the later 60s and early 70s to justify the practice of school bussing, but in a 1975 report, Coleman concluded that bussing had failed, largely because of the "white flight" to the suburbs.  Although less publicized than the original report, it discouraged many municipalities from further bussing.

 

New York City's population declined by another million during the 1970s, due to further migration to the suburbs. In fact, between 1950 and 1980, its population had remained essentially the same. The city rebounded only in the 1980s, with an influx of mostly non-European immigrants, and has since passed the 8 million mark.  So far, I have seen only a few hints from de Blasio and Carranza that their plans would involve what is coyly referred to as "transportation."

 

And, in the early stages of this latest campaign, only rarely did I see any discussion in the Times of white parents being encouraged to place their children in middle schools where most of the current enrollment is African American and/or Latino children.

 

Nor did I see any indication that overachieving children from any racial group would benefit from introducing underachieving children into their classrooms -- aside from the satisfaction of knowing that they and their parents were being truly democratic, in both word and deed -- plus the further socially-desirable possibility that white and even Asian-American overachievers – if properly encouraged by their parents – might become more familiar with, and more tolerant of, African Americans and Latinos.

 

A PERSONAL REACTION, BASED ON MY OWN EXPERIENCE(S)

 

I can't say at what point all of this began to get under my skin, but sometime last summer I found myself wondering whether all these efforts to "diversify" the New York City public school system – and the specialized high schools in particular – might not result in watering down the level of education offered by the New York City public school system to a point where it would no longer be able to send its best and brightest high school graduates to the colleges and universities of their choice.

 

This bothered me – and not only because of my fetish about quality. It is also because I am old enough to remember when many New York City public schools were good enough to send their graduates to the best colleges around. 

 

I was a member of the Class of 1956 at Barnard, then as now one of the nation's top women's colleges, and at that time, it was two-thirds day students – including many graduates of New York City's public schools. 

 

One of my close friends was a graduate of the High School of Music & Art (not yet amalgamated with the High School of Performing Arts to become LaGuardia).  Her high school sweetheart (and eventual husband) had gone on to Princeton. She herself would take her Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree as well in order to write books on ethics and the law; he would become an anesthesiologist.

 

Equally or even more impressive were the handful of young women who had come to Barnard from Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

 

One graduated from Barnard summa cum laude, went to Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship, and stayed to become an Oxford don.  Another had a long and productive career with IBM when it still dominated the market for giant mainframes.  Women weren't supposed to be good at math in those days, but she began as an IBM programmer and wound up as one of its instructors.

 

Over the years, I also became aware of the decline in quality of Erasmus Hall High School and other high schools in the outlying boroughs, with absenteeism and even crime in the corridors rising, and test scores and graduation rates falling.

 

Such information came to me from the newspapers, but what I heard in conversation (from college classmates particularly) told me that this decline in standards coincided with neighborhoods surrounding these schools becoming predominantly populated by African Americans (I don't recall hearing much about Latinos, though I've  since learned they were arriving, too, in different parts of the city). 

 

I don't say African Americans are necessarily incapable of learning. The African American artists I know are no dummies.  And their achievements don't rest on their remarkable artistic gifts alone. To succeed in art, as in any other field, takes a lot of other qualities – some of which are measurable and some not.  Qualities like ambition, courage, persistence, and above all optimism that borders on foolhardiness.  Nor is this boundless optimism necessary only to African American artists – it's a basic necessity for anybody who seeks a career in a creative industry, since the odds against success are so incredibly long. 

 

It's true I only know one African American socially, but he is a fellow member of Mensa. To get into Mensa you have to have an I. Q, in the top 2 percent of the population – so he's no dummy, either, with an Ivy League degree, an MBA on top of it and a responsible civil service job.

 

On the other hand, one of Robert Coleman's less publicized findings was what later came to be called "the achievement gap."  By this is meant that he found African American children on average lagging a few years behind white ones in test scores.

 

This was more than 50 years ago, and one likes to think that the gap is no longer yawns so wide, but it certainly could have been a factor back in the 60s and 70s—in particular because Coleman also found that this performance was materially affected by the difference in attitudes between white and African American children about their relationship to their environment.

 

In brief, he found that white children were more apt to believe that they were in control of their environment, and could change it – while African American children were less likely to share these convictions.   You don't need to be a sociologist to know the enormous motivational power of hope. 

 

Again I like to think that the outlook for African American children is less gloomy now than it was 50 years ago, though I realize that white people like myself are more likely to think of how the situation has changed for the better, while African Americans are more likely to think of how much remains to be done.

 

In any event, these few remaining top-grade New York City specialized or "elite" high schools are like gorgeous fossils. They are holdovers from the '50s if you like, but I say they're still worth preserving as the Open Sesames that they are or can be to the best in higher education.

 

If they lose their reputations, this endangers the opportunities for everybody attending them, including African American and Latino students.

 

And the competition for excellence in a high school is rougher than ever now, as anyone can tell from looking at the list of the top high schools in U.S. News & World Report.  Our best New York schools are currently high on that list, but they are not at the very top – and they are up against what look like plenty of palatial suburban establishments in places like Arizona and Texas and Florida. Thus our schools have to be able to compete in top form.

 

This need to get their graduates where those kids want to go is what this whole issue of the SHSAT is really about, I'd say upon the basis of my four-year career as an assistant professor in a small liberal arts college in West Virginia --.to say nothing of adjunct teaching a smattering of courses over a seven-year period earlier on a college and graduate school level in the New York area.

 

These teaching assignments gave me two experiences relevant to the current subject.

