The NYC DOE (Department of Education) today announced that 62 of the 67 recommendations suggested by the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) will be implemented. The SDAG is a panel comprised of students, parents, teachers and other educators, as well as advocates and researchers appointed in 2017 to advise School Chancellor Richard A. Carranza by Mayor Bill deBlasio, with the aim of fighting bias and increasing diversity in NYC’s public school system.
Mayor Bill deBlasio stated, “…There’s no one who knows better how to diversify our school system than our students, parents and teachers…every student, no matter their zip code, [will have] access to a school where they can thrive…” with regard to the planned changes advised by the Study Group. Eight public town hall meetings were held by the SDAG throughout the city, along with about forty committee meetings, in order to facilitate community involvement and foster discussion.
One such goal of the Group is that the “DOE should aim for all schools to look more like the city. This will encourage the DOE to challenge the neighborhood segregation that exists and support schools in further diversifying their populations.” This recommendation was written to help schools reflect district demographics. While this all sounds quite noble, the panel has effectively proposed elimination of “gifted and talented” programs throughout the city, with few exceptions.
In Making the Grade II: New Programs for Better Schools, we find this opener, penned by the Executive Committee, “As parents, as educators, as advocates, academics and students, we all want an exciting, challenging and relevant education that prepares students for the world and supports their ability to work together to solve big problems, serve their communities, get good jobs and participate in the very fabric of this country.” No one with compassion, or intelligence and a concern for our city’s youth, could possibly rebel against such goals. Yet, NYC residents, as well as writers for most major newspapers, seem alarmed at how such a plan is explicated in the pages that follow.
The group further “defined integration goals to include racial and socio-economic integration, but also included multilingual learners, students with disabilities and students in temporary housing as students who should be represented in schools throughout the city.” In effect, every school should begin to have ratios of each of these sub-groups of learners that reflects the ratio of each in the wider population of the area served by each school. How is such a lofty goal to be achieved, one might wonder? The report suggests that the city DOE , “[use] a framework for “real integration” that recognizes schools need improved resources, relationships, representation and restorative justice to be integrated.”
Of course, here is where the consternation and difference of opinion begins to take definite form. The report’s authors then go on to suggest there is an easy answer: trash the “gifted and talented” programs throughout the city, labeling these programs (with a proven track record of success) as inherently creating educational segregation based on race and socioeconomic status, suggesting that advanced learners will have “better” options than the presently-utilized “screened” programs.
According to the report’s recommendations, “…These schools and programs often fail to serve disadvantaged students and Black and Latinx students…” and therefore, should eliminate the entrance assessment test, the SHSAT. Perhaps a more holistic assessment is in order, but does it follow that all the Group’s other recommendations are on-point?
The reader may be wondering just how it is that screened programs are biased and encourage segregation. The response? “…the existing use of screens and Gifted and Talented programs [is] unfair, unjust and not necessarily research-based…segregat[ing] students by race, class, abilities and language…” Of course, Asian families dispute this assessment, as Asian students while over-represented in such “gifted and talents” programs, in fact many times hail from disadvantaged, low-income families, experiencing both a language barrier and significant economic barriers.
While some Black and Hispanic students claimed that they were unprepared for the entrance exams, or even that they were completely unaware that such entrance exams were offered, this cannot be blamed on the reasons Mayor deBlasio’s panel provided, but rather lies squarely on the shoulders of educators. Of course, cultures placing a premium on education may be more knowledgeable about such topics, but in the end, it’s really the fault of teachers and faculty for not informing their students of their complete list of options, including admission into specialized high schools and gifted programs.
The School Diversity Advisory Group further noted that, “…it is imperative to resource the creation and development of new research-based programs that serve all children; recognizing that all children can learn, that learning together improves learning…” However moral and compassionate this sounds, does this, in fact, hold back advanced students? Does such an assessment realistically encompass the realities that not all learners move along at the same pace, nor do all students learn in precisely the same manner?
While it’s claimed that “new models of effective and integrated learning based on interest and enrichment models, rather than arbitrary and often exclusionary admissions models,” in the “real world”, this may not hold true. The panel further explains that “…exclusionary admissions models often unfairly sort students by their resources rather than interests and opportunities for developing their interests and abilities…” should be eliminated. However, what resources, specifically, are we talking about? Many Asian students, as noted above, come from backgrounds that lack both a history of economic, and educational, achievement. Yet still, we find this sub-group over-represented in gifted programs.
