You Asked We Answered

Why do some New York City schools get to choose their students? Here’s the case for and against ‘screening.’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Should high-achieving students attend one set of schools and everyone else another?

The question gets at a longstanding debate in education over sorting students by ability into separate classrooms or schools: Does it benefit the top students by providing them a more rigorous curriculum than is possible in a mixed-ability setting, or does it widen racial achievement gaps and leave lower-achieving students in less demanding classrooms with fewer resources?

Some New York City schools “track” advanced students into separate gifted-and-talented programs or honor courses. But some whole schools are also designed for high-achievers: Roughly a quarter of the city’s middle schools and a third of high schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, artistic talents and other criteria. Some of the city’s most renowned high schools — the elite “specialized” schools that include Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — only admit the top scorers on an entrance exam.

This school-wide sorting system has come under fresh scrutiny lately as city officials rethink admissions policies in an effort to get schools to enroll more diverse populations. But even as critics say that selective schools worsen segregation and leave low-achieving students in low-performing schools, supporters — including many parents — say that advanced students learn best alongside similarly skilled classmates.

This debate flared up recently at a Chalkbeat event focused on high-school admissions. During the event and in follow-up questions submitted by readers, many people asked: Why do some city schools get to select their students? And are there alternatives to the current system?

To find the answers, Chalkbeat studied the research, consulted experts, and spoke with parents. Here’s what we found:

What’s the case for screened schools?

When Sharon Kaplan was in school, it “wasn’t cool to be smart,” she said. There wasn’t enough interest in advanced history to justify a class, so she took basic economics instead, where she learned to write checks.

When Kaplan had children of her own, she was determined to send them to selective schools where their classmates would be as eager to learn as them.

“Having other kids in the class who are similarly engaged really raises the level of learning that’s available to them,” said Kaplan, who has one child at Stuyvesant and another who attended the High School for American Studies.

Some, like Kaplan, argue it’s easier to teach and learn when students are sorted by ability. How much you learn has a lot to do with who your classmates are, many parents say. And some evidence supports them: For instance, researchers found that when hurricane evacuees arrived in Houston, low-achieving students who entered the schools negatively impacted high-achieving students’ learning, while high-performing newcomers boosted their performance.

At the same time, teachers may have an easier time when their students aren’t at widely different skill levels. And selective schools may be able to offer more advanced classes, since they have enough high-performing students to fill the seats.

There’s great demand for selective schools. Popular screened schools like Manhattan Hunter Science, Millennium, and Manhattan Village Academy each had thousands of students list them as one of their 12 high school choices, despite having less than 200 openings each. Across the city, the demand for seats at selective schools far outstrips the supply.

Gifted students can fall through the cracks. Under the recently replaced No Child Left Behind law, schools were under pressure to lift up students just below grade level. As a result of that intense focus on struggling students, their above-average peers have often got short shrift.

Sorting by ability may benefit high-achieving kids. There is limited research on the impact of selective schools. But the research on sorting students into separate classes by ability, called academic tracking, has found mixed results for high-achieving students.

One meta-analysis found that classroom-level sorting harms low-achievers’ performance but has no effect on high-achievers. Other research, however, has found benefits for those students. One study found that high-achieving black and Hispanic fourth-graders saw their math and reading scores rise when they were placed in gifted classes; another found that states with larger shares of eighth-graders in high-track math classes also have larger shares of students earning top scores on Advanced Placement exams in high school.

“The research is very clear that ability tracking helps high-achievers,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a proponent of tracking.

It’s a way to keep middle-class families in the public school system. Finally, there’s a more practical reason to advocate for screening, said Samuel Abrams, a researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Selective schools are a way to keep middle-class families worried about the quality of the average public school from opting into private school or decamping to the suburbs. City leaders are “fundamentally concerned about white flight, middle-class flight,” Abrams said; elite selective schools are one way to keep more affluent families — along with their time and resources — invested in the public-school system.

What’s the case against screened schools?

