• Thomas Jones

Talking About Public Education

Updated: Sep 12

The New York Times recently published a story titled "How It Feels to Be an Asian Student in an Elite Public School", written by Michael Powell. A brief synopsis follows. "Tausifa Haque, a 17-year-old daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, walks in the early morning from her family's apartment in the Bronx to the elevated subway and rides south to Brooklyn, a journey of one and a half hours. There she joins a river of teenagers who pour into Brooklyn Technical High School -- Bengali and Tibetan, Egyptian and Chinese, Sinhalese and Russian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, West Indian and African American. The cavernous eight-story building holds about 5,850 students, one of the largest and most academically rigorous high schools in the United States. Her father drives a cab; her mother is a lunchroom attendant. The school is a repository of her dreams and theirs. "This is my great chance", Tausifa said, "It's my way out". Brooklyn Tech is also subject to persistent criticism and demands for far-reaching reform, along with other test-screened public high schools across the nation. Liberal politicians, school leaders and organizers argue such schools are bastions of elitism and, because of low enrollment of Black and Latino students, functionally racist and segregated. Sixty-three percent of the city's public school students are Black and Latino yet they account for just 15 percent of Brooklyn Tech's population. For Asian students, the percentages are flipped: they make up 61 percent of Brooklyn Tech, although they account for 18 percent of the public school population. Some critics imply that the presence of so many South and East Asian students, along with the white students, accentuates this injustice. Such charges reached a heated pitch a few years ago when a prominent white liberal council member said such schools were overdue for "a racial reckoning..." But several dozen in-depth interviews with Asian and Black students at Brooklyn Tech paint a more complicated portrait... Fully 63 percent of Brooklyn Tech's students are classified as economically disadvantaged. Census data shows that Asians have the lowest median income in the city and that a majority speak a language other than English at home.

"Critics of specialized high schools argue that these institutions are out of step with the zeitgeist and educational practice. Better to cast aside standardized tests and seek heterogenous classes in neighborhood high schools, they argue, than to cloister top students. Some studies, they say, show that struggling students gain from the presence of talented outliers. And the entrance exam, which includes no writing component, has fueled the growth of a private and inequitable tutoring industry. What of the bright child who has a bad test day? Or a teenager who lacks the money to seek tutoring? "When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing", a board member opined, "those are racist systems".

"Those who champion specialized high schools point to alumni who became top scientists, among them 14 Nobel Prize laureates. With few exceptions those were the children of working-class and immigrant families. The best students, they argue, should press as far ahead as brains and curiosity might take them. The mayor and school officials preside over a system of 1.1 million schoolchildren, they add, in which only half are proficient in math and 24 percent of Black students fail to graduate. As America struggles to stay competitive with other nations in science, technology and mathematics, why obsess about the anti-egalitarian sins of a handful of high-performing schools that hold 6 percent of high school students?

"That said, the dwindling number of Black and Latino students at these high schools is a great concern and a mystery. Bill de Blasio, when he was mayor of New York, suggested the heart of the problem lay with a biased entrance exam. That does not reckon with history. Decades ago, when crime and socioeconomic conditions were far graver than they are today, Black and Latino teenagers passed the examination in greater numbers. In 1981, nearly two-thirds of Brooklyn Tech's students were Black and Latino, and that percentage hovered at 50 percent for another decade. To understand this decline involves a trek back through decades of policy choices, as city officials, pushed by an anti-tracking movement, rolled back accelerated and honors programs and tried to reform gifted programs, particularly in nonwhite districts. Black alumni of Brooklyn Tech argue that this progressive-minded movement handicapped precisely those Black and Latino students most likely to pass the test. Some poor, majority Black and Latino districts now lack a single gifted and talented program. Citywide, elementary school gifted classes enroll about 16,000 students and are 75 percent white and Asian.

