The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

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JUL-AUG 2014 Issue
Field Notes

EDUCATION REFORM Beneath the Surface
Part III: Paving the Roads to Inequality

I ended my last article in this series with the following observation:

After all the talk and effort, it increasingly appears that the reforms launched by the Department of Education during the Bloomberg regency have not yielded consistent gains. Higher test scores were often enough found to be based on student performance on predictable tests with cut points set far below what had been expected (if not on outright cheating); high school graduation rates have increased but the majority of graduates are still not deemed ready for college. But, perhaps worse still, as we’ll see in the next part, educational inequality may have been “baked into” the routine operations of the school system even more thoroughly than was the case before the era of reform.

The paths to educational success and failure are set early in the lives of most children in the city’s public schools, in their neighborhood elementary schools. Early differences matter a great deal. In a report released in late 2013, it was revealed that:

Only 2.7 percent of students who failed to meet the third-grade English Language Arts (E.L.A.) standard went on to meet or exceed the E.L.A. benchmark in eighth grade, and only one in three of the students who failed to meet the third-grade E.L.A. standard graduated from high school. Conversely, 91.3 percent of students who exceeded the E.L.A. standard in third grade would meet or exceed the standard in eighth grade, and almost 90 percent of these students graduated within four years.

The fault lines followed the race/ethnicity ones:

The average white third grader scored at the 75th percentile on the E.L.A., while black and Hispanic third graders performed at roughly the 40th percentile. Rather than narrowing over time, these early inequalities grew somewhat larger by eighth grade.1

But inequalities are not accidents.
In most neighborhoods of the city, the success or failure of schools, and of children, is all but completely determined by the race and class characteristics of the neighborhood or, more precisely, the race and class characteristics of the students enrolled in the schools. Why that is so is an important question. Why is school success or failure determined by what might be considered external realities? A group of researchers in Chicago offered a very convincing set of answers to a different question—why are schools successful, when they are, in spite of external realities?2 They argued, on the basis of 20 years of empirical data, that schools succeed when they are organized for success and they fail when they are not so organized—even if the disorganized schools introduce all sorts of things that are intended to improve matters, such as smaller class sizes, arts programs, extra tutoring, counseling, after-school programs, and so forth. The researchers were quite explicit about the elements of a school organized for success; they called them the “five essentials”:

. Effective Leaders: The principal works with teachers to implement a clear and strategic  vision for school success.

. Collaborative Teachers: The staff is committed to the school, receives strong  professional development, and works together to improve the school.

. Involved Families: The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and  communities to support learning.

. Supportive Environment: The school is safe and orderly. Teachers have high  expectations for students. Students are supported by their teachers and peers.

. Ambitious Instruction: Classes are academically demanding and engage students by  emphasizing the application of knowledge.

Several other findings of the researchers are worth noting. First, all five essentials are actually essential—schools cannot pick and choose. Second, all of the essential elements are within the realm of what schools can actually do. Third, there are a small number of schools that have so many students with overwhelming life difficulties that even well-organized schools will most likely not be successful.3

So we need to ask and answer a different question: Why are some schools organized for success and many more effectively organized for failure?  At this point, looking beyond the schoolhouse door is helpful. There are communities scattered around the city populated mostly, but not entirely, by relatively prosperous families and they are able, quite successfully, to demand schools that are organized for success because they possess options that the elites of the city are acutely aware of—they can decide to leave the city for suburbs with successful schools (in places like Great Neck, Scarsdale, and Montclair) or they can send their children to private schools. Often enough, they may not actually realize that the schools they want their children to go to are organized for success; they simply recognize them as good schools, most often identified as schools that have high test scores or schools that send many graduates to selective middle and high schools. Very importantly, they intend no harm to the children of other families who do not possess their financial or informational resources. Indeed, they are, in general, very much in favor of good public schools for all. The city government is faced with a difficult challenge—how to provide these crucial citizens with the schools they want for their children and satisfy their civic yearning to do well by all children. School choice was the political, as much as a policy, response.

Let’s take a look at how choice works at a few different levels. In most of the city, elementary schools have attendance zones but parents have choices across and beyond the zone that they live in. P.S. 321 in Park Slope is one of the most successful and desirable elementary schools in the city. The school’s attendance zone is predominantly white and well-off. In the 2011 – 12 school year, almost three quarters of the students enrolled in this school were white. Less than 10 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. P.S. 282 is located a short distance away. Its zone is also predominantly white and well-off. In 2011 – 12, however, only 8 percent of P.S. 282’s student population was white. About 55 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The relatively affluent whites in the area clearly perceive P.S. 282 as a not very successful school; less is known about what the families of the children who do go to the school think about its quality. Some might argue that P.S. 282’s Progress Report Grade of C signals its lack of success and that all parents have been forewarned about the school’s limits—but that should apply to all parents, not just the affluent white ones.

