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Testimony regarding segregation in New York City public schools


Testimony before the Committee on Education and the Committee on Civil and Human Rights

Good afternoon. My name is Janella Hinds and I am the UFT’S Vice President for academic high schools. On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank Speaker Corey Johnson, Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger, Civil and Human Rights Committee Chair Mathieu Eugene and members of both committees for holding today’s hearing.

We deeply appreciate your oversight of New York City’s recent desegregation plan authored by the School Diversity Advisory Group — Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students — and its impact. (1) Full disclosure: I actively participated in the advisory group’s work as a representative of the UFT.

Chairs Treyger and Eugene, we value your committees’ stewardship over these issues that have challenged our school system for decades and your continued championing of equity, fair representation and greater accountability from the Department of Education.

Local communities boldly stepped forward with their own integration plans

We applaud the local community school districts whose parents, advocates and educators collaborated and created their own school integration plans. Recognizing the disparities that benefited some children while hurting others, and analyzing the statistics, they decided the system was broken. In Community School Districts 1, 3 and 15, and in over two dozen PROSE schools — Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence — across the city, stakeholders collaborated on plans to reverse worsening segregation. 

As indicated in the Making the Grade executive summary and widely reported in the press, the Diversity in Admissions pilot shows promise. District 1 in lower Manhattan, in its second year, eliminated all elementary school zones. Moreover, in a move toward representation based on the district student demographic profile, they actively worked on enrollment, controlling choice to bring each school within 10 points of the district demographic average. On the Upper West Side in District 3, the plan targeted achievement diversity setting aside 25 percent of all middle school seats for struggling students scoring 1 and 2 on state standardized tests.

District 15, covering Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, in its first year, eliminated all middle school screens, concurrently reserving seats for the highest needs kids (students in transitional housing, multilingual learners, those with Individualized Education Plans-IEPs, free lunch eligible, etc.). As reported by the Wall St. Journal 2, MS 51, a gifted-and-talented school in Park Slope, offered 57 percent of sixth-grade seats for next fall to students who qualified for free lunch, were homeless or learning English, a jump from 33 percent last year, based on city data. Further, New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, which used to require auditions, saw 55 percent of offers go to children in these groups, up from 26 percent.

As I highlighted in my 2017 testimony, the UFT’s PROSE program, built on the belief that the solutions to public education’s challenges can be found by the educators who know our children best, was among the first to suggest to the DOE to use the flexibility of PROSE to address integration issues. PROSE schools use their culture of change to address integration enrollment and inclusion efforts; currently, 26 of the 166 PROSE schools are implementing some form of integration and diversity initiatives.

Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, even as more advanced students applied, worked to ensure that it admitted students were from across the academic spectrum, as did the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn. Both have maintained high graduation rates.

The UFT supports the Making the Grade recommendations for parent and educator voices

The UFT has championed parent and educator voices in our advocacy and negotiated educators’ voices into our DOE collective bargaining agreements. We support the integration work by local community school districts and collaborative school level teams. The union, therefore, supports the Making the Grade recommendation that parents and school communities in nine community school districts create integration plans, and that these district schools reflect the average demographics within 10 points of the district overall. It is noteworthy that none of these targeted districts are located in the Bronx, and that all of Staten Island is contained within one district and is deemed diverse enough to create a meaningful integration plan.

It’s time to focus on all academic high schools

We need a top to bottom retooling of the DOE’s approach to high school enrollment, from its application process to the complex placement algorithm, from its screened and specialized high schools admissions to the vestiges of the small school era. The UFT supports the creation of more high schools, particularly where existing high schools are overcrowded, and the creation of more academically rigorous programs inside more high schools.  

As I wrote in in an op-ed article in March of this year, “No discussion about segregation in New York City's public schools can be complete without reference to one of its most pervasive forms —academic isolation. The Department of Education — despite its own study showing the risks – has concentrated thousands of struggling high school students in about 100 buildings and programs. This concentration of high-needs students is a product of current screening procedures and the city's complicated high school assignment process. It directly contradicts the findings that when high-need students are concentrated in high schools, it becomes much more difficult for all students to succeed and graduate.” (3)

Critically, the UFT is committed to providing all students a rich academic high school environment. Larger high schools can better provide this breadth of offerings and are better suited to serve a range of academic standings and interests. The union supports an “ed-option” formula – one that ensures schools will admit students from across the achievement spectrum. In our view, this would go a long way to reduce screening barriers at the hundreds of high schools that currently employ screening criteria. We would in fact advocate for the bold step – to put an end to high school screens – which tend to penalize students from poorer or immigrant families and to stratify students in schools based on test scores.

