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May 25, 2019

Reform elite high schools, but the real equity fight is much broader

June 23, 2018
Mayor Bill de Blasio discusses his plan to change admissions testing for specialized High Schools in Brooklyn on June 3, 2018. (Todd Maisel / New York Daily News)

At long last, the big policy issues related to race, educational equity and access in New York’s public schools are on the front burner. However, despite the attention, many of the most important issues remain obscured.

The arguments over Mayor de Blasio’s plan to revise the admission criteria used by New York’s top-ranked exam high schools have gotten the most attention, but this is in some ways a distraction.

To be clear: The plan to broaden the criteria for admission makes sense. After all, there are no reputable colleges in the U.S. today that admit students on the basis of their score on a single test.

However, the mayor’s proposal overlooks a more important problem: the dearth of rigorous schools for high-achieving low-income students in New York City.

According to the Department of Education, 28,333 students took the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admission Test) exam in 2017. Of those admitted to the eight exam schools, 4.1% were black, 6.3% were Latino, 26.5% were white, and 51.7% to Asian.

While most of the attention has been drawn to the underrepresentation of black and Latino students at these schools (67% of students in New York public schools are black or Hispanic), the scarcity of high-quality schools in neighborhoods throughout New York has been largely ignored.

A 2012 report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that 18 of the 21 high schools in New York with the lowest college-readiness rates (less than 12%) are located in the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

This means that high-achieving students in these neighborhoods must commute to other areas of the city to access better schools.

Given that many of these students attended weak elementary and middle schools located in their neighborhoods, even some of the highest-achieving students are often unprepared to excel on the admission exam. Test-prep programs and even the new admissions criteria cannot compensate for the disadvantage of enrolling in weak neighborhood schools.

With 1.1 million school children in the system, designating eight high schools for the highest-achieving students is simply inadequate and blatantly unfair.

There are, of course, other great high schools in New York, some of which may in fact be better than the exam schools. However, many of these schools also enroll very few black or Hispanic students from low-income backgrounds because they have been allowed to “screen” out the most disadvantaged students.

Chancellor Richard Carranza has rightfully criticized the practice of screening in some middle and high schools. Hopefully, he will go further. The issue is as important as the admission policy at the exam schools because it serves as yet another barrier for poor children to gain access to “good” schools in New York.

Most children in New York City attend schools characterized by an extreme degree of race/class segregation (de-facto, not de-jure).

Were these schools separate but equal, the status quo might be acceptable. But for the most part they are not. Many of the children, particularly those who reside in the poorest neighborhoods, are resigned to attend weak and under-performing schools.

The selective high-school fight may well be worth having. BUt ultimately, we will only begin to truly level the playing field in education if we can ensure that all students have access to high-quality schools, starting at the earliest possible age.

Noguera is distinguished professor of education at UCLA’s graduate school of education and information studies.

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