The Racial-Justice War On Merit-Based Schools: It’s an Injustice Against Excellence, Critics Say

Submitted by Vince Bielski, of Real Clear Investigations

At a virtual town hall in Brooklyn about how the pandemic will change admissions to high-performing selective schools, New York City officials got a lecture on systemic racism.

“Racism is foundational in all of our institutions, in our government, our economy, our health-care system, our legal system and our education system,” Ayanna Behin, president of a school district council, said at the June meeting.

“It’s our recommendation that we prioritize the end of racial segregation in our schools.” 

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology: Pushing through changes to competitive admissions

Behin’s comments reflect a racially charged debate in New York City and across the country invoking Jim Crow-era language to describe an education flashpoint more recent than old-fashioned enforced segregation. The conflict — influenced by critical race theory, the idea that racism is embedded in the structures of society — is over disparate racial and ethnic admissions, which critics deem so pernicious that seemingly neutral yardsticks like grades and test scores are actually reinforcing them. These critics aim to integrate coveted, elite schools by removing the performance barriers that many white and Asian parents defend as fair and objective measures of achievement. 

In one of the recent conflicts, the school superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., is pushing through changes to the competitive admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the nation’s top-ranked high school, over protests from Asian parents who say their kids are being penalized for working hard. At Lowell High School in San Francisco, a plan to drop merit-based admissions for next year because of the pandemic created an uproar at a virtual school board meeting in October from parents who want to protect its reputation for rigor. 

In New York City, advocates, backed by hundreds of staffers in the Department of Education, are demanding more sweeping changes in the nation’s largest school district. They are calling for the end to admissions screening for almost 200 selective middle schools, or more than a third of the total. And a mayoral advisory panel has also urged the city to rid elementary schools of gifted and talented programs and erase the “gifted and talented” wording from the system because it’s not in keeping with the spirit of integration. 

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio: Pushing sweeping changes in the nation’s largest school district.

“I strongly support the elimination of middle-school screens citywide,” says Miriam Nunberg, a civil rights attorney and leader in the movement to desegregate schools. “I found the admissions process we have in our districts to be so discriminatory.” 

In this polarizing battle, parents who support screening for accelerated education are tarred as racists on social media. The idea that all students benefit by vying for admissions to top schools because it nurtures a drive for academic excellence is dismissed as a tool of segregation. Even moderate proposals to expand gifted and talented programs and make them more diverse face strong opposition. 

“Our culture and economy thrive on excellence. When I think of New York, I think of artistic and intellectual excellence,” says Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on making accelerated education more accessible to disadvantaged students.

“And now, particularly in urban districts we are seeing a backlash, where the ideology is turning against excellence. We are institutionalizing anti-intellectualism, and that has long-term implications for us.”

Critical race theory provides the underpinnings for the backlash against selective schools. According to the theory, first developed by legal scholars, curriculums, teaching methods, assessments and much else are designed to reinforce dominant white culture, mute the voices that challenge this supremacy and cast black students as deficient, according to a paper in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.  To help these students, teachers need to enlighten them about the harmful effects of racism and prod them to succeed “as a form of counterinsurgency.” In New York City, critical race theory is leaving a mark in the rollout of a new culturally responsive curriculum

While the term segregation harkens back to a time when kids were forced to go to separate schools, today the highly fraught word is used to describe a statistical reality in many districts around the country. 

With 1.1 million students, New York City has one of the most segregated systems in the country, a result of entrenched housing patterns and the proliferation of selective schools. Today blacks and Latinos make up about two-thirds of public school students. But in more than half of city schools, they comprise over 80% of the students and sometimes beyond 90%. 

In this system, achievement gaps have remained remarkably wide. In 2019, only about a third of black and Latino students reached proficiency on math and English state tests for grades 3 through 8. That compares with roughly two-thirds for white and Asian kids. But the question of how to improve academic achievement for blacks and Latinos defies easy answers. 