We would recommend the Chancellor mandate that fully serving an academically diverse population as a significant measure of a principal’s success. While the systemic disparities entrenched in our high school admissions cannot be laid at the feet of school leaders, this could go a long way to incentivize principals who have traditionally been rated largely on Regents passing rates and graduation metrics.

UFT opposes single measure admissions

The union is on record criticizing and challenging the validity of a single test as the sole criteria for high stakes decisions – such as entrance to early elementary gifted and talented programs or specialized high schools. The proponents of these standardized tests for entrance to competitive screened schools allege the tests are a reliable, objective measure that reinforce the schools’ success and set the standard for academic achievement; ultimately, it’s not broke, so no need to fix it. We respectfully and vehemently disagree. Our prior 2014 testimony citing the Education Policy Research Institute at Arizona State University’s report, “High Stakes, But Low Validity,” and the American Educational Research Association’s 2012 qualitative research, challenged the wisdom of a sole measure for admitting students in specialized high schools, plus revealed the most competitive educational institutions determine academic merit using formulas comprised of multiple academic measures, among which the most highly valued variable is exceptional talent.

The UFT believes admission to the specialized high schools must be changed to a system of multiple measures. This is not news. We urge the City Council to revisit our recommendations contained within our union task force’s 2014 report called “Redefining High Performance for Entrance Into Specialized High Schools — Making the Case for Change.” (4) That same standard, multiple indicators to assess a student’s academic standing, must be applied across the board – so a single test does not determine access to gifted and talented programs, middle schools or the specialized high schools. The UFT opposes creating additional specialized high schools where admission is based on a single test. The UFT supports admission programs based on multiple measures that capture a year of a student’s growth and ability.

There’s also a role, in our view, for expansion of gifted and talented programs at the upper end of early elementary, for instance third grade, as opposed to kindergarten. With the right resources and supports, students, late-bloomers and low-income ones in particular, after three years of schooling, could bridge the gap with more advantaged peers. Moreover, as the Making the Grade data revealed, there is greater diversity among programs for third graders.

In 2016, Montgomery County in Maryland assessed the participation of low-income students of color in its magnet elementary schools its version of gifted and talented and found it problematic. The county initiated some changes and by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year witnessed an appreciable impact. In just about two years, the acceptance rate for black and Hispanic students had nearly doubled. More than tweaking its approach to admissions and testing, it was a paradigm shift. “This year, for the first time, every third grader in the county some 12,000 students was automatically considered for admission, with 715 winning a spot. … The district now gives less weight to the Cognitive Abilities Test, a common assessment for admission to gifted programs, and more to class performance.” Additionally, the county reduced the weighting of teacher evaluations, which often have implicit bias and eliminated the ability for parents, most notably those of higher income, from submitting expensive outside assessments. (5)

Veteran English teacher Pian Wong-Rockfeld, who has taught for 12 of her 15 years at the High School for American Studies in the Bronx, one of the city’s eight specialized high schools, provides context for what a single multiple choice test misses in identifying talented writers and thinkers. “Who are the most qualified students who are the ones who will be most successful? Is it capturing all the ways in which a student can be academically strong? The single test doesn’t assess how hard a student works, or doesn’t assess creative or independent thinking that you would need to thrive at our schools. No, overall the test does not capture all the skills a student needs to be successful at our schools.” Even with changes to the tests, the scoring system remains the same resulting in an advantage to those who’ve benefited from test prep. Ultimately in the words of our member, “Just because it is objective, doesn’t mean that it’s fair.”

Unsung success stories

We do a disservice to our students and their parents when we reinforce the narrative that the eight specialized high schools are the only great high schools in the city and the only vehicle through which our graduates will go on to prestigious colleges and universities, securing coveted credentials. There are successful schools that are hidden jewels, where educators, students, and community work together to empower students academically and socially. Those schools, unfortunately, are left to their own devices to promote and support themselves in an environment which focuses too heavily on eight excellent academic high schools. 

