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The Beginning of the End for NYC's Specialized Public High Schools

I don't usually write on matters of local politics, but this particular matter has gotten me so incensed that I felt an obligation to say something public about it.

I will put my biases upfront so that there is no question as to my knowledge of the NYC public schools, as I, myself, was a product of the largest public school system in the United States, serving over 1.1 million students. I am an alumnus of John Dewey High School, which was, in its time, one of the finest high schools in the system, offering a highly individualized curriculum within which students could pursue their academic passions guided by teachers of the highest caliber.

I should also mention that my sister, Elizabeth A. Sciabarra, has been a lifelong and gifted educator within the system, and has fought for years to provide quality education to the thousands of children whose lives she has touched. She was a teacher of English and an Assistant Principal at Brooklyn Technical High School, a principal at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, the Deputy Superintendent of Brooklyn and Staten Island High Schools, and then the Superintendent of Selective Schools. Under Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she became the founder and CEO of the Office of Student Enrollment in 2003, a job that she held until her retirement from the system in 2010. She helped to augment educational choice in the public schools (which now includes a promising movement toward enterprising Charter Schools). Elizabeth is currently the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

Anything that I say in this blog entry is a reflection of my own views and I take full responsibility for them; in no way should they be interpreted as being an echo of my sister's views, whatever they might be.

Suffice it to say, I have always taken a radically libertarian stance on the state of public education in this country (something that is being addressed by such organizations as the Reason, Freedom, Individualism Institute, of which I am an advisory board member). But I've always been one to think dialectically; we live in a context in which public education is the primary vehicle for the education of children in the United States. Given this reality, it is all the more encouraging when one finds that there are certain institutions of learning within the current system that should be nurtured. It is in the interests of gifted and talented students to be nourished as potential candidates for entrance into these schools.

For years, students gained entry into the specialized high schools of New York City via a single admissions test (known as the SHSAT or "Specialized High School Admissions Test"). In 1971, the Hecht-Calandra Act institutionalized this test as the sole determinant for entrance into these schools, via ranking.

Now, I've never been a fan of specialized tests; my own test scores on such tests have varied immensely. I once considered going into a joint degree program in History and Law, which required me to take the LSAT, which lasted eight hours, and was more of an endurance test than a test of my intelligence. The following weekend, I took the three-hour GRE, a kind of graduate-level SAT. I had applied to the joint degree programs at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and New York University, which would have led to a J.D. and a Ph.D. in history. As it turned out, my scores on the LSAT weren't high enough to be accepted to any of the law schools of those universities, but my GRE test results were so high that I was accepted to the graduate schools of those universities. In the end, I did not go into a joint degree program, and decided to pursue my interests in political philosophy, theory, and methodology with a graduate and doctoral program at New York University, from which I had received my B.A. in economics, politics, and history (with honors). Those GRE test results ultimately enabled me to get my degrees in higher learning virtually free of charge, since I was rewarded full scholarships to pay for my education. Given the cost of education in this country, I figure that I received three college and graduate level degrees that, in today's dollars, would be over $400,000 in tuition and fees. I did receive, as an undergraduate, one $450.00 National Direct Student Loan, which I paid back on the day I got my BA. Otherwise, my education was fully funded and paid for by New York University, which explains why I bleed "violet," as they say.

And to make matters clearer, I graduated with a Grade Point Average of 3.85 overall as an undergraduate (with a 3.9+ in each of my majors, except economics, which was 3.7+), and a 3.84 GPA overall as a graduate and doctoral student. So, I don't believe that specialized tests are necessary indicators of how well one will do in the larger scheme of things.

But standards there must be, and for state law to require the taking of a specialized admissions test in which students are ranked according to their scores and placed in various specialized high schools, based on the ways in which students prioritize their schools and the number of seats available at such schools, seems an eminently reasonable way to proceed.

Well, not according to the Diversity Police. A new bill, Bill No. A10427, is being introduced by New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron that spells the beginning of the end of the last remaining gems in the New York City Public School System, among them: Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Technical High School and the Bronx High School of Science. These high quality educational institutions have among their gifted and talented alumni an array of Nobel laureates in biology, chemistry, physiology and medicine, physics, and economics, Pulitzer Prize winners, Academy Award winners, and an almost countless number of accomplished leaders in politics, law, business, science, technology, athletics (including Olympic gold medalists), music and the arts.

To attack the admissions test as the basis by which students gain entrance into these schools is a misplaced priority. If certain students are not scoring high enough in their rankings, the blame should be placed on their pre-high school educations, which are not preparing them well enough to have the opportunity to enter these institutions. The priority should be on improving the quality of pre-high school education, not on eliminating the one 'objective' standard by which students gain entrance into the system's preeminent high schools.

Those who are most concerned about the relative decrease in the number of African American students in the specialized high schools ought to consider one statistic. Back in the 1980s, to take a single example, Brooklyn Technical High School had a student population that was approximately 46% African American. These gifted and talented students all ranked high enough to get into one of the great specialized high schools. And back then, there were only three specialized high schools (the ones mentioned above) that based their entrance requirements on the test. So, if anything, that statistic shows that African American students were doing well enough in an environment that was even more competitive, since there were fewer schools and fewer seats to fill.

