Schools can help disadvantaged kids without discriminating against others
I knew very well the look and feel of discrimination. I was often taunted with anti-Semitic comments at school growing up in the U.S.S.R. “Hey Rosen,” they’d say, “Nazis are coming!” My father was also badly discriminated against at work for being Jewish. My grandfather, a war hero, barely escaped a Soviet concentration camp during one of the last of Stalin’s purges—the anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot.” A generation earlier, my family escaped from pogroms to the edge of Siberia. Because of my personal and family history, I have not only experienced discrimination, but also seen and heard about all the wrong and right ways of fighting it. Injustice cannot be overcome by another injustice; discrimination cannot be compensated by a different form of discrimination: the only answers are fairness and equality.
Our understanding of what is fair and just is diverging in our polarized culture. In modern societies, schools play a paramount role in the process of passing our values down to new generations—and for this reason, they are now the frontlines of the culture wars. The tension between the individual and group identity, as well as a wildly different understanding of what constitutes fairness, are playing out at schools around the country.
I started getting wind of these issues when I learned about the controversies surrounding specialized high schools in New York City. These public schools, among the best in the world, admit students exclusively based on test scores. Counting Nobel Laureates, supreme court justices, famous playwrights, scientists, entrepreneurs, and other leaders of society among their alumni, these schools have clearly figured out good ways of selecting and helping students reach their full potential.
Despite this, however, schools like Hunter College High School have been attacked as insufficiently committed to “racial equity.” The school is in fact very ethnically diverse, with many students hailing from first-generation immigrant families, but the criticisms remain. As a non-native English speaker, the difference between “equality” and “equity” was not immediately clear to me. Once I understood what was meant by “equity”—ensuring equal outcomes, as opposed to equal treatment—I was horrified. I had suddenly found myself back in the U.S.S.R.! The Communist Party was obsessed with stalling the advancement of some ethnic groups and pushing others forward so that they were proportionally represented at different levels of government, culture, and the workforce.
Striving for equity involves tilting the playing field so that some people get an advantage while others are held back. However well-intentioned this may be, the practice breeds resentment, divisiveness, and cynicism. More perniciously, it creates Potemkin villages—façades that allow everyone to look away from the deeper and more difficult structural problems that we should all be concerned about. For example, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, only a quarter of black kids in New York City schools in grades three through eight were proficient in math, and only a third were proficient in English. The national educational assessment report released last week showed dramatic decline in students’ reading and math skills over the last two years, with children at the lower levels of the proficiency showing the steepest loss of learning. The vast majority of these children are not affected in any way by admissions to a handful of high-performance schools like Hunter College High. Their issues are more fundamental: they need to be taught to read and do arithmetic at the age-appropriate level. Where is the equity there?
In response to the criticisms they received, Hunter College set up a Task Force for Advancement of Racial Equity, which published a preliminary report in June of 2021. Some of the ideas detailed within were meaningful and useful—such as the Task Force’s suggestion to increase the school’s outreach into disadvantaged communities, diversifying the criteria for students to qualify for the admissions test, and supporting students who might be falling behind. However, most of the recommendations in the report were strongly pushing for equality of outcome based on race, and relied on falsehoods that disregarded evidence and research. Beyond that, it used euphemisms such as “redefinition of gifted and talented” and “varied academic needs” to obfuscate what could or should be expected of underprepared students who would be entering the school as a result of lowered admission standards. It all but openly suggested dumbing down the curriculum and insisted on a narrow ideological viewpoint to be promoted to the entire school community, including parents.
Unsurprisingly, parents began to organize and push back against this, and I joined them. We wrote a point-by-point analysis and rebuttal of the Task Force’s recommendations. We reached out to the administration of Hunter College, informing them that in addition to the problems I’ve mentioned here, the Task Force also created legal jeopardy by going against the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Perhaps as a result of these letters, the Task Force’s final recommendations sounded a bit different. They eschewed the overtly racialist recommendations for changing the admissions process, and suggested that the school instead use socio-economic status, geographic location, and other proxies to filter down the pool of applicants. The use of proxies for the purposes of racial balancing is still illegal, however, as found recently by a court in a similar case of Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia.