Advocates say greater diversity is the remedy. They are pushing the city to replace test, grade and attendance-based admissions with a system designed to mix students of all backgrounds and academic abilities together. In such integrated schools, low achievers rise partly because of the influence of high achievers, who don’t regress academically, says Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who researches education policy. What’s more, students from different racial and ethnic groups build bonds at a time when America’s social fabric is fraying. 

Parents fighting to keep selective schools in New York City reject the everybody-wins narrative as naive. Yiatin Chu, co-founder of Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE), says students of all groups have a wide range of abilities and lumping them together in classrooms makes it impossible for teachers to challenge all of them at once. A 2013 study, published in Gifted Child Quarterly, of five diverse elementary schools in several states found reading levels in classrooms ranging from about two years below grade level to about six years above it.

“I see a huge disparity in terms of abilities, and is it reasonable to expect our teachers in big classrooms to differentiate the teaching to really meet the needs of all students in that class?” says Chu, who has a child in public school.

“The truth is no, they cannot.”

PLACE is fighting an uphill battle against the education department. New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has called screened schools “antithetical” to public education and has talked in vague terms about changing gifted-and-talented programs. Last year, as PLACE was advocating to keep admissions screens, the department reached out to integration groups, telling them to “make more noise.”

While advocates say academic research overwhelmingly shows the benefits of integrated schools, there is in fact significant disagreement among scholars. Their findings vary widely largely because of the difficulty of isolating the effects of peers and schools on performance from other powerful influences like family and its socioeconomic status, says Eric Hanushek of Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

David Armor of George Mason University carefully controlled for students’ backgrounds in a robust 2018 study. He found that the socioeconomic composition of schools had a negligible impact on results in math and reading tests in grades 3 through 8 across three states and over multiple years.

Even scholars who support policies to make schools more diverse do not stress short-term performance benefits. Gary Orfield at UCLA says 50 years of research has produced a preponderance of evidence of a small gain in test scores. The bigger benefits come as poor kids of color learn personal skills and make connections with successful students and college counselors in integrated schools, boosting their chances of getting into universities and finding good jobs.

“If you’re in a school that’s connected to information about colleges and jobs, you’re much better off,” says Orfield, who co-directs UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, an advocacy group.

“People in our society get jobs through contacts.”

For his part, Armor says he opposes mandatory desegregation because it causes middle-class flight, making segregation worse. He points to Jefferson County, Ky., where the number of white students plunged from 89,000 the year after a mandatory integration plan was rolled out in 1975 to 48,000 four decades later, creating a district where the majority of students are black and Latino.

“New York City would be making a very big mistake by getting rid of its selective schools,” Armor says.

“It will probably lose another chunk of its middle-class population. If they would just look at the data.” 

Admissions Based on Economic Status

If the city does stop screening for middle school admissions, it could follow other districts around the county that have assigned students to schools based on their economic status to spread out poor kids more equally and reduce segregation. The number of school districts and charter networks pursuing a form of economic integration has grown from just two in 1996 to more than 100 today, according to research by The Century Foundation. The most common approaches to integration, such as redrawing district boundaries, have mostly kept students closer to home and reduced the need for the kind of busing that ignited protests several decades ago.

Foundation Fellow Stefan Lallinger says the current outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter is adding to the momentum for school integration.

“We can’t tackle racial injustice without addressing the fact that our public schools are very segregated along lines of race and class,” says Lallinger, a Ph.D. from Harvard.

“I absolutely anticipate that more districts and organizations across this county will be committed to this issue.” 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a pledge to reduce inequity, waited several years before tackling the contentious issue. The mayor’s efforts to end the use of a single test for admission into the city’s elite specialized high schools, including Brooklyn Tech where his son attended, were stymied by state officials amid a flurry of protests from parents.

Last year, the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group took aim at somewhat easier targets — selective middle schools and gifted and talented programs that cater to “economic privilege.” The group’s report said families with the means to prep their young kids – including many relatively poor Asians who scrimp and save to pay for test classes — give them an advantage over black and Latino students. Together they received only 18% of the offers to join elementary gifted-and-talented programs in 2017. 