Should students be sorted by their “interests and potential interests” or their ability level? While individualized learning is wonderful, should an advanced learner be tasked with peer-tutoring their less advanced peers, or should a class be kept at a slower pace to accommodate those learners lacking such an educational framework and background that is necessary in advanced learning environments? Are we about to hold back our “Doogie Howsers” in the name of equality? These questions merit serious consideration, before we jump into a situation that is intractable and damaging to any student.
According to the Group’s statement,”… Studies indicate that once made integrated, through equitable enrollment policies, New York City students will benefit from a host of educational benefits. Integrated classrooms yield higher academic outcomes, stronger critical thinking skills and increased creativity.” How does an advanced learner develop stronger critical thinking skills, or enhanced creativity, by being placed in “un-sorted” classrooms? Is this somehow related to the Group’s findings that,”…All students in integrated classrooms demonstrate reduced implicit biases and enhanced social-emotional well-being?”
Generation Z is less biased than former generations, across all socio-economic groups. Is the elimination of biases synonymous with creating a more robust learning environment? If so, how? Do we expect universities to follow suit so that, say, NYU accepts all students into all programs, intellectual (and other) qualifications be damned? Will the United States plunge headlong into a future where we all experience less bias, as the study group proposes, yet finds ourselves outpaced by the graduates of other nations choosing to place students with those at their own level, where they will be constantly challenged?
What are our educational goals, then? “Diversity means something different in each community and recommendations should speak to that broad definition,” according to the Group. While such a statement is inherently true, is diversity the highest end in setting up an educational system that serves all students as best as each student requires, on a personal level? Are we considering the group over the individual? These philosophical questions remain, and cannot be easily answered.
Presently, students are grouped according to level of achievement, which may indicate future pace, and scope, of learning. What plays into “level of achievement?’ Surely, individual interest and enthusiasm, as well as familial priorities placed on education. But what about differences in the individual make-up of students? What about cultural differences and attitudes toward education? Can these factors be legislated away, or are we wreaking havoc upon an educational system that has benefited more students than any other big city on Earth? Are we disrespecting those individual students prizing education? Are we suggesting that “all learners are created equally?”
Of course, disadvantaged students need to have educational opportunities made clear to them. At each step of their educational journey, such students must be reminded of the consequences of failure to achieve, as well as the benefits of focusing on their studies; they need to have a serious attitude about school cultivated in them, by all means necessary. Sometimes, parents and caregivers enrich their children’s learning process. After all, the New York Public Library is available to one and all, and even the poorest among us can borrow up to thirty books at once.
Possibly, there should be a focus on getting kids and parents to utilize the service of their NYPL branch, as well as educating parents and students about the option of entering into specialized “gifted and talented” programs. As it is, the Study Group seems to be suggesting that we will discover many “diamonds in the rough”, that is, students lacking achievement only because of bias and segregation.
Without a re-orientation toward education, for both parents and kids, simply mixing everyone together in a classroom, regardless of aptitude level, based purely on “interest” and trying to replicate ratios of groups that reflects those found in the larger community, and NYC as a whole, seems to increase the focus on race, economic status, and ethnicity like never before. Instead of trying to create a “fair” learning environment, parents and students should become better acquainted with services already in place, such as in-school tutoring, as well as free help available both online and after school, so that children with a background focused less on personal academic achievement may excel, if they wish to do so.
In the end, all school are not for everyone, and not all students will perform equally well in every program. There are schools like Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx High School of Science, and Staten Island Tech for students with those sorts of interests and aptitudes. But there’s also schools like Art and Design High School, Fiorello H. LaGuardia H.S., Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School, as well as Digital Arts and Cinema Technology High School, for students with a different sort of aptitude and interest.
Possibly identifying a student’s interests early on, and fostering its nurturing and development, as well as identifying students’ learning style (now a contested metric), including uncovering weaknesses in a student’s perspective on education, may serve us all better than trying to cut down those towering educational successes in order to bring about some sort of nebulous, foggy sense of “equality.” Equality of opportunity should be foremost among the concerns of our city’s educators; it’s just how we go about meeting this goal that may be of issue. Are we considering students as individuals, or resorting to race and class, seeing them only as a statistic? These are questions we must ask ourselves, regardless of our race, socio-economic standing, or any other tabulatable factor.
Note: The so-called “Elite Eight” specialized high schools will be exempt from the new directive, and testing for potential entrants will remain in place. The schools include The Bronx High School of Science, The Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn Technical High School, High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College of New York, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College,Stuyvesant High School, and our borough’s own Staten Island Technical High School.