Bloomberg to Children of Color: Life’s Not Fair, Get Over It

David R. Jones, The Huffington Post

Read this column on the Huffington Post 

I’m a fan of the comedian Lewis Black.  In addition to being my age, he expresses my sense of almost complete loss of control at some of the more blatant instances of unfairness and stupidity that occur in the nation generally and in New York City in particular.

So I’m “channeling” Mr. Black when I look at the grossest forms of racism and economic discrimination that take place in the “elite” parts of New York City’s public education, running the gamut from the “gifted and talented” kindergarten programs which systematically exclude black and Latino 4 year-olds to the elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant where, in a student body of 3,300 young people, only 40 are African-American (“To Be Black at Stuyvesant High,” New York Times, February 25, 2012).  And the words coming to mind aren’t pretty.

In each case, the disparate admissions of blacks and Latinos are driven by the use of a single exam that has never been validated as predicting success in school.  No other factors are allowed to count.  Teacher assessments, academic achievement (farfetched for a 4 year-old), or the fact you come from an economically distressed household or community – none of these matters.

If that were the only problem, it would be bad enough, but it’s made much worse by the emergence of an entire “test prep” industry that is having a profound impact on test results while generating many millions in profits.  Test prep originally just focused on college and graduate school admission, but it now has spread to preparation for the city’s Specialized High School test and even for admission to the city’s “Gifted and Talented” kindergarten program.  It’s not just the time spent on cramming for unvalidated tests that rankles.  More troubling, the costs for taking these prep courses are staggering, well outside the reach of low-income New Yorkers. 

Our staff called a few of these test prep companies to get approximate costs: $1,350 for prepping a 4 year-old to take the “gifted and talented” test, and $1,500 and more for the Specialized High School admissions exam.  Considering that when we surveyed New Yorkers earlier this year for our annual Unheard Third report, half of low-income respondents said they have less than $500 in total savings and half living in unassisted housing report spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent alone, the virtual impossibility of spending over $1,000 on getting one’s 4 year-old ready for his or her Gifted and Talented test is patently obvious. 

Also, these test preps aren’t shown to make students any smarter; they just help them to score higher on the tests.   The same issue presents itself for college, as the SAT favors higher income students despite the fact that it doesn't actually do a great job of determining how well students do in college – grade point average is a much better determinant.  But, sadly, colleges rely more on tests, for which higher income families have more resources to prepare their children.

The impact on the racial (and I assume economic) composition of the Gifted and Talented program is made plain in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  The city reported that only 29 percent of students in these elite kindergarten programs were black and Hispanic, but they make up two-thirds of the overall elementary school population.  By responding that “[j]ust because they don’t qualify for gifted and talented, doesn’t mean they’re not getting a high-quality education” (“City Defends Gifted Policy,” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2013), Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott doesn’t allay my fears that once again we seem to be slipping into an educational system supported by taxpayer dollars which favors those with the most resources.

In September of last year, the Community Service Society joined with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, and a host of education-focused groups in filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.  We challenged the city’s use of a single test that has never been validated as a predictor of academic success to determine admission to New York’s elite Specialized High Schools because this admissions process works to exclude black and Latino students.  This filing was met with outright hostility by Mayor Bloomberg, who was quoted as saying in response to the case that, in effect, life isn’t fair (“Bloomberg To Minorities Rejected By Elite High Schools: Life's Not Fair,” Gothamist.com, September 28, 2012).

Life continues not to be fair to blacks and Latinos under the mayor’s watch.  Late Friday afternoon, long after newspapers had been printed, the city revealed that the schools problem hadn’t improved but, in fact, has become substantially worse.  Of the 5,229 students accepted to the city’s eight Specialized High Schools this year, only 618 were black or Hispanic, a decline of nearly 16 percent in one year alone (“Fewer black and Hispanic students admitted to top high schools,” Gothamschools.org, March 15, 2013).  At this rate of decline, six years from now there will be no black and Hispanic students admitted at all.

Unlike comedian Lewis Black, whose routines are not for the timid, I will keep my comments printable, but I’m incensed by the both the exclusion of black and Latino 4 year-olds from “Gifted and Talented” kindergarten programs and the almost utter lack of blacks and Latinos at the city’s elite high schools for any number of reasons.  To use scarce public resources to reinforce unequal access to the best in public education seems a throwback to South African apartheid, not something we should strive for in this, the most racially diverse city in the world.

The test prep regime and its results have morphed into a matter of economic discrimination as well, since it’s evident that both of these test-centric admissions programs significantly advantage young people whose parents can afford the cramming programs that give them an overwhelming edge in scoring well on the standardized admission exams. 

We live in a city that in the last decade has reached the highest level of income inequality of any city in the nation (“Income Data Shows Widening Gap Between New York City’s Richest and Poorest,” New York Times, September 20, 2012).  It almost seems criminal to contribute to that problem by denying New Yorkers of limited means – many of whom are black or Latino – access to the best our public education system has to offer.

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