Brooklyn’s District 15, a politically progressive area that integrated its middle schools in 2019, is touted as a model for the rest of the city. Nunberg, the civil rights attorney, joined a working group of parents, educators and community organization members that led a series of public workshops to build support for the plan.

Students from low-income families made up about 52% of the entire district but were heavily clustered together, constituting almost 100% of students in two schools in a Latino neighborhood. At the three top-performing selective middle schools, poor kids made up less than a third while white students were more than 50% of enrollment.

To integrate the schools, screening was ended. Students entering the sixth grade ranked their school choices and entered a lottery. Seats were prioritized for low-income kids to distribute them out more equally at the 11 middle schools. High performers could no longer expect to get into a top schools, but only a small number of parents pulled their kids from the district. 

The plan led to a big drop in segregation. But the district’s political bent was a key to its success and finding support for similar shifts in school demographics will be harder in the city’s more moderate and conservative districts. 

The Montgomery County school system in Maryland touts its “equity journey” on its website. New York City could follow its lead in widening its outreach for low-income “gifted and talented” students.

The big question is whether the performance of the disadvantaged students in the Brooklyn district will improve. Potter of The Century Foundation points to several cities including Cambridge, Mass., where integration improved academic outcomes. Other areas, like Jefferson County, have struggled to close the achievement gap.

The disruption from the pandemic, particularly on low-income students, would complicate any attempt to measure short-term academic effects in the Brooklyn district. But the long-term impact may never be known either. The diversity plan didn’t include a method to evaluate whether it will improve academic performance over time.

“That’s educational malpractice,” says Plucker of Johns Hopkins.

“If you are going to do this, you have to have systems in place to study the effects on achievement.”

Asian parents in New York City mobilized last year to protect the selective education that’s been a gateway to the middle class. PLACE, which now has 2,000 supporters of all backgrounds, and Plucker seek to change the debate that pits equity against excellence.

“We can have a system that provides equitable opportunities for students and also promotes excellence,” Plucker says.

For instance, instead of snuffing out accelerated education, Chu says, the city should expand it to achieve its laudable diversity goals. Today, less than 15% of the city’s more than 700 elementary schools have gifted-and-talented programs. By spreading them to all elementary school, more kids from every community will get seats, setting them on a path to selective middle schools. The single-test G&T admissions process also has to change to allow more ways for all students to be selected.

“Parents want these programs to challenge their kids,” says Chu, an immigrant who attended an elite specialized high school in New York City.

“Why are we not creating more of them?”

New York could follow the lead of Montgomery County in Maryland. It used to depend on parents to apply for elementary gifted-and-talented spots, which filled a handful of magnet programs with about 750 mostly Asian and white kids. Once educators began universal screening of all students, they found thousands of kids, many of them black and Latino, who would benefit from accelerated education and won seats through an assessment of report cards and tests. Since the 2016-17 school year, the program has spread to four additional magnets and more than 40 elementary schools with classes serving over 4,000 kids, says Kurshanna Dean, supervisor of accelerated and enriched instruction.

“My advice to New York is to expand your programs, not remove them,” Dean says.

The pandemic has now brought the controversy to a head. The cancellation of state tests and modification of grading means that selective middle schools don’t have the data for fourth graders that they typically use to determine admission. Less reliable measures of future performance, such as third grade test scores, are available.

The department is now devising a new admissions policy for the next school year, Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said at the Brooklyn town hall. He made clear that the disproportionate effects of the pandemic would guide the department’s decision, which is expected to be announced soon.

“Black and Latinx New Yorkers have gotten sick and died at greater rates than others,” Wallack said. “These forms of discrimination have deep historical roots and we must reckon with them as we make policy.”

Advocates see a win for integration in the making. If the department ends middle school screening for next year, that’s a big step toward a permanent ban.

“The city should absolutely end middle school screening for this coming year,” says Lallinger, who recently served as a special assistant to Chancellor Carranza. “And going forward it presents a wonderful opportunity to rethink the way certain schools get to select which students they serve.”