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Why New York's School Reforms Didn't Work

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It appears that New York's public schools are more segregated than ever, according to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP that claims a disparate number of blacks are not admitted to the prestigious high schools that require entrance examinations. These claims come in spite of twelve years of mayoral reforms designed to make the system more open and accessible to students than ever.

The mayor's overhaul of the school system came at no small cost. The annual budget has been doubled and now exceeds $22 billion dollars a year. Hundreds of new schools were created in order to increase students' options, while shuttering over a hundred-fifty failed schools with more promised closings on the way.

The neighborhood high schools have largely disappeared, replaced by more intimate small schools that offer a smorgasbord of educational themes to attract customers -- the kids. The city permits and encourages students to apply citywide rather than confining admissions to neighborhood residents.

Yet in spite of all this the latest reports indicate that 29 percent of its graduates are college ready!

In a recent op-ed, Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, declared, "The number of students needing remedial work at CUNY (City University of New York) -- paying for high-school courses in college -- is staggering." At the same time her claim that the city had made "significant improvements in the graduation rate..." rings hollow when placed alongside the remediation figures.

So what went wrong? For the past 60 years, education reforms have been inextricably tied to race relations in the U.S. To that end, legislation and court rulings focused on the scourge of segregation and the unequal opportunities afforded to blacks.

In some cities the reforms included court ordered busing to achieve integration. New York City introduced hybrid schools that incorporated elements of the magnet school that offered a school within a school with a variety of enrichment programs for promising minority students.

Affirmative action precipitated an open admissions policy at the City University of New York that guaranteed a seat to any high school graduate in New York. These and other solutions designed to right wrongs were tried and mostly discarded after proving to be ineffective or destabilizing to our schools and municipal university system.

In the wake of those failed policies the national and local political leadership of both parties, along with private philanthropic foundations, think tanks, and educators, reiterated that the education gap between Blacks, Hispanics, and the White/Asian demographic of our country is the civil rights issue of the 21st century and made it the raison d'être for yet another overhaul of our public education system.

But as the saying goes, "times change, people change," as so do cities. The New York of 2012 is vastly different from the New York of fifty years ago. There might still be 8 million stories in the Naked City, but they are different from the one Jules Dassin told in 1948.

Today New York is more diverse than ever with a large percentage of its population made up of newcomers not seen since the last great wave of immigration a century ago. They are an integral part of the urban landscape. The school population hasn't had a white majority for decades, comprising only 14 percent of the enrollment. The largest ethnic blocks are Hispanics.

This reality presents a series of intractable problems for anyone wedded to the old reforms. For starters, how do you pursue a policy premised on redressing the unequal treatment of a minority when you are a city of minorities?

The trouble with those, however well intentioned, who peddle victimology is that the victim must always have somebody to blame for the victim's plight. The trouble with a society that enshrines victimhood as public policy is that it must always look for a victim rather than for a real solution to the problem

Thus, a public school system faced with a kaleidoscopic society of minorities demanding their rights becomes easily overwhelmed by demands it can't possibly hope to meet.

And that's what's happened to the New York City schools. Open Admissions was countered with a demand for gifted programs when it appeared that gifted students were being harmed by watered down state Regents exams and diploma standards that set making all students college-bound as its goal.

When the discipline code was weakened because of charges that a disparate number of Blacks and Hispanics were suspended, it made it all but impossible to remove disruptive students from the classroom or expel them from school.

The antidote was a dramatic increase in the number of schools that admit students on the basis of admissions tests and selective screening. This ensures that the "good kids" would be learning in safe havens. The unintended consequence was "academic apartheid."

To counter charges that the best kids were being segregated, an open enrollment policy with a potpourri of attractively named schools was adopted along with a school closing policy that indicted teachers and administrators for the schools' failure.

With so many new schools with monikers like collegiate, preparatory, and academy, it would seem that the factory-like high schools of old have been transformed into publicly run versions of Horace Mann and the Dalton School.

These "reforms" may satisfy the elite's who dreamed them up, but a cornucopia of schools with tony names that are unknown or indecipherable to new arrivals and the underclass ensures that they will enjoy "school choice" in name only.

Every victim has to have a perpetrator, and finally proponents of privatization of our public schools and politicians discovered that teachers make a nice big target -- like ducks in a barrel. Having thrown standards to the wind, why not evaluate the teacher based on their failed policies?

New York is the largest city in America, but it is also experiencing the greatest outflow of its population than any other city in the country. I would suggest that the reason so many vote with their feet, including newcomers, is the tribal politics of victimhood that suffuses its public policy and governance. The assault on public education is just the latest iteration, but perhaps the most destructive.

A city that is dependent on a steady wave of immigrants who hazard the journey here to become Americanized, rely on the marketplace for economic opportunity. But when it comes to educating their children it's the public education system that they look to.

The sooner these students are presented with some real choices that permits them to graduate from high school with a marketable vocation in hand the sooner our education system will become grounded in reality. What "choice" and "charters" amount to in this city is little more than abdication of governance.