Mayor’s Diversity Plan Gets a Failing Grade

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Last week, the New York City Department of Education (DOE), at long last, put forward a plan to increase diversity in New York City public schools.  While we appreciate seeing Mayor de Blasio and the DOE finally making some effort in this area, the plan’s potential impact is quite low, and disappointing to see from a mayor who has made so much about ending the Tale of Two Cities.  

The fact that the Mayor made no public announcement of the plan is a clear indicator that he himself does not believe it's anything special.

The DOE plan sets some laudable goals, including moving 50,000 into school environments that are at least slightly representative of citywide racial and ethnic distributions.  And some of the methods that the DOE plans to use will likely lead to better outcomes.  In particular, dropping the requirements of applicants and parents to attend fairs or open houses, which are often difficult to accommodate for working families.  Requirements such as these create some of the most implicit and insidious barriers, more than hinting of institutional biases in favor of more well-to-do families.  Allowing Pre-K programs to set aside seats for underserved groups is another step in the right direction.

However, other actions in the plan are at best less likely to have an impact, and at worst, cynical attempts to appear to be doing something despite strong evidence against their having worked in the past.  What stands out to me is the continued meek approach to the Specialized High Schools.  The Mayor's plan expands efforts begun last year to increase access and prep programs for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT).  But last year's initiatives led to absolutely no improvement in the outcomes of black and Latino students at the Specialized High Schools, so it is upsetting to see more of the same.  It may sound nice, but even the Mayor knows that this point that it won't change anything.

The stunningly low levels of black and Latino representation in Specialized High Schools (SHS) should embarrass this mayor. Just over one percent of offers to Stuyvesant High School this year went to black students, who make up less than four percent of offer recipients to all SHS, despite comprising over a third of public school students.  Latino youth, the largest subgroup of students in the city, make up just 6.5 percent of SHS offers.  These acceptance rates are indicative of a system of public education that instead of serving as an equalizer of opportunity, is only working to further segregate youth into educational haves and have-nots

The Mayor needs to make a public acknowledgement that the SHSAT, is not the mechanism by which merit can be fairly assessed, particularly when there are objectively stronger ways to do so.  Admission to the city’s elite high schools is determined by rank order on the SHSAT, not the achievement of a passing grade, or any other objective measure of academic proficiency.  Lower income young people from the poorest neighborhoods will never be able to compete in terms of rank order with students from families with resources to send their children to rigorous and expensive prep programs outside of school.  Poor families whose students are middle school valedictorians are shut out, because doing everything they can to succeed in school will never be enough as long as the SHSAT is the sole factor.

The Specialized High Schools only enroll a fraction of New York City's public school students, but have disproportionately symbolic value.  The represent the aspirations of so many students and families, and the culmination of a decade of public schooling.  Their enrollment totals are not how each student should be assessed, but how we should be judged on ensuring diversity of opportunity.  Right now, we are failing miserably, and our grades won't improve until we make real changes.

In conducting damage control after the release of his plan, the Mayor said there was nothing he could do with the stroke of a pen to solve the challenges of school segregation.  But this is simply not the case.  Three of the Specialized High Schools would need changes in state legislation to reform their admissions. Has the Mayor sought such legislation? No. Nor has he proposed new admissions policy at the remaining five not named in the state law requiring use of that exam only. The Mayor needs to make an announcement that the SHSAT is not appropriate assessment for any of the SHS, and that he will use his authority with the five newest SHS to change their admissions and demonstrate that we can increase diversity without sacrificing standards or reputation.  

One other announcement in the DOE plan is the creation of an advisory group to determine how this work moves forward.  We urge the DOE and the Mayor to put Specialized High Schools, the symbol of so much of the promise and shame of New York City’s public education system, at the top of the advisory group's agenda, and we hope to work with them to do so.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years.  The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer.  The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.

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