 

First, in West Virginia I spent a bit of time on a faculty committee associated with the school's admissions process.  Here I learned how important was the reputation of the high school from which a student was applying. 

 

Proponents of abolishing the SHSAT requirements like to say that colleges don't depend on just one test any more, that they like to look at an applicant's high school record, too -- but this has been true since I was applying to college.  Even then the fact that I had very good grades from a very demanding private high school must have counted heavily in my favor. 

 

And it is probably truer than ever today: an A from Stuyvesant High School will get you a great deal further in your admissions application than an A from a less demanding high school, either inside or outside of New York.  

 

Nobody on the Times or even Chalkbeat has yet to my knowledge quoted any college admissions officers on the subject of abolishing the SHSAT and what it might do for the  excellent reputations that the specialized high schools currently enjoy with such officers.

 

 (Such sources might not be willing to speak frankly on a "for attribution" basis, given the sensitivity of the subject, but even a sincere "not-for-attribution" quote might have provided some illumination. Ignoring their point of view, in my opinion, constitutes a serious oversight in the coverage of this issue.)

 

The second experience I have had – and one that is maybe even more germane to this controversy -- was the experience of teaching itself.  (Once again, input from teachers who might be affected by abolishing SHSAT or introducing other diversification programs has been notably lacking in the  news media's coverage of the issue.)

 

I wasn't the greatest teacher in the world, but I can't be the only teacher who has found it easier to teach brighter and/or better prepared students than less bright and/or less prepared ones.

 

I am thinking here less of the art and art history courses that I taught and more of my two-year experience teaching a section of the required freshman seminar in West Virginia, a section whose theme I chose as "New York, New York." 

 

These classes were only about fifteen or twenty students, but just one or two who didn't get whatever point I was trying to make could delay the entire class, and make it harder for me to cover the amount of material that my course was supposed to cover.

 

Assuming that 10 percent of the African-American and Latino children admitted to the specialized high schools were qualified under the old system, what would happen if another 35 percent were enrolled even though they wouldn't have qualified? 

 

FALLING BACK ON JOURNALISM: INTERVIEWS

 

Since I know I'm not the world's greatest teacher, and moreover have no experience in the New York City school system, I fell back upon my journalistic past to supplement my own teaching past, and interviewed two friends who are retired New York City educators with extensive experience in its public schools.

 

One was a bridge buddy with a public-school career that had culminated in a top administrative job with a Yorkville elementary school. The other was a neighbor with many years' experience teaching at an elementary school on the edge of East Harlem.

 

Interestingly, neither was particularly concerned about the status of the specialized high schools if the mayor's plans were realized – but both were very concerned about the fate of those African American and Latino children who might be sent to these schools as a result of the mayor's initiative even though they couldn't have passed the SHSAT. 

 

Both of these women visualized a situation where such students might need expensive remedial assistance to enable them to keep up with the other students. They questioned whether the city's Department of Education would provide the necessary funds, and suggested that even with such remedial assistance these students might still have difficulty keeping up with the rest of the students taking the same courses.

 

The phrase that sticks in my mind, after listening to these two veteran educators, was that such Latino and African-American children would be getting "programmed for failure."

 

Of course, as the elementary school teacher also said, nobody could really predict what would happen. Although the school where she taught was in a neighborhood so rough that some teachers refused to work there, she had seen all kinds of outcomes—from children who failed miserably to those who succeeded brilliantly.

 

However, she stressed that any school could only do so much, and that education really begins with the family.  In this, she echoed another one of James Coleman's findings – and one that has come back to bite the team of de Blasio & Carranza on the backside, for it has become increasingly apparent that Asian-American families -- though typically much less affluent than white families -- simply place a higher premium on scholarship than do African American and Latino families. 

 

These Asian American parents, it seems, will go to greater lengths to ensure their children's academic success – from supervising them and seeing that they do their homework to spending sizeable moneys on supplemental courses designed to help them do well on the SHSAT.

 

My neighbor didn't discuss Asian American students with me. She did sympathize with the Latino families whose children she had principally taught, suggesting that a parent working excessively long hours at a minimum-wage job in order to put food on the family table might simply have too little time and be too tired to help her child with its schoolwork.

 

To this, I might add that a child benefits from its family having had more rather than less education – particularly in the matter of language.  If a child grows up in a family where the parents speak and write correct English, the grammar lessons in a sense begin when the child is learning to speak.

 

And in this way, white native-born parents typically offer their children an advantage that neither African American, Latino nor Asian-American children can as often match.  

 

MY CONCLUSION AS OF LAST FALL: THE CURIOUS CASE OF "STAR"

 

I wanted to put these thoughts – and others – into an article last summer, and even got as far as emailing some of my college classmates who had gone to Erasmus Hall High School, speaking to the press relations people at Barnard and investigating what had happened to Erasmus Hall online.

 

From these various sources, I learned that Erasmus Hall

 

a) since its founding in 1787,  had by the 1950s grown into a huge place, with an enrollment of 7,000 students, and three "tracks" of study, two of which were essentially vocational and only one of which was college-preparatory,

 

b) that it had had scores of distinguished alumni, from Mae West and Barbra Streisand to Mickey Spillane and Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize-winning neurologist– and

 

c) that its decline from the 60s to the 90s had become so precipitous that in 1994, it had been divided up into three smaller schools.  Even that, though, hadn't saved it from high rates of absenteeism and declining graduation rates. 

 

e) Finally, in 2007, Mayor Bloomberg's Department of Education closed the three schools altogether.  In their place the "Erasmus Hall Educational Campus" became home to three more high schools offering various kinds of training plus two schools running from grades 6 through 12.