What happened? We can argue all day and all night over the reasons for the changing student demographics in the specialized high schools, but clearly something has happened to the quality of pre-high school education that must be addressed. For Mayor de Blasio and his new chancellor, Richard Carranza, to advocate the abolition of the test for entrance into NYC specialized high schools is hypocritical at best. As Chalkbeat, an online education publication put it, "[a]fter a long wait," De Blasio, who has always advocated for more "equity" in school placement, is now looking to scrap the test entirely.

How convenient. I wonder if the mayor waited to launch his long-promised attack on the specialized high schools until his son Dante had graduated from Brooklyn Tech. The mayor is married to an African American woman, Chirlane McCray, and Dante was not admitted to the school based on either his race or ethnicity or his relationship to the man who would become Mayor of New York City. Dante de Blasio got in because he scored and ranked high enough on the SHSAT to earn admission into Tech. He had an outstanding record as a student of one of the city's most prestigious schools. He and one of his Tech classmates captured the state high school debate championship in March 2015, and he is now a student of Yale University.

So, with one of his own children having benefited from the high quality education offered by one of the city's "elite" high schools, our "progressive" mayor can now attack the institutions that certainly nourished his own son's academic excellence. What the mayor now proposes is to begin the process of eroding the key entrance requirement for the specialized high schools, the first step toward destroying the high quality that they offer to students who qualify. He should concentrate his energies on raising the standards of the public school system in toto---particularly education in New York City's elementary and middle schools---rather than attacking its gems at the high school level. Achievement is not a matter of quantity or quotas, but of quality and enrichment.

The fact that this amended bill was introduced last night, right before an early June weekend, preceding a Sunday press conference by the Mayor and the Chancellor, gives us an indication of the kinds of strategies that are being used by the opponents of quality education.

These politicians need to be put on notice: We do not raise the quality of education by attacking standards; we raise standards to generate and nourish quality.

Postscript (4 June 2018): On Facebook, I expanded on my Notablog post. Here is what I had to say:

DeBlasio and his new chancellor were sloganeering yesterday at their press conference, saying "It's the system, not the student."
Well, they got that much right. It is the system, not the student. It is a system that has to be fixed from the root up. And the root begins in the elementary and middle schools. These schools are failing the kids---whether it is due to destructive pedagogical techniques that undermine the development of young minds, or to the horrific social conditions within which certain schools are situated, making them incapable of delivering a quality education, or any number of other factors. Resources need to be shifted toward the elementary and middle schools to prepare children for the kind of quality education that is offered by the specialized high schools in New York City. You can't hope to fix the system at the level of the high schools, when the damage has already been done at the pre-high school level.
And you can't raise the quality of education, by eliminating quality standards altogether. If you don't have a single test that might provide for at least one objective measure for a ranking of students, then what you will see is the liquidation of all standards, and the substitution of a host of "subjective" factors---including, by the way, favored treatment of particular schools by the politically powerful who will ask the administrators of these schools to give entrance to this student or that student, if they want to retain their "specialized" status. Don't kid yourselves: This has been attempted in the past, but the practice has been thwarted fundamentally because there is a legalized process that was put into place to guide entrance into the specialized high school curriculum.
Now with regard to specialized tests: One point I made in my Notablog entry was that clearly a single test does not always predict the level of achievement for any particular student, and I used myself as an example. So, if the NYC Department of Education wants to compel the specialized high schools to look at a broader range of criteria by which to measure entrance into these schools, that's one thing. It is something entirely different to seek the total elimination of the specialized high school exam.
But then another factor will have to be addressed: Many of these specialized high schools have benefited from donations from their most prestigious graduates---those who have achieved greatness in their careers and who seek to "give back" to the specific schools that nurtured them. If the politically powerful seek to destroy specialized education, I suspect that private donations to these schools that have nurtured the gifted and talented will eventually dry up. Because of limited state and local funding of education, the effects of the proposed policy changes could be catastrophic for specialized education.
In the end, it is typical of political "solutions" to pit class and ethnic groups against one another. We are hearing a lot about whites versus African Americans and Latinos. Interestingly, however, the "solution" being offered by this administration will ultimately disadvantage Asian students, who come from "minority" immigrant groups in New York City and who make up by far the greatest proportion of students in these specialized high schools at this time. So this politically charged issue is indeed full of potholes, and it will only exacerbate ethnic and racial division.
Finally, let's talk a bit about one specialized high school that does not base its admissions policies on the specialized test rankings: LaGuardia High School, which owes its origins to an integration of the High School of Music and Art and the High School of the Performing Arts. Children are admitted into this school based on their auditions and portfolios, taking into account academic and attendance records as well.
Nobody has suggested---at least not yet---that students must be admitted by not auditioning at all. Or that students must be admitted even if they have shown absolutely no experience or accomplishment in the areas of music (whether instrumental or vocal), art (whether the fine arts or the technical arts), drama, dance, or theater. These are as essential to a good education as any of the other subjects students are compelled to take in their pre-high school years. Music and art were requirements when I went to elementary and middle schools here in NYC, back in the stone age. It was one way of helping to discover and nourish the artistically talented among an amazingly diverse student population.
By the time De Blasio and his cronies are finished, the first casualties will be the children---whose talents are stunted by a system that is incapable of raising them up, because it is so busy crushing their dreams.