De Blasio’s education mission creep: Excellence risks coming a distant second to equity
An advisory panel tapped by Mayor de Blasio last week unveiled the second set of recommendations from his vaunted School Diversity Advisory Group. On the one hand, the task force gives lip service to the goal of recognizing and encouraging educational excellence — as all such initiatives will. But when it comes to specifics, the panel calls for eliminating “gifted and talented” programs as well as “selective admissions” screening for many of the city’s better-performing schools. This, in the name of comprehensive integration of a school system maligned as one of the nation’s most segregated.
Although de Blasio stopped short of giving the plan a full-throated endorsement, his schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, cites the steps as necessary to achieve the de Blasio administration’s very public commitment to a system wherein, within 10 years, the typical school reflects the melting-pot demographics of the city as a whole.
This de facto abandonment of excellence (as well as the metrics that document a student’s readiness for it) feels like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once put it. For despite the differing circumstances, the task force’s recommendations recall America’s lengthy experiment with self-esteem-based education, which proved such a disaster that it was repudiated even by some of its most vocal early advocates.
Those advocates initially argued (based on conjecture) that sub-par academic performance resulted from a lack of self-esteem in at-risk students; thus, rectifying that deficit would pay dramatic dividends in academic achievement. But these visionaries encountered an immediate stumbling block: The excellence that lesser students saw around them might get in the way of the happy vibe administrators sought.
It would do little good to sell the mantra that “you’re all winners!” if students could simply look at their report cards, compare to those around them, and realize that they were, in fact, losers. So administrators decided paradoxically that they had to deemphasize excellence in order to achieve the self-esteem benefits that would drive excellence. Got it?
Honor rolls were scrapped. Teachers stopped making corrections in red ink, deemed “stigmatizing” to those whose papers contained a lot of it. Schools embraced pass/fail grading and social promotion. Children’s clothes became bulletin boards for a hodgepodge of ribbons that commemorated everything but genuine achievement: effort, attendance, a cheerful attitude.
In the ensuing decades, it became clear that academic greatness is not what such warm-fuzzy tactics promoted. In 1963, the rough beginning of our national experiment in teaching self-love, there also commenced an uninterrupted 18-year slide in SAT scores. But in that same period, the contingent of college-bound seniors who boasted an A or B average jumped from 28% to an astonishing 83%, as teachers systemwide felt increasing pressure to adopt more “supportive” grading policies.
Tellingly, in a 1989 study of comparative math skills among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competency, Koreans highest — but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were at math, Americans placed highest, Koreans lowest. Meanwhile, 1999's Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking twelfth-graders from 23 nations, put U.S. students in 20th place, besting only such historic hotbeds of innovation as South Africa, Lithuania and Cyprus. Such are the unintended consequences of taking your eyes off the prize, which should be educational excellence — that is, challenging all students, especially the best and brightest, to perform optimally.
That lesson applies even in the wholly different context of de Blasio’s admittedly well-intended goals for the New York City system. You cannot task an educational system with driving students toward excellence while simultaneously demanding that it achieve some overarching social-engineering goal. Even if it is theoretically possible to serve both masters, in practice one goal tends to cancel the other.
Based on their public statements, what de Blasio and Carranza seem to seek is educational homogeneity: All student bodies look the same, all students receive the same instruction. Trouble is, except in exalted environments like MIT, educational homogeneity seldom occurs at the level of excellence, but rather at some lesser common denominator. Throw poor learners into a class to achieve some demographic balance and the teachers will have to teach down to that level.
Beyond that — and just as unforgivably — what is the message to the minority children these plans are primarily designed to benefit: that in a system that prioritizes excellence, you can never hope to compete? That programs reserved for the “gifted and talented” cannot achieve a desired level of minority representation, so if we seek integration, we must scrap those programs as well as criteria designed to assess educational readiness? Seldom has there been a more naked statement of what speechwriter Michael Gerson once dubbed the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”