The Task Force’s final recommendations also strongly pushed for the use of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultants for admissions, curriculum, educational data analysis, testing, teachers’ professional development…the list goes on. It is no surprise to me that the Task Force, which is run by a consultant, wants to expand the use of consultants; but it is a drain on the system’s resources. The budget of New York City’s Department of Education is $38 billion, which is serving slightly more than one million students. The per-student annual spending of New York City is close to a staggering $36,000, with little to show for it in terms of system-wide student achievement. This immense expense is partially driven by the bloated bureaucracy of the Department of Education.
The main problem with DEI consultants—and permanent, DEI-focused staff—is not squandering public funds on unnecessary work, however. It is that their presence would create an ideologically-driven bureaucracy that would quickly grow and begin demanding fealty from otherwise productive members of the faculty. The schools’ curricula would inevitably become centered on DEI, and quality education would become secondary to activism.
In one of its most bizarre suggestions, the Task Force advised Hunter College High School to consider including a math “essay,” along with “an increased collaboration between the departments of Mathematics and English and Communications & Theater in designing its admissions test,” which to me sounds like replacing an objective math test with a “creativity measuring” math “essay” that allows for students who couldn’t pass the test to be admitted anyway.
The Task Force also suggested collecting demographic data on administration and faculty. Armed with these statistics, these consultants would presumably get busy calculating percentages of identity groups and demand numerical parity among different races and ethnicities—echoing for me the ethnic equity policy of Soviet Russia of the 1920s.
It is all well and good to dissect and rebut these bad ideas, but it’s a lot more important to devise better alternatives to those on offer—practical steps we can take that may help kids who are growing up in difficult circumstances. What can be done to increase access to the best public schools by children with challenging life circumstances without introducing unfairness and discrimination of others into the process?
In my view, good solutions can focus on the three aspects: outreach, enrichment, and support structures.
The Gifted and Talented programs in New York City would be a natural place for nurturing young minds that require above-average intellectual stimulation. Teachers can be asked to nominate their promising students for city-wide enrichment classes. They may also advise students to take the admission tests to competitive high schools. As is already happening, eligibility criteria for taking the tests can be relaxed, and test sites can be made accessible from anywhere in the city.
Enrichment classes can prepare kids for the challenging admission tests to specialized high schools. Given the high social demand to help disadvantaged kids succeed, it should be easy to find sponsors to support such programs. They may also accept qualified students regardless of their ability to pay, which will eliminate the frequently heard and reasonable complaint that “only rich kids get prepped.”
Once admitted to these demanding schools, many kids may require extra support because they lack it at home. The support structures I’m proposing would include schools offering dedicated mentorship and tutoring to such students in order to ensure their success. Alumni associations, for example, could be instrumental in these efforts.
The larger point is that the intense focus on the racial composition of a few highly performing schools is a red herring; it distracts from our society’s failure to educate those with fewer resources and opportunities for advancement. Instead of taking on the root causes of the problem, our current social justice movements prefer to tinker with admissions policies and dumb down curricula. This cosmetic approach to fixing our problems does exactly the opposite of what it intends. Lowering standards of education makes everyone worse off—especially those who truly need help.
Illiberal, irrational, and divisive ideas promoting groups over individuals under the banner of “justice” are not new. They have been prevalent throughout human history, and were responsible for wars and oppression. We must be mindful when these ideas resurface in our education systems and society at large. Armed with historical knowledge, data, and rational analysis, we shall engage with them. As long as society retains its diversity of thought and freedom of expression and passes these values to the new generations, it can develop humanistic and uplifting solutions to its problems.
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