This week we have been discussing a perennial issue concerning the education of gifted children in the public schools. Should they attend schools with children of equal ability in enriched programs, or should they be mixed with the general population of the school, which is taken from the neighborhood in which the school is located?
That issue, which has been argued over for generations, arose again on September 27, when the NAACP and seven supporting organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education about the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which has been required for applicants to eight elite high schools, viz. Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech and five newer schools scattered among the boroughs. This test has been given for many years, I took it in 1947. - (SQ)
Currently, minority attendance at these schools varies widely.
Stuyvesant and Science have two to four percent black and Latino students; Stuyvesant is 72% Asian. The same test is given throughout the city. The cut-off point varies, depending on the number of applicants and their scores.
News of the Federal challenge to the tests has caused a sharp reaction from the public. We published a New York Post column by Michael Benjamin supporting the tests, and an op-ed by Edward C. Sullivan supporting major changes to the test and the selection process.
Today we publish an article by John McWhorter, which appeared as an op-ed in the New York Daily News on October 4 under the headline, "Achievement is the Answer."
Over the course of the past two weeks, we received more than twenty communications from the public; every one defended the current test. The letters were serious and thoughtful, whether we agree with them or not. The texts appear with each column we posted.
There is clearly considerable public interest in this issue, and we again invite you to let us know what you think.
You know that we’ve come a long way on civil rights when the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is comfortable insulting black people.
That’s what happened when the group filed a complaint with the federal Education Department against New York City’s use of the rigorous Specialized High School Admissions Test to decide who attends its flagship public schools.
The complaint’s reasoning goes like this:
a) Black and Latino students tend not to do well on such tests; b) They are therefore rare at schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech; c) The use of the SHSAT is consequently unfair.
It’s easy to forget what that kind of reasoning really means. The complaint is saying that it’s racist to subject black and Latino kids to serious competition. The likes of Strom Thurmond would have eaten it up.
Frequently, those who point to racism desire to teach us that understanding the prevalence of bigotry in modern America requires a degree of profound insight and higher reasoning.
Yet, all too often, the same people are oddly facile in what they term “racism.”
I will never forget a black New Yorker I once spoke to who mentioned a New York school much like Stuyvesant: “You can just see the racism. The neighborhood is full of black kids, but there’s barely a black face in the whole school.”
People have been bracingly forthright in coming to similar conclusions about the SHSAT.
“The exam is designed to exclude blacks because it’s heavy on math, and black people can’t do math,” goes the charge, as quoted in a recent New York Times article on race at Stuyvesant. I’d like to know what W.E.B. Du Bois or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would make of a statement like that about black mental powers.
Come, now: Even if there are only 40 black students out of 3,295 at Stuyvesant, as The Times reported, is racism really the only possible reason?
Let’s assume most people are beyond such thinking. They might think black and Latino kids simply don’t have enough opportunities to develop the skills they would need to pass such a difficult test.
Yet, in fact, the city’s Education Department has made efforts (however imperfect) to recruit and prepare students for the SHSAT. There are even free test prep courses available. In recent years, school fairs and recruiting trips have spread the word about specialized high schools to minority-group communities.
Stuyvesant’s parent coordinator has said that people in underserved communities often don’t know about the entrance test — and don’t think these schools are for their kids. And how, if the custom isn’t in the air in your community, could you figure out just how hard students elsewhere prepare for the test?
Settling instead for crying racism here is applying yesterday’s protest model to a different modern reality.
After all, why isn’t the most immediate response to the disparity to get the word out in black and Latino communities that being admitted to the top schools means working hard — really, really hard — on the test?
It won’t do to say, “Oh, yeah, that too,” either. This should be the principal response: preparation, not condemnation.
We should shudder at the prospect of New York’s best public schools scaling the test back to being just one part of a “holistic” evaluation process for the sole reason that black and Latino kids weren’t doing well on it. After all, that would suggest that black and Latino kids just aren’t bright enough to handle a real test — and we all know it.
Among more than a few calling the test racist, one suspects a quiet sense that there is something inauthentic, “unblack,” about having to ace a test that Asian immigrant parents — often living in crummy neighborhoods themselves — do not question subjecting their kids to. It won’t do.
Of course, some find the very view I have expressed as “unblack.” Zora Neale Hurston taught otherwise: “It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”
There are times when being progressive means changing the rules.
However, life will never be perfect, and sometimes what’s progressive is teaching people how to get in the game.