 

f) Now for the good news.  One of this latter group, the Science, Technology and Research Early College High School (STAR) is doing well enough so that "Inside Schools"  now rates it as a "staff pick." 

 

Although its student body is 80 percent African American and 12 percent Latino, its scores on the state-mandated math and English tests are well above the city-wide average.  Among other stats offered by "Inside Schools," 97 percent of the teachers say that order and discipline are maintained throughout the school, again well above the city-wide average, and only 37 percent of the students think that bullying happens most or all of the time, somewhat (though not a whole lot) below the citywide average.

 

Even more important (in relation to this article): STAR does get its graduates into college.  Most of them, for reasons of finance, must go to local city- or state-run institutions but a few make it to prestigious private schools, even in the Ivy League.  When I spoke to the college counselor at STAR, she reported that one young woman had made it into Smith.

 

Nobody had yet made it to Barnard – nor could anybody from STAR probably afford Barnard the way that my classmates could.  Over the years Barnard has surrounded itself with so many dormitory facilities that it no longer has to rely upon local high schools to provide it with talent, and the fact that students are now expected to pay residence- and meal-fees in addition to tuition must place it outside the budgets of virtually all New York City public high school grads.

 

I tried to find out whether indeed any students of color had made it from the New York City public school system to Barnard, but the people at Barnard were unable to help.

 

All they could do was provide statistics on how many students of color altogether were attending the college, and, although there were a few more than there had been in my day, they were still very limited in number. 

 

I looked at "The Fiske Guide to Colleges," one of three principal directories to American colleges published for the benefit of high school students seeking the college of their choice, and the only one of the three to carry chatty little word portraits of the schools it gives information on.

 

However, the entry on Barnard merely indicated that although native New Yorkers were still a good-sized part of the student body, they especially came from the Upper East Side of Manhattan – a notably white part of town & one generously supplied with elite private high schools.

 

Nevertheless, I planned to end my article last year with a report on STAR, together with a suggestion that if Mayor de Blasio really wanted to improve education for all of New York's 1.1 million public school students, the way to do it was not to try and tear down the eight specialized high schools requiring the SHSAT but instead build up more schools like STAR…..

 

THE MORE SERIOUS OBSTACLE TO "DIVERSIFICATION"

 

After all, as I saw it then dimly and as I see it yet more clearly now, there are two serious obstacles to achieving "diversification" without abandoning the ambition for quality education. 

 

The first is the difficulty of getting underqualified African American and Latino students into better schools currently attended largely by overqualified whites and Asian-Americans WITHOUT watering down the schools' curricula & reputations.

  

The second, and perhaps even more serious obstacle – from a social viewpoint, if not an esthetic one -- is getting overqualified white and Asian-American children to attend less good schools currently attended largely by underqualified Latinos and African Americans.

 

I hate again to sound cynical about this, but I consider the chances excellent that these same whites and Asian-Americans will abandon the public school system altogether in favor of private schools or the suburbs…and how is "diversity" going to be possible with a school system that is 100 percent African American and Latino?

 

STAR seems to be one of those relatively rare schools where more white and Asian-American students might be encouraged to attend and not feel they were losing out on the deal….which is why I would favor more attention paid to schools like it…..

 

WHY DID I NOT WRITE THAT ARTICLE THEN?

 

Well, aside from the fact that I had a lot of personal distractions, including a nasty fall that broke a chip off my femur, the urgency over the situation evaporated.  In Albany, the Senate was controlled by Republicans, meaning that white people from upstate would be exerting a decisive influence, so the likelihood of getting the Senate to annul Hecht-Calandra was minimized. 

 

When I emailed my excellent Democratic state senator, Liz Krueger, her office informed me that even Carl Heastie, the first African American to serve as Speaker of the Assembly, had said he was not going to bring the bill up during that session.

 

AND WHAT IS IMPELLLING ME NOW?

 

1)    A NEW POLITICAL SITUATION

 

This spring, the situation is very different.  For one thing, we now have a Democratic State Senate as well as a Democratic State Assembly.  This means that a bill to abolish the SHSAT stands a much better chance of getting enacted – and such a bill has once again been introduced.  

 

Moreover, hearings and/or meetings are already being held on it. Again, thanks to the help I am getting from the office of my excellent state senator, I learn that there is an Assembly Hearing on Friday, May 10 at 10 AM being conducted by the Assembly Committee on Education at 250 Broadway, 19th Floor, in downtown Manhattan. 

 

There is also a Senate School Diversity and Specialized High School Admissions Community Forum being held on the same day, May 10, from 6 to 8 pm at 5 MetroTech Center in Brooklyn.

This seems to be the second in a series of such forums being held in different boroughs.  The first was last month in Queens.

 

Over TV last week, I also heard – and then managed to catch a belated glimpse of --a brief segment on a news program of a discussion over the school system being held.in New York's City Council.  The point of the discussion was supposed to be the Council's budgetary plans for improvements to the school system, including more opportunities for the gifted, but the issue of the SHSAT took over the session instead.

 

I heard a passionate young female voice with what sounded like an African-American accent vehemently attacking the SHSAT as discriminating against African Americans and Latinos. Rushing to the TV set, I was only in time to catch a glimpse of an older white man saying in a calm, rational voice that the test was "merit-based" and for this reason, color blind: it didn't discriminate on the basis of race. 

 

Though I'm not sure, I would suspect that the young woman leveling the passionate attack was one of the small number of African American students actually attending Stuyvesant High School, and I would credit her passion -- in part, at least -- to the other major factor that has changed since last summer.

