Words matter. When Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza uses the word “segregation,” he’s tackling head-on a critical issue in New York City public schools.
Despite the city’s great diversity, our schools are increasingly segregated by race and income. But in recent years, there has been a lack of political will to address the problem. A year ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio was pessimistic when asked about school segregation. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said.
Of course, there has always been a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots in the city. But the mayor’s words ignored the tide of gentrification that has swept many working class families from neighborhoods they could once afford, further isolating them and their children from the benefits of “diversity” that are so often championed in the abstract.
Diversity matters for everyone. Numerous studies have shown integrated schools encourage critical thinking, problem solving and creativity in white and middle class students as well as minority and low-income students. Attending a diverse school also can help reduce racial bias and encourage empathy. And school integration promotes more equitable access to resources.
Carranza is right to question the wisdom of segregating kids based on test scores. It’s been well-documented that achievement gaps between black and white students in K–12 were at their narrowest during the peak years of school desegregation in the 1980s, but widened again when test-based accountability policies began replacing desegregation efforts in the 1990s.
Of special concern in this regard are the city’s academic high schools, which are highly segregated by academic achievement. The current high school admissions process has not only permitted, but actually encouraged further sorting of students. The process is complicated and favors students with well-to-do parents who know how to navigate the system.
The UFT has long fought for a fairer admissions policy at the specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and the mayor has taken small but necessary steps in the right direction to give an assist to high-achieving black and Latino middle school students. But much more can and should be done.
What’s clear is we cannot achieve our goals by shrouding the issue in happy talk or euphemisms. Carranza’s plain talk gives us hope that the city is finally harnessing the political will to deliver the educational equity all students deserve.