The fact of the matter is that different groups of parents organized, more or less consciously, into what might be considered social cliques think and act differently when it comes to decisions about where their little kids go to school. For some, safety is an over-riding concern, and not an unreasonable one in communities plagued by violence. For others, orderliness in the school is terribly important. For others still, outstanding academic achievement is the primary concern. And for yet others, the cultivation of children’s creativity is by far the most important.4 Who’s right? Perhaps we might acknowledge that all are right and that all parents deserve the opportunity to send their children to schools that will satisfy all of those concerns. And, truth be known, the best schools in the city do pretty well on all those measures. But there are precious few of those best schools.

The choice and admissions processes are somewhat different at the middle school and high school level, but they largely reinforce the patterns set early on. In a 2011 New York Times column, Michael Winerip reported that children graduating from the fifth grade of P.S. 24 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn seldom gained admission to District 15’s most successful middle schools. Of 110 graduates, only five were admitted to M.S. 51, perhaps the district’s most high achieving school, while 36 were admitted to I.S. 136, a nearby, consistently low-performing school.

Perhaps the single worst example of such inequities is the profile of students admitted to the city’s exam high schools. Black and Hispanic students combined comprise about 70 percent of the total population in the city’s public schools. But at Stuyvesant High School, one of eight schools that admit students on the basis of a special exam taken in 8th grade, only 2 percent of the incoming ninth graders last year were black and only 3.5 percent were Hispanic. The percentages at the other seven exam schools are a bit better but still dreadful. In spite of significant exposure of the situation going back more than 15 years, nothing effective has been done to change the situation and even modest proposals have been dismissed.

But the times might be changing. In 2012, the N.A.A.C.P. filed a federal complaint that alleged that the admissions policies were discriminatory. More recently, legislators in Albany introduced laws that would amend the existing law, which requires the use of a single standardized exam to determine admission to Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant, by requiring the use of other criteria—attendance, grades, and performance on state exams in middle school. That proposal was endorsed by Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Fariña and, somewhat surprisingly, by the United Federation of Teachers.5 More recently, Richard Kahlenberg, a well-known liberal policy thinker, authored an op-ed in the Times, where he argued for a different approach based on work he had been involved with in Chicago:

Under the policy we developed, 30 percent of students are admitted to Chicago’s highly selective high schools (such as Walter Payton College Prep) based strictly on the traditional criteria of grades and test scores. The remaining seats are allocated to the highest-scoring students from four different socioeconomic tiers, under the premise that students in the poorest parts of the city who score modestly lower on standardized tests have a lot to offer, given the obstacles they’ve had to overcome.

Demographers rank Chicago’s census tracts from most to least advantaged by six criteria: median family income, average level of education attained by parents, percentage of single-family homes, percentage of homes where English is not the first language, percentage of homeowner-occupied residences, and school achievement scores by attendance area.

The policy has resulted in far more racial and ethnic diversity than in New York City’s elite public schools. At Walter Payton, 21 percent of students are black and 25 percent are Latino. Some critics worry that these numbers are still inadequate in a public school system where 41 percent of students are black and 45 percent Latino. But compared with Stuyvesant, Payton is a multicultural paradise.6

Nothing that was done during the Bloomberg era changed the fundamentals of education in this city—but more parents, mostly unintentionally, have become enlisted in a process that only promises to keep things as bad as they have been and continue to be. Parents of children who were, or would be, more or less destined for educational success have lost little while parents of children likely destined for educational failure have only won a small amount. In the next part of this series, I’ll try to probe the issues of responsibility for the existing state of affairs and what a good education might actually look like for all kids.


  1. Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, Miya Warner, & Elizabeth Chu, “The Experiences of One New York City High School Cohort: Opportunities, Successes, and Challenges,” Education Funders Research Initiative (October 2013).
  2. Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, John Q. Easton. Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Chicago, 2010).
  3. This suggests that we keep in mind that there are limits to what schools can do. The circumstances of people who are ensnared in webs of difficult circumstances demand a change in circumstances.
  4. Appreciating these somewhat conflicting desires is especially important in understanding the widespread popularity of charter schools in black and Hispanic communities.
  5. Admission to five other high schools, currently determined by scores on the specialized high school test, is not a matter of state legislation and could be changed by the city more or less immediately.
  6. Several years ago, I wrote a post for the Gotham Schools web page where I argued for a similar approach—that students be admitted to the specialized high schools on the basis of the highest scores on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in each of the city’s 32 community school districts on a proportional basis—meaning that districts with more students would get more admissions. This would enable students who were among the most successful of their peers to gain access to schools where they would be challenged to do even more. Towards that end, I was and am prepared to acknowledge that performance on a somewhat flawed test does nonetheless indicate something important about students’ readiness to succeed in a very demanding school environment. On the other hand, schools in the far-flung school districts must all be compelled to prepare some of their students for that opportunity. There are a number of active precedents in the Department of Education for the setting aside of seats in high schools for students in selected districts. By way of example, a number of schools in Manhattan’s Community School District 2 only admit students who live in that district and Townsend Harris High School only admits students who live in school districts in Queens.


John Garvey

John Garvey has been active in radical politics for 50 years. He and Noel worked together, more or less continuously, on a variety of projects since the early 1980s. The good thing was that they were always successful. Only kidding!


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

All Issues