 

By this I mean the way that The New York Times is covering the story this year, as opposed to the way it was covering it last year.

 

2)    A  NEW CHAMPION FOR THE CAUSE: THE NEW YORK TIMES

 

 Time magazine, when I was working for it, was divided into "front of the book" and "back of the book." "Front of the book" was the large hard news sections that began the magazine, and were titled "The Nation," "The World," "Business" and "The Hemisphere."  This was stories about politics, wars, natural disasters, business news and other headline topics – what newspapers would ordinarily put on their front pages.

 

"Back of the book" occupied the second half of the magazine, and was social and cultural developments, in smaller sections with titles like "Theater," "Books," "Art," "Religion," "Science" and "Education." 

 

I always liked "back of the book" better than "front of the book" because in both contents and style, it was less political and dogmatic.  Unlike the stories in "front of the book," you could read the stories "back of the book" without getting irritated by the way they reflected the political views of Henry Luce, the magazine's Republican founder.

 

I think the Times must have some sort of similar hierarchy in its editorial offices, though it's not as obvious and less rigorously conformed to. During most if not all of 2018, the paper covered the diversification campaign of Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza as a "back of the book" story; if Time were still operating in the same way, it could easily have carried these stories in its "Education" section. 

 

Mostly written by Anne Harris and/or Winnie Lu, the tone of voice in these stories was informative rather than inflammatory.  It was pretty clear (to me, anyway) that these reporters were sympathetic to the campaign, but they mostly stuck to providing the reader with descriptions of the steps being taken, as opposed to putting them into a political context..

 

That changed radically in March 2019 – or at least this was when it really hit me over the head.  On Page One of the March 19 issue was a headline calculated to create outrage (in my opinion anyway). "NEW YORK'S MOST SELECTIVE PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS HAS 895 SLOTS. BLACK STUDENTS GOT 7," it read.

 

The point of departure for the story was the release of the offers to enter the specialized high schools made to eighth grade students who had taken the SHSAT last fall, plus the fact that even fewer African American eighth graders had made the cut than last year.

 

The text was continued on Page 22 with a full page of print, plus eight small charts on offers of admission made by all eight specialized high schools, by race, and a large photo of mostly white or Asian-looking (and mostly male) Stuyvesant Hall students.

 

The text was by Eliza Shapiro, who only joined the Times staff last year, and treated this story much more from a political point of view than from an educational one -- "front of the book" material. 

 

Much of it was devoted to discussing how the mayor's original proposal last year to scrap the SHSAT had proven "so divisive" that "a slew of prominent Democrats in Albany and downstate, ranging from the city's public advocate to the Democratic leaders of the Assembly" had "either declined to comment or issued statements that indicated the latest numbers are unlikely to change their position."

 

As she told it, the reason for the divisiveness was the "backlash" that had been created by "the schools' alumni associations and Asian-American groups who believed that 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." 

 

No rebuttal to either of these charges was offered—and "backlash" is a loaded word, implying that anybody opposing the mayor's plan must be a racist.

 

Along with mentioning that the mayor and his associates were trying to drum up support for his proposal through town hall  meetings, Shapiro quoted the noncommittal responses that various Democratic politicos had made, together with an explanation for the lack of interest up in Albany on the mayor's proposal – namely that it had taken a back seat to more popular progressive legislation such as abortion rights and voting reform, and that nobody wanted to promote it because it looked like "a loser."

 

This was quite an extensive public shaming -- and a dramatic incitement to ACTION -- accompanied as it was by those eight damning charts. 

 

That is, the story mentioned both African American and Latino students, and the charts replicated this information, but the charts were also headlined with the information about how few "blacks" had been admitted to each school, with no reference in the headline to "Hispanics."

 

Whoever made those charts must have been more concerned with the situation with regard to African American children.

 

This story got results, too, to judge from an additional article by Shapiro published on the second page of the Times three days later, in its chatty "Inside the Times" column. 

 

She told how eagerly she had been looking forward to publicizing those shameful examination results, and how she and her editor, Dodai Stewart, had raced to get their story about them posted just as soon as they were officially released.

 

She also reported with pleasure on how "popular" the story had been, with nearly 1500 readers' comments in the online edition.  "I was simultaneously struck by how outraged many of our readers were about the numbers," she continued, "and how unlikely it was that the exam would be scrapped."

 

I didn't get that sense of outrage, though admittedly I only read the first 30 or 40 comments. The pattern that did emerge for me was that about half of the correspondents opposed to abolishing the test (a sizeable number added that the school system as a whole was to blame for the small number of  African American and Latino students who couldn't do well on it).  About a quarter felt that the test was unfair and should be scrapped – and the remaining quarter just couldn't figure out what was going on, and felt they needed further information.

 

In any event, 1500 responses – from all over the country, and from as far away as Jerusalem, would enable Shapiro to claim in her next big story that "New York is being rocked by a fight over the future of its selective schools," and later articles to claim that the admissions statistics quoted had sparked a "national" debate.

 

Shapiro's next Page One story (on March 23) added fuel to the fire.  Headlined "Fed Up and Pushing for Diversity at Elite School," it chronicled her interviews with a group of African American and Latino present and former Stuyvesant students.

 

The story enabled them all to describe how lonely they felt with so few fellow African Americans or Latinos in the student body, how they felt alienated and how they had to endure racist digs from other (white or Asian-American) students.

