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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

SD News Roundup, Part 1: The big admissions stories

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity is pleased to feature the School Desegregation News Roundup: periodic updates and reflections on educational desegregation and related issues, provided by Peter Piazza, an education policy researcher at Penn State's Center for Education and Civil Rights. Updates are crossposted on his site, available here

It’d be impossible to write a school diversity news roundup for March 2019 without talking about two major stories. On March 12th, we learned about an elaborate bribery scheme that wealthy white parents used as “a side door” into America’s most elite colleges. And, less than a week later, the New York Times wrote a story about appallingly low admission rates for Black and Latinx students in NYC’s elite high schools. A commonly cited example: in the city’s most selective school, Stuyvesant High School, only 7 Black students were admitted for the upcoming fall, out of 895 spots.  
It’s rare for school diversity to make mainstream news, but these stories are apparently shocking enough to be exceptions. (I even found the NYC high school story on Fox News, of all places.) When major outlets pick up this topic, it often has mixed results at best. In this case, understandable outrage over a small number of schools/universities can soak up a disproportionate amount of public attention, ultimately obscuring the many, more subtle and daily ways that racial injustice plays out in education. 
Nonetheless, when covered well, bald injustice like this at least has the potential to reach a broader audience and hopefully inspire greater awareness/debate etc about common school diversity issues. Especially because they came out so close together, these cases combined to illustrate themes that animate many lesser known stories- that, in the name of meritocracy, the system is thoroughly stacked against low-income Black and Latinx students; yet, at the same time, white people enjoy privileges that expose meritocracy as meaningless, invented and even laughable. 
In this post, then, I wanted to highlight a few great pieces that indeed used these stories to talk about broader social and/or historical issues that maintain racial injustice in education. That’s part 1 of the roundup. In part 2, I’ll talk about a topic that may have been lost altogether in the news last month. In particular, there have been a few great op-eds lately, written by white parents in defense of diverse schools. I’ll write about these pieces in light of new research on how white parents make decisions about where to send their kids to school. So, stay tuned! For now, here’s my favorite coverage from the big stories:
College Admissions Scandal
  • “Ignorance Was Bliss for the Children of the College-Admissions Scandal,” by Will Stancil in the Atlantic. Will compares the blatant unfairness of the college admissions scandal with the many, small, daily ways that white people receive unearned benefits. The piece calls for white people to try to become more aware for their unearned privileges and, ultimately, it questions “whether the real fraud is the idea of merit in the first place—that maybe ‘deservingness’ is a shoddy basis for organizing a society altogether.”
  • “Operation Varsity Blues is Just Another Tiki Torch,” by Courtney Everts Mykytyn at IntegratedSchools.org. Similar theme here, as Courtney’s piece calls attention to the more subtle ways that white privilege shapes opportunity for some while foreclosing opportunity for others. In my favorite line from the post, she observes that “while we shame the celebrities who got pinched, we look away from the routine ways that opportunities are hoarded in our pubic ed system. We love the egregious for giving us cover from the everyday.”
NYC High School Inequity
First, in case you missed this one, here’s a few key details from the original story:
  • NYC has eight specialized high schools, and admission to these schools is based exclusively on the scores from a single exam, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). As many articles pointed out, these are the only specialized high schools in the country that use only a single criterion for admissions- imagine, for a second, that there was an elite public university in the country, where tuition was free, and it only used the SAT to decide who gets in.
  • Admissions letters for these 8 schools went out in March, and the rates for Black and Latinx students were indeed appalling. Overall, only 190 Black students were admitted across the 8 schools, which encompasses 4,800 seats. As noted above, only 7 Black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School; that number was only slightly better at 33 for Latinx students. The original story has a great graphic breakdown of admission by race at each school.
A lot of news outlets covered this story. In their recent newsletter, the National Coalition on School Diversity has a good list of stories for anyone who wants to dive in further. For now, I want to use my list to highlight a few perspectives/topics that were missing from the broader coverage:
  • “NYC High School Admissions Creates Winners And Losers. I Lost.” by Muhammed Deen in the Gothamist. This was one of only a very few pieces that features a student’s perspective on the admissions system/process. It was written by a NYC high school grad who is now a freshman at Hunter College. He talks about his experience navigating the complicated high school selection process as an eighth grader and describes the inequities at his high school: “We weren’t allowed to take textbooks home. Our calculators rarely worked. I could not exit the building for lunch due to my school’s metal detector.” The author is an organizer with Teens Take Charge, which just launched an Enrollment Equity Campaign that spans all 450 public high schools in NYC. You can learn more about the group/campaign in this short video or by searching for #IntegrateNOW on twitter.
  • “The New York City school controversy shows why standardized testing is broken,” by Jose Vilson at Vox.com. Written by an NYC teacher and public education advocate, this piece describes how teachers and their students are affected by the rejection letters. The author notes that “I’ve had to console far too many brilliant students who didn’t get chosen for the high school they wanted to go to. They checked off all the proverbial boxes: great attendance, high grades, strong work ethic, and had positive relationships with adults and peers.” But “because a student’s score on that test is the only criterion for high school admissions, the stressful three hours spent taking this exam could determine a student’s future.” This article also makes an important point about the policy that established the SHSAT, which was set by state law (!), not by the city. Nearly every article notes that it will require a change in state law, then, to adjust admissions policies for these schools. However, the discussion almost always ends there, potentially leaving readers with the impression this is just a random/quirky thing that makes the process more complicated. Instead, this article connects the reliance on standardized assessment to the use of IQ tests as “a tool for pundits to argue that people of darker skins were intellectually inferior.” The author notes that the 1971 law – known as Hecht-Calandra – was itself a debate about race and enrollment.
  • “Segregation Has Been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years,” by Eliza Shapiro in the New York Times. This is a historical look at segregation in NYC, written by the author of the original story about admissions rates. There’s a lot of great stuff in the article, but I want to focus on the background for Hecht-Calandra. As described also in this short podcast, race was central to the debate over the bill. Then, as now, “critics said the exam was ‘culturally biased’ and discriminatory against black and Hispanic students” and supporters of the test argued that the specialized schools “could be saved only if, once and for all, it is established that there can be no tampering with the standards of merit and achievement that have been the basis for admission.”
  • “Assembly Votes High School Curb,” by Francis X. Clines in the New York Times on May 20, 1971. If you have any lingering doubts about the role of race in Hecht-Calandra law, check out the New York Times archive from when the law was passed. It was ugly and sad. At the time, NYC’s mayor and chancellor seemed willing to reconsider the use of the exam. Specifically, when the schools chancellor merely initiated a study to look into whether the specialized high schools “‘were ‘culturally biased’ against blacks and Puerto Ricans,” supporters of the exam bypassed the city and went to Albany where they found “a white cross-section of Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals” to sponsor and pass the bill. 
  • During the debate, opponents of the bill challenged their colleagues in the legislature for “joining the racist conservatives” while others gestured back directly, saying they were “offended and deeply hurt” by the suggestion. After the vote, mostly everyone left the chamber, except a Black lawmaker from Buffalo who lamented that “I thought by coming here I would make some minimal change,” before sitting down with tears in his eyes. Even more heartbreaking, the law has worked exactly as opponents feared. Here’s a table from the 1971 coverage (written in the race/ethnicity categories of that time). As pointed out by Eliza Shapiro, “Stuyvesant was 10.3 percent black then; now it is 0.8 percent black.”
Meanwhile, wealthy folks have been buying their way into elite colleges. While we scoff at the excess, we accept the more common/subtle privileges as natural even when they’ve grown, over time, to become absurd. At the very least, folks who write stories about NYC’s specialized high schools should talk about the history here, and supporters of entrance exams should have to somehow address or respond to it. 
Again, however, despite the egregiousness here, it’s important to remember that any policy changes to NYC’s specialized high schools will only affect the 8 schools. It’s undoubtedly important, but it shouldn’t overshadow other important school diversity efforts in NYC and the larger struggle for school diversity across the country. True of the big stories and the comparatively smaller ones- broader change will come when white people begin to see the value of school diversity for their children, other children and society on the whole, and when they begin to act on it. In an effort to be more hopeful/uplifting, I’ll focus on those efforts in part 2 of the roundup next week.

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