"Horace Davis, a former Con Edison executive who is Black, spoke of his boyhood in East Flatbush, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. He got into accelerated classes in his neighborhood school, and teachers pushed hard. "You have four years of courses at Brooklyn Tech taught at the college level", he said. "It's not just that you're surrounded by smart students; you start to think of college and your life in a different way." Hasiba Haq [a producer at TED Talks] lived in Kensington, a low-slung Brooklyn neighborhood known as Little Bangladesh. She stayed up past midnight doing homework, one advanced course piled atop another. "It was more difficult than college", said Ms. Haq, a Fordham University graduate. "It was a hustle and grind culture."

"[Asian] students voice a fear that harks back to earlier generations of working-class Jewish students who dealt with antisemitism. If officials toss the test and substitute portfolios, interviews and extracurricular accomplishments, it could be easier to dismiss Asians as faceless 'grinds'... However stressful a high-stakes test, it means a surname is no obstacle. No one knows they are Bengali, Tibetan, Nigerian, or Tajik... Students and teachers spoke of alternatives... Again and again, the conversation returned to the broader problem. The elementary and middle schools must prepare more students to compete at the highest level."

I can add my personal testimony regarding the rigors and benefits of Brooklyn Tech because I was one of the black freshmen in September 1961, and I offer three broader observations. First is that all Americans should be proud that low-income immigrants from around the world find opportunity to reach their highest educational potential in a rigorous New York City high school. The "river of teenagers who pour into Brooklyn Tech -- Bengali and Tibetan, Egyptian and Chinese, Sinhalese and Russian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, West Indian and African American" -- represent a moral portrait which is arguably America's most important statement to the world, and probably the source of the greatest admiration America receives from the world. It is a moral portrait which says America is a land of opportunity for everyone, and is a living testimony to the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to be free..." We should be proud America is closer now than ever before to being a land of opportunity for people of every race, creed, and color.

My second observation is that a rigorous objective entrance test is probably the fairest way to divide the relatively small number of seats available at Brooklyn Tech. The Asians who "overperform" in these test don't enjoy any "white privilege", to use the vernacular of critical race theory (CRT). The writer observes that "Asians have the lowest median income in the city and...a majority speak a language other than English at home". I think Asians are correct to fear that "...toss the test and substitute portfolios, interviews and extracurricular accomplishments..." will reduce their numbers, because that is what has happened in every admissions scheme which adopts subjective criteria. Most important, however, is author Powell's recitation of historical fact that Black students in New York City used to perform quite well on the admissions exam -- meritocracy based on standardized testing was not a "racist system". Until the 1980's Black students achieved their "pro rata share" of seats at Brooklyn Tech. Powell says Black student test performance deteriorated when "...city officials, pushed by an anti-tracking movement, rolled back accelerated and honors programs and tried to reform gifted programs, particularly in nonwhite districts". In other words, when liberal politicians embraced "equity" instead of "opportunity" (to use CRT vernacular again), most Black students received "equity in mediocrity" or worse.

Powell concludes his article on the note "The elementary and middle schools must prepare more students to compete at the highest level", so my third observation is that New York City could take a major stride in this direction by expanding availability of charter schools. I recently watched PBS Firing Line interview Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, and was impressed with the performance of her schools - 100 percent of Success Academy students pass state proficiency exams in math and English. Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Post calling on politicians to lift the cap on charter schools in New York City where 50,000 students are on charter-school waitlists and eleven charter schools are blocked from opening. Moskowitz says "...Black charter-school students pass the state math exams at 2X the rate as their district school peers and pass the English test at 1.5X the rate. Graduates of New York's leading charter-school networks, where at least 75% of students are eligible for subsidized lunch, are earning four-year college degrees at 4X the rate of their similarly low-income peers...For affluent parents, choice in where they send their kids to school is a given...In disadvantaged neighborhoods, charter schools offer choice to those who wouldn't otherwise have it."

I believe we have a moral obligation to give every child a fair opportunity to achieve their highest educational potential. Increasing access to successful charter schools, and school choice vouchers, helps to fulfill that moral obligation.

What do you think?

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