Reform elite high schools, but the real equity fight is much broader

Written By Pedro Noguera

At long last, the big policy issues related to race, educational equity and access in New York’s public schools are finally on the front burner. However, despite the attention, many of the most important issues remain obscured.

Mayor de Blasio’s decision to revise the admission criteria used by New York’s top ranked exam schools has expectedly generated considerable controversy. However, the current debate overlooks the fact that there is simply a dearth of rigorous schools for high achieving students in the City.  With 1.1 million school children in the system, reserving eight schools for the highest achieving students is simply inadequate and blatantly unfair.

Most children in New York City attend schools characterized by an extreme degree of race/class segregation (de-facto, not de-jure).  Were these schools separate but equal the status quo might be acceptable, but for the most part they are not. Many of the children, particularly those who reside in the poorest neighborhoods, are resigned to attend weak and under-performing schools.  Mayor de Blasio’s new admission policy does not address this problem, even though it is directly related to the question of who has access to the city’s premier exam schools.

While Mayor de Blasio’s admissions proposal has merit, it does not address the shortage of good schools in poor neighborhoods.  While broadening the admissions criteria to make it easier for low-income children of color to gain access is important to ensure greater racial diversity at the exam schools, it doesn’t do anything to address the larger problem: the need for greater number of high quality, rigorous schools.

For those who oppose the mayor’s proposal it should be noted that no reputable college in the US today admits students on the basis of their score on a single test. Since the high school admissions process in New York City under controlled choice is already as complex and difficult to navigate for many students as the college admission process, it makes sense to broaden the criteria for admission to the exam schools in a manner that is similar to the one utilized by most colleges.  This means looking at middle school grades, written work, teacher recommendations, etc., when making admissions decisions.

Given the structural inequities in New York, the mayor is right to call for a broadening of the admissions criteria used by the exam schools, but he and the Chancellor must go further because it is not a long-term solution to the larger equity problem.  Test prep programs and even the new admissions criteria cannot compensate for the disadvantage of enrolling in weak neighborhood schools. Ultimately, we will only begin to truly level the playing field in education if we can ensure that all students have access to high quality education.