 

This story irritated me at first, because it reminded me of myself 50 years back -- when I was the lone woman writer on the Time masthead employed fulltime.  I too was very isolated and I had to put up with anti-feminist horse feathers, but I didn't bellyache about it – instead, I lived to make the people who had derided me change their minds.

 

I felt like saying to these children, "Get used to it, boys and girls.  You're exceptional, and anybody who stands out from the crowd is going to have potshots taken at them. It goes with the territory." 

 

I felt that instead Eliza Shapiro, in the course of interviewing them, had carried with her an unspoken (or possibly spoken) message of "You poor kids.  Doesn't being so few and far between make you feel terrible?"  Once the question had been asked in this way, the response would have been predictable – and exactly what Shapiro needed to further incite her readers…..

 

Next on the Times's crusade was a fiery editorial – on Sunday, March 31 – in the Week in Review section, ensuring maximum readership.  Headlined "Our Best Schools Need to Do Better," it said that many alumni at Stuyvesant and other specialized high schools had argued that dropping the test would lead to the admission of students who could not handle the rigorous curriculum. "But where's the evidence?" it asked.

 

THE EVIDENCE (SUCH AS IT IS)

 

I don't know whether the Times will accept the evidence I'd like to put forward, but I think that there may be some similarities between the mayor's plan to abolish the SHSAT for the specialized high schools and the experience of the City College of New York with "open enrollment" in the 1970s. 

 

Specifically, I would like to submit as "evidence" an article that appeared in the Times on June 19, 1978.  It was written by Edward B. Fiske – the same person who now publishes "The Fiske Guide to Colleges" that I cited earlier. 

 

In 1978, he was still the Education editor at the Times, and his story was headlined "After 8 Years of Open Admissions City College Still Debates Effect."

 

For those who weren't around in the turbulent '60s, City College was a venerable institution that had been educating bright but lower-income New Yorkers free of charge since its founding in 1847.  It had turned out doctors, lawyers, businessmen, governmental figures ranging from Colin Powell  to Bernie Sanders, and ten Nobel Prizewinners, more than any other college in the U.S.

 

Up until the '60s, its students had been predominantly white.  Especially those students had been Jewish, because so many prestigious colleges either rejected Jews outright or kept them to small quotas. 

 

By 1900, 85 percent of CCNY's students were Jewish, and that figure would remain constant for many decades (even in the early 1950s, when I and my contemporaries were applying to college, ghosts of the old "quota system" were hanging around at least a few of those elite schools like Harvard and Radcliffe). 

 

In the turbulent '60s, though, the focus shifted and African American and Latino young people began demonstrating because CCNY'S stringent entrance requirements kept so many of their number out. 

 

On at least one occasion, these demonstrators occupied college buildings (just as they did at the  more widely publicized demonstrations at Columbia University in that same year --but unlike Columbia, the demos at CCNY led to structural change). In 1970, the college instituted "open enrollment," meaning that any student who had graduated from a New York City high school could be admitted.

 

Enrollment nearly doubled, creating huge problems of long lines, oversubscribed courses, and the necessity for massive amounts of remedial assistance.   All this was expensive, and in 1975 the city as a whole underwent a devastating fiscal crisis – as a result of which CCNY and the other city colleges that constitute the City University of New York (CUNY) began charging tuition. 

 

Enrollment once again declined, but when Fiske visited CCNY in 1978, he found that two out of three students entering City College still required remedial work in writing, mathematics or reading, and one in five needed it in all three. 

 

At that time, enrollment was one-third white, one third African-American, one fifth Latino and 10 percent Asian – which meant it had twice the percentage of non-white students as the three other senior CUNY colleges.

 

Fiske found that the better students tended to migrate to the sciences and the professional schools, that the percentage of seniors who were being accepted into medical school was even higher than it had been in the old days, and that seniors in the fields of nursing, engineering and architecture had "plenty" of job offers.

 

He also found that that "academically less able" students tended to find their way into education, the humanities or the social sciences, and that "Professors acknowledge that the presence of large numbers of under-prepared students has had a deflating effect on the quality of some courses."

 

A philosophy professor was quoted saying that "The standards of introductory courses are lower than they used to be, and even some advanced courses are not what they were 20 years ago."  The story told how fewer papers were now assigned -- because the professors found unreadable so many of the papers that had been submitted.

 

"Nevertheless," Fiske concluded, "most faculty members assert that the level of advanced courses and the 'exit standards' have not been compromised. Academically-weak students, they say, either get remediated or drop out." 

 

In the 1960s, it seems, nearly 80 percent of CCNY freshmen graduated within seven years.  But when Fiske wrote this article, the figure was less than 50 percent, slightly below the national average. 

 

All of this tends to confirm a truism that I have heard many times over the years – namely that any student who really wants to study can get a great education even at a lesser school.  

 

To this I might add that a personal friend who took her BA at Baruch College  (CUNY's business school) in the 1970s feels she got a great education, though she also tutored some of her fellow students  -- as an unpaid volunteer, since she is a woman who feels that the right thing to do is "give back".

 

At the same time, Fiske's story suggests that the reputation of a CCNY degree had suffered from the wide range of preparedness & presumably also performance among the students -- and from differing opinions even among the faculty on the overall caliber of the education being offered. 

 

Fiske touched on this problem when he discussed how students resented the bad publicity thus engendered. He quoted one special-education major saying, "You struggle to get an education, and then all of a sudden people are talking about how the diploma doesn't mean anything." 