Our scholars deserve more. Their parents expect more. Educators long to give more. We need to create more large comprehensive high school options for students, particularly in Queens, which lacks an appropriate number of high quality seats. This would truly energize the New York City high school landscape. 

Proposed City Council legislation related to segregation in New York City public schools

  • Intro. T2019-4276: A Local Law in relation to creating a specialized high school taskforce.
    Speaker Johnson, the union has no objection to the creation of this task force. Our highest governance body, the UFT Delegate Assembly, authorized a union specialized high school task force and in its most recent session, reaffirmed its work.
  • Intro. T2019-4277: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the City of New York, in relation to reporting on the demographics of school staff in New York City public schools
    Chairman Treyger, the UFT has long supported and advocated for a diverse teaching force, both in the interest of equity and because education research has consistently proven that African-American and Latino students who have had teachers of color as positive role models achieve greater educational progress. We support this proposed legislation to keep the DOE accountable in its efforts toward a school staff representative of the enrolled students.
  • Intro. T2019-4278: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the City of New York, in relation to expanding reports on demographic data in New York City public schools
    Council Members Lander and Torres, we support this legislation in principle, and await the details to determine how this best serves our city’s students.
  • Intro. T2019-4279: A Local Law in relation to creating district diversity working groups
    Council Members Rivera and Rosenthal, reiterating our advocacy for local community, parental and educator voice, we support this legislation that would facilitate grass roots solutions to addressing our segregated schools.
  • Intro. T2019-4281: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the City of New York, in relation to the establishment of a school diversity advisory group
    Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Council Members Torres, et al, as a participant in the School Diversity Advisory Group, we fully support codifying this work in the administrative code.
  • Proposed Res 417-A: Resolution calling upon the New York City Department of Education to create more district gifted and talented programs and classes, including intermediate school programs, and create pathways for admission that ensure equitable access for students throughout the city
    Council Members Holden, Cornegy, et al, we fully support expanding access and creating greater equity for more students underrepresented in gifted and talented programs across the city.
  • Proposed Res 196-A: Resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign A.10427A/S.8503A to change the admissions criteria for New York City's Specialized High Schools
    Council Member Barron, the union worked with the New York State Legislature on the proposed legislation over the past three years and we support this resolution.
  • Intro. No 949-A: A Local Law to amend the New York City charter and the administrative code of the City of New York, in relation to creating a school diversity monitor within the human rights commission
    Council Members Torres, Moya, Rose, et al, we routinely advocate funding for staff centered on direct services to students. Even though this school diversity monitor is housed under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission, we would prefer to support an initiative that did not bolster administrative staff.
  • Pre-considered Res T2019-4317: Resolution calling on the New York City Department of Education to ensure the methodology for developing and scoring the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and the methodology for any future process implemented for specialized high school admissions, be transparent and accessible to the general public.
    Chair Treyger, the union has no objection to furthering transparency. Our union’s specialized high school task force advocated for an evidence-based methodology that would be deemed valid for the work entering students would be expected to know and manage successfully.

Closing thoughts

The UFT is committed to broadening the definition of academic success and creating rich high school and middle school experiences for all students in all communities. We commend the work done by individual community school districts and the spotlight Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza have given this issue. The political discussion surrounding the eight specialized high schools, while needed, obscures the larger issue of rampant academic segregation in more than 20 percent of the city’s current 420 high schools. To be clear, the UFT does not support the creation of more specialized high schools, as a remedy to these serious concerns.

End Notes

  1. Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students, School Diversity Advisory Group
  2. “Academic segregation hurts public schools,” Janella Hinds, UFT vice president, The Chief, March 19, 2019, Op-Ed
  3. “Some High-Performing New York City Middle Schools Make Diversity Gains,” Wall St. Journal, April 14, 2019
  4. Redefining High Performance for Entrance Into Specialized High Schools — Making the Case for Change, Policy recommendations by the United Federation of Teachers Specialized High School Task Force, March 2014
  5. "Rethinking What Gifted Education Means, and Whom It Should Serve," New York Times, September 13, 2018
Related Topics: Income Inequality