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NYC Schools Ditch the Meritocracy

New York City is bleeding students as schools embrace the equity agenda.

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(Carrastock/Shutterstock)

For most Americans, which high school their children attend is a pretty basic decision. They either send their children to the school designated by where they live (Smallville students from Smallville Middle School move on to Smallville High School) or they send them to one of a few private schools in their area, typically religious schools such as Our Lady of Grace of Smallville. Not so in New York City, where a combination of woke politics and 2022-style fairness leaves one wondering how much we really hate our children.

Until two years ago, NYC's high school system, which was similar for middle schools, had a very few specialty high schools at the top, including Stuyvesant High (STEM), Bronx High School of Science, and LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and Performing Arts (The FAME! school; grads include Nicki Minaj, Al Pacino, and Timothée Chalamet) allied with the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts.

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Each had specific requirements for attendance; the former two had an entrance exam, which produced a rank-order entrance list irrespective of grades and other factors. The schools were hypercompetitive and ended up racially tilted toward white and Asian students (in a recent year, only seven black students got into Stuyvesant, out of 895 spots). There are expensive consultants and prep programs available, themselves competitive, to tilt the odds in a student's favor.

For everyone else, absent private schools, the city gave eighth graders the option of applying to 160 public high schools, each with their own criteria and "applicant-to-seat" ratio to help distinguish the most rigorous schools. Typically, entry followed an evaluation of an applicant's grades, test scores, essays, portfolios, and other work. Schools made their choices, expressed preferences really, and students made their own preferential list on a scale of one to 12. The whole mash of application factors and preferences was then run through a “deferred acceptance algorithm.”

The algorithm matched applicants to schools based on their highest mutual preference, similar to how medical students are matched with residency programs. NYC high school students received a list of 12 schools to which they had been accepted, and made their choice. Everyone "knew" which schools were better and which were to be avoided out of the 160 on offer, and the "good" schools were hypercompetitive and ended up racially tilted toward white and Asian students. Schools did a lot of work to be semi-woke, but it wasn't enough for some.

While never a system without controversy, it was a system that acknowledged certain realities: some kids are smarter and work harder than others. Attendance counted; you can't learn if you are not present. The system's testing asked math, science, and history questions. A poor kid really good at math stood the same chance as a rich kid really good at math. But the black and Hispanic students who make up nearly 70 percent of the school system were not moving on up. You know what came next.

Under former Democratic Mayor Bill De Blasio the first attack was against the specialty high schools, particularly Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and their do-or-die entrance exams. The predominance of white and Asian students matriculating into those schools after excelling at those tests could mean only one thing to the mayor's woke supporters: the tests had to be unfair to black and brown students. Earlier attempts to even the admission rates by providing free after-school tutoring (the Discovery Program) to black and brown students (and excluding many poor Asian students) had not succeeded.

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So the next obvious step was simply to eliminate the entrance exams in favor of grades assigned by school teachers. That way a student from a "bad" school could have a teacher who issued A’s for effort and compete against a child from a rigorous school where an A represented college-level work in 8th grade.

Under New York state's system, dropping the STEM schools' entrance exam actually required an act of the state congress, who under extraordinary pressure from Asian families and lawmakers shunned the change (AOC studiously avoided taking a public stance on the matter). The bill in fact never even made it to a full floor vote, with one opponent accusing the mayor of creating a “nasty narrative” that pitted Asian families against black and Hispanic parents. Another likened De Blasio’s plan to the Chinese Exclusion Act, a 19th century law restricting Asian immigration to cut back on economic competition with whites. The STEM entrance exam remains in place today.

Of course, there was more: the 160 other high schools in New York that did not use a single entrance exam, which were part of the "algorithm" system. Using the pandemic as an excuse and without state-level approval, De Blasio removed attendance as a criterion for admission. He used the same excuse to eliminate standardized test scores. Instead, middle schoolers were placed in one of four tiers based on their highest grades over two years—that A for effort from a friendly teacher standing proudly alongside that A in calculus. A lottery was then held for each group, with the highest numbered lottery winners free to choose their preferred high school. This was deemed fair, somehow, though an eighth-grader with an academically stellar record but a poor lottery number could easily lose out to a merely good-enough student with a great lottery assignation.

The results were as expected and as intended: 90 percent of black students got into one of their top five schools, same as Hispanic students. For Asian students, the number was only 70 percent.

As can be imagined, there were a lot of unhappy parents, and so reform of the school assignment process is far from over even as it increased the number of black students matriculating at the most wanted schools. Some white parents talk about private schools, others of moving to the suburbs. Manhattan has already lost 9.5 percent of its under-five population over the last two years.

Still others plan rallies and lawsuits under the banner "Merit Matters," and, with De Blasio out of office, hope to apply political pressure. The New York Times, still clinging to the idea that random choice is the woke answer, plans on blaming the system for the system, stating "It will take a long time to know whether these tweaks in the system will effect the desired change, something contingent, in part, on the kind of support students who might be new to intensely rigorous curricula receive in order to succeed." 

Little will be said about the larger lessons such a system teaches—that diversity only means measuring the numbers of black kids, or that there is some uniform category "Asian," though it can mean Chinese, Japanese, Korea, Cambodian, Indian, Thai, etc., never mind rich, poor, immigrant, non-native English speaker, etc.

New York's current mayor, Eric Adams, couldn't avoid adding to the woke chaos. After one admissions round, he recently eliminated the lottery for junior high schools in favor of grades. At the city’s competitive high schools, priority for seats will be given to top students whose grades are an A average, or the top 15 percent of students in each school. Criteria for admissions anywhere will not include state test scores, now basically irrelevant. 

The new plan seems to lessen the impact of the random lottery drawing, and crank up the value of individual grades, which can be adjusted on a per-student and per-school basis to achieve the desired racial outcomes. The immediate goal will be for these changes to increase access for “communities who have been historically locked out of screened schools,” while still rewarding students who work hard academically. The broader goal seems to be to create more racially balanced top schools while trying to prevent middle class families fed up with the lottery from abandoning the system. NYC is bleeding students; roughly 120,000 families have left traditional public schools over the past five years.

You know what to expect: lower standards at once-rigorous schools, with Student One who struggles to add round numbers sitting next to Student Two, who is already nailing advanced trig. After all, fair is fair, they both got As from their teachers. Sorry kids.

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