 

This reminds me of a conversation I had, years ago when I got to talking with a human resources officer in a coffee shop somewhere in Manhattan.   I can't remember exactly where or when or how we got on the subject, but she said she could tell the exact year of graduation later than which she was no longer so impressed by a City College degree listed on a job applicant's resume.  She said that other human resources officers all over the city could tell you that same year, too.

 

In 1999, and not least due to the influence of a Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, the trustees of CUNY decided that neither City College nor any of the other senior colleges in the CUNY system would still offer remedial instruction to incoming students.

 

Applicants who can't measure up to the newer and more demanding entrance requirements for the senior colleges must now go to one of the city's two-year community colleges. There they can get remedial instruction and maybe gain admittance to one of the senior colleges after they get their two-year degree.

 

"Since this decision, " according to the Wikipedia entry on CCNY, "all CUNY senior colleges, especially CCNY, have begun to rise in prestige nationally, as evinced by school rankings and incoming freshman grade point averages and test scores."

 

But how high have they really risen?  What has happened to the demographics of their student bodies?  And most of all,

 

HOW IS THIS RELEVANT TO THE REPUTATIONS OF THE SPECIALIZED HIGH SCHOOLS?

 

Let us look, first, at the current demographics and national reputation of CCNY. 

 

The most comprehensive college directory is "Barron's Profiles of American Colleges." Its 2019 edition profiles more than 1,650 colleges, and classifies them on the basis of their desirability, as indicated by the ratio between applications and acceptances. 

 

The most desirable category is 'Most Competitive," followed by "Highly Competitive," "Very Competitive, "Competitive," "Less Competitive" and "Non-Competitive."

 

CCNY is in here, of course, but it is only rated as "Competitive."   37 percent of its students are Latino, 25 percent are Asian American, 16 percent are white, and 16 percent are African American. 

 

(Baruch, which is listed as "Highly Competitive" has a student body that is 30 percent Asian American, 29 percent white, 18 percent Latino, 12 percent foreign, and only 9 percent African American.

 

(And the demographics of the other better-known colleges in the CUNY system – Queens, Brooklyn & Hunter -- fall somewhere between CCNY and Baruch in their percentages of whites & Asian Americans as opposed to Latinos & African Americans).

 

Okay, so this tells us that CCNY is one of 1,650 American colleges that Barron's considered worth listing. It is also included in the more selective listings of The Princeton Review, which is entitled "The Best 384 Colleges." 

 

It is NOT, however, listed in "The Fiske Guide to Colleges," which lists only 320 of "the best and most interesting" four-year colleges in the country. Nor are any of the other senior colleges in CUNY

 

SO – this tells us that these CUNY colleges are somewhere between the 321st and 384th best and/or most interesting college in the country," in least in the opinion of former Times editor Fiske – though at this late date, it is difficult to know whether he thinks less of them for the ambivalent educational standards that "open enrollment" brought to them, or because of the way that the Giuliani administration effectively put an end to open enrollment.

 

We do however also know where the specialized high schools rank nationally, at least through the lists published by U.S. News & World Report that I mentioned earlier.   Although these lists include nearly 13,000 high schools across the US, those in New York City rank in the top 100—Stuyvesant at No.25, Bronx High School of Science at No. 49  and  Brooklyn Technical at No. 82. 

 

This is a lot better than No. 321, though to be fair, the U.S. News & World Report lists some New York City high schools that do not require the SHSAT. Townsend Harris, for example, is No. 11 on its list, which is not too surprising given that it's located in Flushing (in Queens) where there is a large Asian population and 56 percent of the student body is Asian American.

 

Townsend Harris does accept students from all over Queens, and from all over the city, but its applicants are screened, and its requirements include high scores on the standardized math and English test given to all students in the school system, plus a high grade point average.

 

In fact, screening is in wide use across the city, and for both high schools and middle schools.  This is the legacy of Mayor Bloomberg's experiment with "choice,"  and certainly contributes to the current racial imbalances throughout the system.

 

It may be argued that Mayor de Blasio isn't contemplating totally open enrollment for the specialized high schools, that he only wants 45 percent of their student bodies African American and Latino.

 

To that end, he proposes eventually to use as entrance requirements both the state mandated tests of English and math and the top grade point averages of students from middle schools throughout the city (the SHSAT also tests math and English, so why should the scores be any different? Is a question not so far answered).

 

The grade point averages will come into play after Chancellor Carranza has done away with screening altogether, and achieved more diversified enrollments in both middle schools and high schools throughout the city by assigning students to neighborhood schools by lottery.

 

Or at least, that is as nearly as possible what I can make out of their plans on the basis of various statements and contradictory reports.  What this might accomplish would be a diversified but universally average education being offered to every student throughout the city, with no special opportunities for the brighter and better-prepared ones to gain a better-than-average education and possibly also no opportunities for the least bright and least prepared to gain the extra help they'd need.

 

TWO PROGRAMS DIRECTED TOWARD DIVERSITY

 

At present, there are two programs which appear to lead the way toward this fuller diversity the mayor seeks. 

 

One is the "Discovery" program for getting students into the specialized high schools who just missed the cutoff point on the SHSAT. 

 

The other is a proposal for diversifying four middle schools, two in Brooklyn and two on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as developed by the parents in these schools and approved in the Department of Education.

 

The Discovery program centered on a special test to be given to these prospective students but limited to students who were not only needy themselves but also went to schools in more poverty-stricken neighborhoods. 

 

The mayor and the chancellor seem to have figured that by doubling the poverty requirements for success in these applications, they would increase the number of Latinos and African Americans who would benefit. However, it turns out that there are just as many, if not more Asian American children living in these sub-standard conditions as there are Latinos and African Americans.

