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Bill de Blasio is wrong about New York City’s schools

The mayor and presidential candidate is papering over an inconvenient truth

Mayor Bill de Blasio is missing the point, Winston writes. Instead of trying to close the diversity gap in New York City’s elite public schools, he should be focused on upping standards across the board. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Mayor Bill de Blasio is missing the point, Winston writes. Instead of trying to close the diversity gap in New York City’s elite public schools, he should be focused on upping standards across the board. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — There are numbers that matter. I look at them everyday. They tell me what people think and what they want from their political leaders, what they want for themselves and their families and the future.

And then there are some numbers that stop you cold.

In the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the “nation’s report card” on how fourth- and eighth-graders are doing in math and reading, among other subjects, only 28 percent of students in New York City were rated as proficient in each. But there are numbers that are even more shocking. Only 13 percent of the city’s eighth-graders meet the proficiency standard when it comes to science.

Thirteen percent. That’s a disgrace.

Yet what has been the focus of media coverage of New York’s schools over the past year? Not the dismal state of public schools. No, it’s been all about who and how many students of color get into the city’s elite public high schools rather than why so many don’t or won’t.

The question of New York’s growing inability to produce students prepared to compete doesn’t grab headlines. The truth is that without political conflict or celebrity bribes, the media generally isn’t interested in most education issues. But the “Elite 8” schools controversy has both — plenty of conflict with class and racial overtones.

For those not following this issue or raised in New York City as I was, here’s the guts of the debate. New York City is home to eight specialized public high schools, from Stuyvesant to Bronx High School to Brooklyn Latin. To gain admission to these elite schools, eighth-grade students take a competitive test called the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and that’s where the admissions battle between the city and the state began and continues today. Both want more diversity in the specialized schools but can’t agree on how to make it happen.

Although African American and Latino students make up nearly 70 percent of New York’s public school population, they represent only 10 percent of the population of these elite schools. At Stuyvesant, my alma mater, among those admitted for fall 2019, only seven out of 895 students are African American. At Bronx HS, it’s 12 out of 803. At Brooklyn Tech, it’s 95 out of 1825. Clearly, something is wrong.

It’s no wonder there have been calls for changes to the admissions system, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio and others who have proposed “reforms” that would certainly up the number of minority students in these schools. They have suggested abandoning the SHSAT and using class rankings to select students. They’ve proposed employing set asides for low-income students who do better on the test but just fail to make the admissions cut. Expanding an existing program, the city would provide extra resources for these students to prepare them for a tougher curriculum and target high-poverty schools.

Whether you agree or disagree with the mayor’s prescriptions, there certainly would be students who will gain access to these schools that would not otherwise be admitted. But increasing diversity will come at a cost to other students, particularly students of Asian ethnicity, who qualify for admission but will lose their opportunity to benefit from these schools because of what amounts to a zero-sum policy initiative.

Yes, more children from low-performing schools will get a chance to attend the best schools, but not because their academic performance has gotten better — because politicians decided this is a better societal outcome.

But to argue whether de Blasio’s solutions are right or fair or will even work misses the truly critical point that this political debate exposes about New York City’s school system. This is an educational system that appears incapable of producing minority students who can gain admission to these specialized schools through the current merit-based testing process, and nobody seems to be asking why.

Instead, de Blasio’s solution is to simply change the rules, to minimally up the number of minority students in the eight elite schools, declare a victory for diversity and equality, and go back to running for president. Problem solved.

But the real problem is the 93 percent of students who will be left behind in bad public schools, most destined to get a second or maybe even third-rate education. This terrible reality doesn’t seem nearly as important to de Blasio and his progressive compatriots as the ability to claim major progress in creating a more diverse Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech.

In time, these students will, sadly, face the real-world consequences of their education — poor reading and math skills that will leave them wholly underprepared for the future. The teachers’ unions usually blame bad student performance on poverty, arguing that teaching low-income children is difficult if not impossible given the circumstances of their home life. That’s an excuse that simply doesn’t fly anymore.

Nationally, slightly more than half of all students today qualify for government-subsidized school lunches based on parental income. If teachers are saying that a student’s economic situation is more determinative than their teacher’s talent and commitment, we’ve got even bigger problems.

No one is satisfied with the racial disparities we see in New York’s eight elite schools, and increasing minority admissions will help a small number of students. But what about the outcome disparities that face tens of thousands of New York’s children every year? Over the decades, generations have come and gone through these schools, graduating without the skills they need to succeed, and they don’t. Shouldn’t breaking that cycle be a bigger priority for New York’s political leaders?

I have done many educational projects in a wide range of low-income school districts and spent many hours talking with parents of children trapped in nonperforming schools. I listened to them share their hopes for their children and frustrations with their schools — a common denominator in places as disparate as San Diego and Memphis and Houston.

One African American mother told me there was nothing more crushing for her than the day her child came home with stories from school and she realized that the teacher did not expect her child to perform well and would simply move the child along. I’ve heard the frustration in the voices of many African American and Latino parents talking about their children’s education because they know low expectations are keeping them behind.

Almost any student can attain their full potential if challenged to do so, but just changing the rules for a few isn’t the answer. Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time-Warner, is a major backer of the Education Equity Campaign, a pro-SHSAT advocacy group. In a recent New York Times interview, he called increased diversity in New York’s specialized schools an “imperative” but said, “The battle cannot be won simply by lowering standards.”

Parsons said that he was supporting the effort because he believes “we must do the hard work of improving our public education system so that all children have the opportunity to realize their full academic potential.” Or as former President George W. Bush put it about the nation’s educational challenges, “We must not tolerate a system that gives up on people.”

New York City’s schools desperately need change that reflects that kind of thinking, not de Blasio’s politically correct “solutions” that will do little more than paper over an inconvenient truth: lowering standards won’t fix low expectations or help students succeed.

The Big Apple should leave no school behind.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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