Bill de Blasio’s Reforms Won’t Change Disparities of Underprivileged in Elite High Schools

In early June, New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced a new plan to diversify eight elite high schools in the city, including Stuyvesant High School, one of the top 100 schools in the nation. Admission to the elite schools is solely dictated by exams offered to eighth graders. As a result, the city’s black and Hispanic students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, are severely underrepresented at these elite high schools. de Blasio aims to change the disproportionate racial makeup of the schools by reserving 20% of elite specialized high school seats for low-income students from low-income schools who barely miss the cutoff scores on the exam. He also wants to take a more holistic approach by eventually scrapping the test and using other factors like class rank and statewide standardized exam scores to select students.

While his intentions are principled, de Blasio has planned for reforms that will only exacerbate the issues. Sticking less prepared students into cutthroat, competitive environments will not instantly make them better-prepared students. Instead, those students will end up struggling to catch up with their peers, many of whom have benefited from private tutoring or more rigorous middle schools. These less prepared students may also face discrimination for their race and ethnicity as others will claim that they don’t “deserve” their spots at competitive schools. Ultimately, these students will lack the support they need to succeed in elite high schools.

Around the nation, competitive high schools with policies of equality and anti-discrimination are facing the same issues. The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Georgia, for instance, was named as the nation’s 31st best public school by U.S. News for its rigorous academics and numerous achievements. However, as a charter school, it is not allowed to screen or select applicants based on their grades, test scores, or achievements. Instead, it holds a lottery to select local middle school students – in 2014, over 12,000 students applied, and only a little over 300 were accepted. Out of those over 300, a mere 191 graduated in 2018. The rest, many of whom were unable to handle the rigor of the school, returned to their local high schools or moved to different schools. The school’s relatively low retention rate demonstrates that comprehensive screening and selection of applicants is necessary to build a strong class of students.

Instead of trying to fix one of the final steps in a broken system, the problem of representation must be attacked at its source: early education. With less access to quality early education at preschools or daycares, economically disadvantaged students often lag behind their peers that do have access to those services. They are often unable to develop mathematical and reading skills at a young age, and they become less prepared to enter the K-12 school system. From there, the achievement gaps only widen as they become lost in the public school system without individualized guidance and help. To truly bridge the divide and foster equality in elite high schools, de Blasio must look elsewhere for a solution. His plan to bring free preschool to all three-year-olds is a step in the right direction. Expanding the early education program to encompass schooling for even younger children and dedicating more resources and funds to ensure the quality of the program would greatly help economically disadvantaged children. Increasing class sizes in elementary schools and distributing city funds more equally to schools will help students thrive through their K-12 educations. These long-term solutions that will take time and patience to come to fruition are what will bring genuine diversity to top high schools– not quick fixes like establishing quotas to manufacture artificial equality.


Photo: Yeong Ung Yang for The New York Times



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