Tanesha Grant’s daughter longed to attend LaGuardia High School, the celebrated — and highly selective  visual and performing arts school in Manhattan. But she didn’t get in.

Afterwards, she felt like a failure, Grant said. Now in ninth-grade at Urban Assembly School for Performing Arts, her daughter sees a therapist to work through the rejection.

“What are we putting them under immense pressure for?” Grant said. “The only point that I see is that it puts kids at a disadvantage and it separates kids into groups. The system makes the children unequal.”

Screening contributes to racial and socioeconomic segregation. The city’s eight most selective schools, which base admissions entirely on the results of an entrance exam, are disproportionately white and Asian. Only 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent about 70 percent of city students. A similar trend holds for the larger number of high schools that use a variety of criteria to screen applicants, though the racial disparities are less extreme, according to a Measure for America analysis produced for the New York Times.

A number of factors contribute to the racial imbalance — from the quality of the elementary and middle school that students attend to their parents’ ability to help them navigate the selective-admissions process. Some critics argue that the very act of admissions screening screening favors white and affluent students and disadvantages low-income students of color. Among the critics is Jeannie Oakes, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a prominent opponent of tracking.

When it comes to sorting students by ability, she said, it’s hard to imagine “that our deep racism and classism in this society could ever be overcome by some sort of fair selection process.”

Sorting can hurt low-achieving students. A body of research shows that lower-achieving students fare worse when separated from their high-achieving peers. A 1999 report summarizing tracking research concluded that “low-track classes are typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and the least-qualified teachers.”

In a sense, New York City’s system of selective schools amounts to tracking at the school — rather than classroom — level. The most popular selective high schools drain off the highest-performing students, leaving a large portion of schools with few, if any, students who had passed the state exams in eighth grade. Those schools can become the equivalent of “low-track” classes.

It’s unclear whether high-achieving students are helped. Several recent studies call into question the benefits of attending a selective school. Researchers found that, in Chicago, students who attended selective schools did not benefit academically compared to students with otherwise similar backgrounds who attended non-selective schools. Another study showed that students who just missed the cutoff to get into one of New York City’s entrance-exam schools were no less likely to attend or complete college than those who did get in.

What are the alternatives?

Eliminate or reduce schools that base admissions on academic achievement. Some critics say academic sorting, segregation, and inequality are inseparable — so screening should be banned completely. Others say there should just be fewer selective schools. Officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration have said they don’t plan to open any new screened schools — but they haven’t agreed to get rid of existing ones.

Allow schools to screen, but tweak the admissions system to promote diversity. It’s possible for some high schools to remain selective but also become more diverse, advocates say — if the city changes the way it matches students with schools. The city’s admissions algorithm, which takes in students’ high school choices and spits out matches, could be tweaked to factor in information such as parents’ education level or students’ ability to speak English fluently, advocates say. That would be a way to ensure that privileged and needy students are spread more evenly across schools — including those that screen applicants.

“The entire trajectory of the lives of hundreds of thousands of students could be improved for the better through a mathematical adjustment to the system,” said Elijah Fox, a member of IntegrateNYC4me, a student group that advocates for more diverse schools. “It’s inspiring.”  

Create a more consistent and transparent screening process. The city’s admissions system can resemble the Wild West with each selective middle and high school setting its own requirements. Often the criteria are hard to find and require students to attend school tours, take tests, or sit for interviews. Meanwhile, it’s nearly impossible for the education department to police whether schools are following their own rubrics or rules.

Standardizing the process could make it more fair. For instance, the city could create a common application for all selective schools.

Diversify exam schools. City officials have tried to increase the diversity at the specialized high schools by expanding programs like DREAM, which prepares students for the entrance exam. Others have proposed more radical solutions, like offering seats to the top students in every middle school. However, city officials have limited power to overhaul their admissions policies, which are written into state law. (Advocates argue that the law only mandates an entrance exam for the three original test-based specialized schools, but city officials say the law applies to all eight.) 

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”