Let’s take some of the best public high schools in the United States and tweak their admissions policies, argues New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Instead of admitting students solely by merit, de Blasio says, they should accept the top 7 percent of students from every middle school in New York City.
Most of these middle schools are the educational equivalent of Superfund sites. De Blasio’s proposal makes about as much sense as Google announcing that henceforth 5 percent of its engineers will be graduates of Stanford, 5 percent of Harvard, 5 percent of Muleshoe State Technical College, 5 percent of Vidal Sassoon’s Hairdressing Academy, and 5 percent of Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. It’s as if the Golden State Warriors announced that in the interest of sportsological diversity, they will no longer ruthlessly screen for gifted basketball players but instead will set aside spots for one golfer and one bowler on next year’s starting five.
Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, and five other specialized schools have a rich history of service as oases from the miserable norms that define most precincts of the New York City Department of Education. Stuyvesant’s graduates include four Nobel laureates, Eric Holder, David Axelrod, and Tim Robbins. Bronx Science, as it is known, boasts eight Nobel winners, more than any high school in the country, and six Pulitzer Prize winners.
If these schools were filling their classrooms with the Chads and Buffys of the entitled Park Avenue trust-fund aristocracy, they would have been condemned and reorganized long ago. But they’re not, and everyone knows it. The students who attend them are mostly eager and driven immigrants or the products of immigrant families, mainly Asian ones. Some 73 percent of current Stuyvesant students are Asian Americans, and 45 percent are from low-income families. Far from being born with silver spoons in their mouths, they were lucky if they got a plastic spork. They are, in short, a microcosm of the great American story of desperate or simply starry-eyed travelers who came to these shores and rejoiced in the freedom they discovered — the freedom to achieve, even to excel. Their example is a rejoinder to the grim determinists of the education establishment, such as the Baghdad Bob of failing schools, Diane Ravitch, whose argument against public-school reform is essentially that schools can’t cure poverty, and literal poverty naturally leads to its intellectual equivalent.
The sole criterion for these schools is ability. They are some of the last bastions of absolute meritocracy left in America. You don’t get in because your parents bought the school a science lab. You don’t get in because you told the saddest sob story. You don’t get in because the school feels it needs a certain number of people of your skin color. You get in by acing the insanely challenging Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT). That’s it. The test requires commitment, concentration, preparation. It requires high intelligence and maybe even higher effort. Very few Latinos and blacks are admitted to these schools, but anyone who hungers for a place at Stuyvesant is free to work as hard for it as all of these immigrant families do. They are free to prove that they’re exceptional.
Here’s the best that proponents of de Blasio’s plan can do: “The worst-kept secret in New York parenting is that the entry process for our elite high schools is being gamed every single day by those willing to buy shortcuts to success,” writes liberal columnist Errol Louis in the Daily News. “I once casually asked a friend (Asian-American) what his son was doing for the summer, and was startled to learn the boy spent every summer vacation — and every weekend — doing test prep. This went on for the better part of a decade, and was all intended to culminate with a high SHSAT score and entry to Stuyvesant (which is indeed what happened).” How dare anyone “game the system” by working hard? Writ large, that could lead to — gulp! — harder-working people being more successful at life in general. De Blasio’s schools chancellor Richard Carranza also implied that the fix is in for Asians: “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” he said.
Some ideas are too nutty even for liberal Democrats in one of the most liberal states.
It’s absurd to argue that bringing in 7-percenters from, say, the extravagantly mislabeled Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, where only 17 percent of students even managed to pass the basic state math exam, is not going to diminish the quality of the education at these high-performance schools. It’s also absurd to argue that throwing so-so students in with budding geniuses is going to make the mediocrities brilliant. If intelligence rubbed off on people, we’d just send a few astrophysicists to stroll through blighted neighborhoods shaking hands and kissing babies.
De Blasio’s plan is probably doomed because, thanks to similar impulses expressed by Mayor John Lindsay in 1971, the state of New York exercises control over admissions policies of the eight elite city schools (though de Blasio has recently hinted that he thinks he might have the legal authority to change the policies for five of them). The relatively conservative state senate would presumably block any effort to dilute admissions standards, and even the lower house, the state assembly, which is firmly in the grip of liberal Democrats, has been slow-walking de Blasio’s plan and won’t vote on it before the summer recess. Some ideas are too nutty even for liberal Democrats in one of the most liberal states.
But it’s an iron law of the Democratic party that what is widely agreed to be bonkers today will tomorrow seem like an attractively daring fight for social justice.