NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson: The time to act is now on specialized high schools

The New York City Department of Education last week announced that only about 10 percent of the students admitted to our eight test-based specialized high schools were black or Hispanic. At Stuyvesant High School, the most competitive of our highly regarded specialized high schools, only seven black students were admitted.

For a city that prides itself on its diversity, this is a shamefully low number, particularly since black and Hispanic students make up about 70 percent of our overall student population.

Results like that do not happen overnight, and reflect a failure not just of the admissions process for our specialized high schools, but of our education system overall.

But failure does not have to be the end result; instead it can be the catalyst for serious, systemic change, which is exactly what we need so that all 1.1 million of our city’s public school students can access a quality education. The time to act is now.

We must strive to make sure that every student has access to the quality education they are entitled to, regardless of their background. That is not the case right now. New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. This is unacceptable, particularly in a city like ours.

We must evolve our education system to meet the needs and expectations of students and parents alike, while ensuring equal opportunity for all.

But how do we do that? I’ll begin with the specialized high schools.

[Read Chalkbeat’s news analysis here.]

About 15,500 students attend the eight test-based specialized high schools, which is less than 5 percent of the total high school population. This is a big city, and that is not enough to serve the almost 330,000 high school students enrolled in our system.

I am calling for the creation of additional City-designated elite high schools, separate from the eight test-based specialized high schools governed by state law.

Creating City-designated elite high schools could allow us to add thousands of seats, which would mean we won’t see a reduction in slots for any community while expanding opportunities for more students as we change the admissions process.

The Council is prepared to work with the DOE to begin the process to designate these schools and expand these opportunities as soon as possible. This would also allow the DOE to pilot new admissions criteria that will promote diversity without needing state approval.

The criteria could include multiple measures such as class rank, grade point average, scores on the standardized state exams, and other measures identified through stakeholder input. This is in line with the creative plan that Mayor de Blasio has proposed to replace the current admissions requirements at the city’s eight test-based specialized high schools.  

Stakeholder input is key, and we will engage all communities as we move forward in reimagining access to our top schools.

This year, 51 percent of the offers for the eight test-based specialized high schools went to Asian students. Many of those students come from immigrant families, and many live below the poverty line.

I want to be clear — their success is not the problem here and their voices must be heard in this process.

I want to support those Asian families who have sacrificed and studied under the current system because they see it as a gateway to the American dream.

And I also want to support black and Hispanic families who have sacrificed and studied only to remain excluded under that same system.

I support the success of all communities, which is why I believe the single test admissions process used to gain admittance to our eight test-based specialized schools must be abolished.

This is not a decision I make lightly, but I believe when tackling tough issues, we must make decisions based on fact, not on emotion or politics.

The single test admissions process we currently operate under was flawed from the beginning. It was mandated in 1971 under the Hecht-Calandra Act as a direct response to integration efforts to increase the number of black and brown students in specialized high schools.

The sponsors of that legislation — State Senator John Calandra and Assemblymember Burton Hecht – wanted to stop those efforts, which they felt were “an insidious attack” and “an attempt to destroy [those] schools.”

Legislation based on racism must not stand, and I will work with state colleagues to see the Hecht-Calandra Act replaced to reflect who we are as a city.

Today, there is a broad consensus among educators, psychologists, and testing experts that high stakes decisions for students should not be made on the basis of a single test score alone.

Instead, decisions that affect individual students’ educational opportunities should be made on the basis of multiple measures of student performance.

This is already happening in higher education.

Colleges use multiple measures to determine admissions offers and many are minimizing the importance of SAT or ACT test scores, or are eliminating test scores from admissions decisions altogether.

These eight high schools are the only public schools in the nation that determine students’ admissions solely on one exam.

We must stamp out racist legacies of the past, lift up all our students, and provide high-quality learning environments to set them up for future success.

Diversifying the test-based specialized high schools will not weaken those schools in any way. In fact, diversity strengthens our schools.

Research shows that more racially, culturally and economically diverse classrooms enhance problem solving and critical thinking, increase academic achievement, improve cross-racial understanding and reduce racial prejudice.

Everyone agrees we have a problem, but there’s no consensus on a solution. In order to better inform this important conversation and to review the system as a whole, the City Council Education Committee, chaired by Council Member Mark Treyger, will soon hold a hearing on school diversity and related legislation.

The first piece of legislation the Council will consider is to establish a task force that will be charged with developing recommendations for new specialized high school admissions criteria. That criteria would apply to our eight existing specialized high schools and the new schools we are proposing the City add to our system.

Second, the Council will codify the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), a body that was established in June 2017 to make formal policy recommendations to the Mayor and Chancellor relating to increasing school diversity.

The SDAG will collaborate with the specialized high school task force, and together they will coordinate system-wide integration efforts. Those efforts will include parents, students, advocates, educators and experts on how to determine admissions to the specialized high schools.

As I said earlier, the results that so rightly sparked outrage surrounding the specialized high schools are a symptom of much larger system-wide problems, including racism, poverty, unequal access to resources, housing and other realities facing our city’s students. If we really want the best for our students, we must address those issues as well.

Third, we will consider legislation to establish District Diversity Working Groups in every Community School District.

These working groups will be charged with creating diversity plans, similar to the work that the DOE undertook with District 15 in Brooklyn.

The working groups will engage in inclusive, public-input processes to develop recommendations that are tailored to the students that attend the schools in those communities.

Our neighborhoods are different and have different needs, and these working groups can address barriers to progress at the most local level.

Fourth, we will hear legislation to create a School Diversity Monitor within the New York City Human Rights Commission to increase oversight of this work and help inform principles of equity.

In addition to the above mentioned legislation, the Council knows that we need to create pathways for students to excel. One way to do that will be to work with the DOE and communities to revamp and restore full gifted and talented (G&T) programs in every school district.

Currently, not all districts have full G&T programs starting in Kindergarten.

Because G&T programs are not subject to state law, the DOE has the authority to set the admissions criteria. Changes need to be implemented to ensure equitable access to these programs.

Education is a very important, personal issue — and rightly so.

It affects our children. Every single parent and guardian in this city wants their child to attend an excellent school and receive an education that will prepare them for success.

There is no easy fix for the long-standing problems we’ve seen in our education system, but that is not an excuse for inaction.

The steps I outlined are just the beginning of a collaborative process that will lead to a better understanding of the issues, and how best to tackle those issues together.

Students and parents deserve a thoughtful and meaningful approach to this important issue, and I commit myself to helping make that a reality.

As a city, we’ve tackled big issues before and we can do it again by engaging one another with compassion and respect.

Our diversity is our greatest strength, which is why we must get this right and why I am confident that by working together, we will get this right.