Op-Eds

Diversify NY high schools now

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Daily News on May 31, 2018.]

If New York City is going to have the first-class public education system it deserves, then the new chancellor and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy need to tackle the widespread academic segregation in the city’s high schools — a problem within their power to solve.

As repeated studies have pointed out, New York City public high schools are highly segregated by academic achievement, a situation that the current high school admissions process has not only permitted, but actually encouraged.

The Education Department’s own study — the Parthenon report of 2008 — conclusively demonstrated that when high proportions of high-need students were concentrated in certain city high schools, it became much more difficult for their students to succeed and graduate.

For example, that study found that a black or Hispanic ninth-grade girl with median test scores and attendance had a significantly higher probability of graduating from high school as the proportion of academically challenged students in her school declined.

The problem identified in 2008 remains true today. According to a new analysis by the United Federation of Teachers, students who scored 2.50 or below on eighth-grade state reading tests are clustered in about 100 of the city’s roughly 400 high schools. Their average graduation rate is below 70%, ranging to as low as 40%. The roughly 300 remaining high schools show incoming average reading scores of 2.63 or better; their graduation rates range from 70% to 100%.

This segregation by academic achievement exists despite the student choice system instituted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. In theory, that system was supposed to open up enrollment in schools across the city, with the exception of the schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

But the reality is far different.

The application process itself — from the 600-page explanation booklet prepared annually by the Education Department to the hundreds of existing screens by attendance, interviews or neighborhood residence — serves to deter struggling students and families and to favor those who can figure out how to navigate its complexities.

There are specific steps the city can and should take:

  • The system knows the achievement scores of every high school applicant and can compute how these would affect the achievement average of each school; the complex algorithm used to assign students should be tweaked to ensure that no schools develop an undue concentration of struggling students.
  • The hundreds of high schools that use some kind of screening criteria must adapt those criteria to an “ed-option” formula — one that ensures that they will admit a proportion of students from across the achievement spectrum. At the same time, the Education Department must ensure that effective information about school options is provided to all low-income eighth-graders and their families.
  • While admission to three exam-admission schools can only be changed by state legislation, the city has used the Specialized High School Admissions Test for five other schools not explicitly mentioned in the law. The city should immediately adopt a “Texas model” — upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — that would open up enrollment in these five schools to a percentage of the high-ranking graduates of all middle schools throughout the city.

But even these steps are insufficient.

Given the penalties the system imposes based on test scores and similar measures, few schools actively seek to enroll academically struggling students. Only a small minority of schools make a specific effort to bring in students at all achievement levels. The chancellor should mandate that serving an academically diverse population is a significant measure of a principal’s success.

The central office also needs to provide aggressive oversight — rather than the system’s current laissez-faire management style — to ensure that advanced classes are available to the maximum number of students, and that all high schools offer high-quality facilities and a diverse choice of programs. The de Blasio administration’s AP for All push is a good start, but it’s not enough.

Properly managed, academic integration can have a dramatic effect on student success rates. A recent study in Stamford, Conn., showed student achievement increased across all groups in academically integrated schools, even as the racial achievement gap shrank.

City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza was recently quoted as asking: “Why are we segregating kids based on test scores?” It’s a telling question, but not as important as this one: “What can we do to solve this problem?”

Luckily for our students, the answer is that we can do a great deal, and we can do it now.

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