While the state of New York is considered by many to be a liberal bastion, its schools are the most racially segregated in the entire county. One significant reason is that New York City—the nation’s largest school district—has an extraordinary number of public schools and programs that screen students based on test score results or grades. The New York Times found that one in five middle schools and high schools used screens to exclude students—an extreme outlier in a country where open admissions is the rule in public education.
How should these policies be reformed? New York City’s School Diversity Advisory Group—of which I am a member—was created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to make recommendations on how to better integrate the city’s public schools. In February, we released an initial report, Making the Grade, that outlined racial and socioeconomic goals for schools and made a number of other recommendations, most of which the mayor and schools chancellor Richard Carranza accepted.
At the time of that first report, we deferred weighing in on the thorny issues of screening in the city’s middle schools, high schools, and elementary gifted and talented programs because they required more study. But the group has now issued our second report, Making the Grade II: New Programs for Better Schools, that seeks to honor the legitimate goals of gifted and talented and screened programs in a way that avoids segregating—and therefore harming—New York City public school students.
Supporters of academic screening and gifted and talented programs frequently point to two of the goals of these programs: (1) ensuring that public schools academically challenge all students, including the brightest; and (2) providing a way to attract middle-class families to use urban public schools rather than paying for private education or moving to the suburbs. These goals are appropriate, and good. In particular, having a system that educates middle-class students alongside low-income students is important, because decades of research show that all students learn more in socioeconomically mixed schools than in those with high concentrations of poverty.
The School Diversity Advisory Group, then, was faced with a crucial question: Are there good ways to challenge all students and attract middle-class families to New York City public schools without using exclusionary screens and programs that end up segregating students by race and socioeconomic status? The group concluded that there were superior methods—in elementary, middle, and high school.
At the elementary school level, New York City’s gifted and talented programs currently require that four-year olds must take a high-stakes exam for entry. Some New Yorkers pay for expensive test-prep for very small children to get an edge. Black and Latinx students are disproportionately shut out: although such students constitute 65 percent of New York City’s public kindergarten cohort, they make up just 18 percent of students offered gifted and talented slots.
Black and Latinx students are disproportionately shut out: although such students constitute 65 percent of New York City’s public kindergarten cohort, they make up just 18 percent of students offered gifted and talented slots.
Other schools—including some in the District of Columbia and in Queens—offer a more inclusive approach to ensuring that all students, including those who are gifted and talented, are challenged. As my Century Foundation colleague Halley Potter has noted, these schools have had success in employing what is known as the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, in which all students are exposed to a challenging curriculum but teachers tailor instructional methods to the needs of individual students.
Likewise, while current gifted and talented programs might be a draw for certain middle-class New York City students to use public rather than private schools, other school districts use more inclusive lures. These incentives include whole-school, dual-language Spanish immersion or Montessori programs (combined with enrollment criteria that ensure diversity) that don’t exclude five-year-olds based on test results. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, the school system saw an influx of students from middle-class families to integrated public schools when it began offering an array of attractive magnet school programs that are open to all comers.
At the middle school level nationwide, public schools rarely use selective admissions. Yet, in New York City, 110 middle schools employ screened admissions to sort the incoming class of nine-year-olds. As a result, African American, Latinx, and low-income students are less likely to attend these schools. According to a February 2019 report from the New School, 80 percent of students in unscreened middle schools were low-income in the 2017–18 academic year, compared with 59 percent of students in screened schools. In unscreened middle schools, 72 percent of students were black or Hispanic, compared with 55 percent in screened middle schools. Because these screens have modest segregating effects, the Advisory Group took the position that schoolwide enrichment and nonselective, theme-based magnet schools was a better way of achieving the goal of an academically challenging and integrated school environment.
At the high school level, where the academic gaps between students often grow larger, and where more students are interested in focusing in on a particular discipline or course of study, the use of screens and specialized schools admissions may be more appropriate—but if, and only if, admissions processes are made more inclusive to recognize not just a student’s academic accomplishments, but also what obstacles she already has had to overcome to be where she is.
Once again, in this regard, New York City’s schools fall short. Highly unusual among selective high schools nationally, New York City’s specialized high schools—such as Stuyvesant, and the Bronx High School of Science—base their admissions on the outcome of a single test, rather than an array of factors, such as middle school grades and teacher recommendations. Under this system, African American and Latinx students are grossly underrepresented at such schools. According to a 2019 Brookings Institution study, just 16 percent of students in specialized New York City high schools were black or Hispanic, compared with 66 percent of New York City public students overall.
Highly unusual among selective high schools nationally, New York City’s specialized high schools—such as Stuyvesant, and the Bronx High School of Science—base their admissions on the outcome of a single test, rather than an array of factors, such as middle school grades and teacher recommendations.
Beyond the city’s eight specialized high schools, New York City has more than 100 other high schools that employ screening, some of which use admissions preferences for geographic zones. Although New York City high schools are supposed to be open to all, these geographic preferences mean that families with wealth can purchase the right to have their children receive a superior public education, while the children of the less fortunate are effectively shut out.
The Brookings Institution authors, Richard Reeves and Ashley Schobert, point to a better way of identifying talent. The City of Chicago looks to a broader array of academic qualities and also recognizing that hurdles overcome are relevant to a student’s overall potential. Students are identified as coming from four different socioeconomic groups, and admissions procedures recognize the extra obstacles some students in these groups face. Reeves and Schobert found that Chicago’s selective schools were much more successful than New York’s in terms of inclusion: 39 percent of students were African American in 2015, and 30 percent were Latinx. (Full disclosure: I helped Chicago develop its program.) Inclusive admissions policies that factor in economic disadvantage in New York City would make admissions to the eight specialized high schools and to the more than 100 other screened high schools fairer.
Some advocates were hoping that the Advisory Group would go even further, and recommend that all schools in New York City should strive for academic diversity, even if they were already racially and socioeconomically integrated. For example, Teens Take Charge—an impressive group of students fighting for more inclusive policies—called for virtually all high schools to have at least 25 percent of its students be low-performing and no more than 75 percent be high performing. Seventeen members of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus endorsed this ideal, recommending that New York City “immediately” adopt “caps on the allowable concentration of high-achieving and low-achieving students in the same schools.”
The Advisory Group wasn’t willing to go that far. When admissions processes recognize the hurdles that students have overcome—so that talented low-income and black and Latinx students have a fair shot at admissions—I, for one, don’t want to take away the opportunity that those students have of attending a high-performing integrated school because it had already reached its 75 percent cap on high performers. The enemy should be racial and economic segregation, not academic merit.
Overall, the Advisory Group’s recommendations, if adopted, would move us a long way toward a fairer system of the type all New York City students deserve—one that challenges every student, and is far more equitable and integrated than the one we currently have.