 

The result, as reported by Eliza Shapiro on April 11 is that these tests will mean that the number of Latino and African American students will "creep up" to 14 percent from about 10 percent – but the number of Asian American students who will benefit will increase from 43 percent to 54 percent. White children are the only major category that lost out in the percentages.  

 

As for the proposal by those parents, I am not as convinced about its success as was the headline writer for Eliza Shapiro's story about it on April 16. "Facing Segregated Schools," the headline runs, "Parents Took Integration Into Their Own Hands.  It's Working."

 

What the story says is that next fall middle schools in Brooklyn will exchange some students, and more middle schools on the Upper West Side will do likewise. 

 

In both cases, "most of the popular, high-performing, and largely white middle schools will take on more vulnerable and diverse students. Also, more high-achieving children will enroll at low-performing schools that have typically been shunned by some middle-class parents."

 

When you get down to the end of the story, Shapiro mentions only four schools in particular, M.S. 51 in Park Slope to be paired in these exchanges with I.S. 136 in Sunset Park, and  Booker T. Washington on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to be paired with I.S. 180 in Harlem.

 

And, if you compare the facilities and situations in these four schools, as described on "Inside Schools," you can see how a number of white, middle-class parents are maybe not going to be too happy with this arrangement – especially those whose children will be sent to the low-performing schools.

 

M.S. 51 (which is where the mayor sent his children) is 50 percent white, and 18 percent Asian. According to "Inside Schools," It offers a happy mix of art and academics, with everything from dark rooms to dance studios.   The students score way above average on the state math & English tests. 

 

I.S.136 is 83 percent Latino, with many immigrant parents and the only non-academic activity mentioned being trips to Spain, Peru & Italy (one wonders who pays for them).  Students score way below average on the state math & English tests, but at least the school appears to be safe and well-run.

 

The pairing on the Upper West Side is maybe a little more problematic.  Booker T. Washington, on West 107th Street, is 56 percent white and 12 percent Asian.  It has a music program and a range of electives and other after-school activities.  Students score well above average on state math & English tests.

 

 I.S. 180, on West 120th Street, is 51 percent African and 28 percent Latino. Parents praise its "warm sense of community," and a place "where races and ethnic groups seem to get along, " but the school scores well below average on the maintenance of order and discipline, fewer than the average number of students feel safe in bathrooms and corridors and more than an average number of them consider bullying a problem.  Classes are small and there is an emphasis on special education, but students still score well below average on math and English tests. 

 

All told, this is a very worthy program, and if it can be made to work, it could eventually produce more Latino and African American students who can get into the specialized high schools. That is what we would all like to see.  However I wonder how well this program will go over. To say "It's working" at this stage of the game may be premature.

 

I think it's conceivable that on the Upper West Side and in Park Slope there may be enough white middle-class parents with liberal credentials to make some or even all of this program work – but you know, not every white person in New York is a card-carrying liberal, not even in Park Slope or on the Upper West Side. 

 

And, in case anybody has forgotten, we also still have a few white people in places like Howard Beach and Staten Island and the Bronx and yes, even Queens, the kind of people who may be less educated and less sophisticated than the good people of Park Slope and the Upper East Side.  Some of these might be the kind of people who voted for Bloomberg and even Giuliani and who may not relish having their children thrust into a multicultural sea of mediocrity.

 

I think it's quite possible de Blasio & Company will wind up shoving all or most of these few remaining white middle-class parents out of town altogether, or into private (mostly religion-affiliated) schools.

 

And I like having a white middle class in the city. Since they make more money than anybody else does, they spend more, too, and pay more taxes. We need that spending and those taxes.  Look at all those empty shopfronts in the streets!  They speak of buyers gone elsewhere. 

 

Most of all we need middle class voters, to provide the hinge democracy works on. 

 

THE REAL VICTIMS OF DE BLASIO'S CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE SHSAT

 

With regard to the specialized high schools, I am even more concerned about middle class Latino and African American parents.  Everything I say about the white middle class also applies to the Latino and African American middle class, in terms of their buying power, tax-paying, ability to vote intelligently – and yes, in this day and age, even their capacity to up stakes and move to the suburbs.

 

And I'm convinced these two middle classes are more numerous and prosperous than any politician gives them credit for being. I see them all around me: teachers, bus drivers, social workers, civil servants and office workers in the private sector, nurses, repair men of everything from my TV to my stove, even policemen and policewomen and fire-fighters of color. I don't want any of them to leave town.

 

And they are the ones who are really getting short-changed by the way that de Blasio and Carranza are piggy-backing economic considerations on top of diversification in their campaign to diversify the specialized high schools. 

 

By limiting the eligibility for the Discovery program to the city's neediest students in the poorest districts, it may well be that de Blasio and Carranza are extending this privilege to students most likely to be unable to maintain the high standards set by these schools...

 

Thus, not only are middle-class parents getting short-changed by this limitation of eligibility, but so are the schools. If you want my opinion, I think parents who have made it up from maybe nowhere and are earning a steady living are more likely to have time and ability to help their children with their school work – children who will then be able to pass the SHSATs without help.

 

Moreover, these children are also more likely to be able to do well in those fiendishly competitive schools, once they get there.  They are more likely to enhance the reputations of those schools, instead of dragging them down. 

 

And you know, those reputations are important – because New York City isn't an isolated island, out in the middle of the Atlantic.  Like it or leave it, we are a part of the  USA, and we really have to figure out ways to stay within its system, including the system by which high school students get into colleges across the country.

 

I think a lot more could be done to recruit those African American and Latino students who, with the proper high-school education, can make the transition from top-level high school to top-level college. The first time I read Eliza Shapiro's story about the few students of color at Stuyvesant, as I indicated earlier, I got a bit irked.   But later on, re-reading it, I learned something from it: it seemed to me that -- although she wasn't trying to canvas their origins systematically, most or all of the students she talked to had learned about the SHSATs either by chance or accident.  This leads me to believe that there must be more of them out there somewhere.

 

Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza could be doing a lot more looking for them, instead of trolling for votes among the poorest and for that reason probably the least-qualified students.  I know this sounds hard-hearted, but really diversity is one thing and helping poor people get ahead – however admirable – is another.

 

A FINAL NOTE: DIVERSITY IS NO EXCUSE FOR BIGOTRY

 

I mentioned earlier that I taught a freshman seminar on "New York, New York" at this little college in West Virginia.   For a text, I used a popular history by Oliver E. Allen, "New York, New York: A History of the World's Most Exciting and Challenging City" (© 1990). 

 

I was browsing through it recently, and saw how its repeated theme of confrontations between warring minority groups, with the older arrivals pitted against the newer ones, puts this debate over the SHSAT into a historical context.

 

Back in the middle of the 19th century, it was the Irish who were the newcomers, and the descendants of English and Dutch settlers who resisted their advances by blocking their careers with signs for job openings that read, "No Irish Need Apply"

 

By the later part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Irish were getting organized into political and social units, the better to withstand the onslaught of Italian and Eastern European immigrants.

 

Many, maybe most of the Eastern Europeans were Jews, and the backlash against all of them was particularly virulent – the Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded Asians altogether from the country and choked off all but a handful of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe.

 

By the 1960s, the Jews in their turn had gotten organized and entrenched, and the confrontation I dimly remember for myself was a schools conflict in 1968.  At that point, African Americans (briefly) argued that "separate but equal" district schoolboards was the best way to get their children properly educated.  Then a violent confrontation occurred when an African American school board official fired some members of the United Federation of Teachers, the rest of whom then went on strike. 

 

Very large numbers of those teachers were descendants of those 19th century and early 20th century Jewish immigrants, so it was African Americans as the newer immigrant group, and the Jews as the older one….

 

Now it's the African Americans and Latinos who are the older immigrant groups, and the Asian Americans who are the newer arrivals. The African American and Latino communities are much bigger than the Asian American one, and better organized politically, with many more members in the State Legislature and City Council…..many more votes, in other words, and Mayor de Blasio's power base. Naturally, he takes their side.

 

It doesn't bother him in the slightest that if 45 percent of the seats in the specialized high schools are filled by African Americans and Latinos, there will be half as many seats left for the Asian Americans and whites to divide between them..

 

Nor does it bother The New York Times, which is behaving as though African Americans are the minority du jour. For some time now, I have been aware  of the identity politics practiced in the art section of the paper – it doesn't seem to matter whether or not  the art they write about is any good, the artist is what matters – his or her race, sex, and/or gender preference…..until quite recently, it's been The Year of The Woman,  but right now it seems like every other artist featured  in large type in The Times is an African American…and it's catching, too: last weekend the drama section of the Times featured African American actors up front and personal…..

 

Of course, it's more than just the Times.  Publisher's Weekly, a trade magazine that I get online,  just had a piece on how the world of literature needed "diversification," and the Times also ran a story recently on how the three top beauty contests all had African American winners this year…

 

Meanwhile, the only Asian American young person who has gotten featured on Page One of the Times recently was the young woman whose parents paid a California college consultant $6.5 million to get her into Stanford….  This is a far cry from the intelligent, hardworking and nearly penniless Asian American students who will suffer if and when Mayor de Blasio manages to pack the specialized high schools with 45 percent African Americans and Latinos…

 

Once again, the older immigrant group would be getting its way….I remember, way back in the 1960s, when I was in the World section of Time, and we were talking about the colonies of overseas Chinese who at that time lived in Saigon, Djakarta and Singapore….somebody said, they're called, "the Jews of Southeast Asia," I suppose partly because they were considered good at business but also because they were so danged smart…

 

It's all very like the way the children of Jewish immigrants constituted heavy majorities in the specialized high schools in the early part of the 20th century, and City College was 85 percent Jewish  in 1900….how did the rest of the city's population ever stand for it?

 

Personally, I don't think Asian Americans will stand for being dealt out of the city school system, either.  As soon as they can make enough money, they too will hightail it for the suburbs, so their children can get a better deal.  I understand there are already sizeable Asian American communities in New Jersey and Nassau County…and so we here in the Big Apple will be saying  goodbye to yet other middle-class group of citizens this city really needs to have…..

 

BRIEF ADD May 15: Comparing the two "better" middle schools slated for exchanging students with the two "worse" schools, it strikes me that what mainly separates their offerings is the rich and varied electives in the arts offered by the "better" schools (Booker T. Washington on the Upper West Side and M.S. 51 in Park Slope) as opposed to the almost total lack of them in the "worse" schools (I.S. 180 in Harlem and I.S. 136 in Sunset Park).

 

I think that if the city made a point of building up those electives in the "worse" schools, it could give a lot more joy to the students, and happy students do better in all their subjects -- including the academic ones. It might also reconcile those white and Asian students forced to attend these schools even if their grades and test scores qualified them for better ones.  I say this not only because I'm an art critic but also -- and far more importantly --- because as a child I attended several top private progressive schools and this recipe for academic success was very much a working part of John Dewey's excellent philosophy.

 

 

 

 

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