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.) 

universal choice

Denver’s window for choosing schools opens Tuesday

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The one-month window for Denver families to list their top school choices for next school year starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 15.

Denver Public Schools expects to inform families of their school placement results in late March.

Denver Public Schools has a universal school choice system that allows families to use a single online form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in the city. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This year, 60 of Denver’s 213 schools are charters.

While many school districts nationwide have a contentious relationship with charter schools, Denver is known for its collaboration with them, which includes the universal enrollment system. That collaboration has been the subject of criticism from parents, teachers, and community members who see the independent schools as siphoning students and resources from district-run schools.

The 93,000-student school district especially encourages families with children going into the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade to fill out a choice form. Families list their top five school choices, and the district uses a lottery system to assign students.

Schools can set their own enrollment priorities. Many district-run schools give high priority to students who live within their boundary and to siblings of current students, for example.

The district also has 15 “enrollment zones,” which are expanded boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the school closest to them.

Denver has used zones as a way to increase school integration. Many neighborhoods in Denver are segregated by race and income, and the district’s reasoning is that widening boundaries provides the opportunity for a more diverse school population.

But a 2016 district analysis found that enlarging middle school boundaries had not decreased school segregation as much as district officials hoped it would.

The district also has a school integration pilot program that gives students from low-income families priority to enroll at schools that serve mostly students from affluent families. The results have been modest, and district officials are exploring ways to expand the impact.

how we got here

I’m a white teacher who chose a high-poverty school for my daughter. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.

I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.

Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.

I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.

And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.

Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.

So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.

The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.

This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.

In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.

I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.

This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.

As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.

PHOTO: Contributed by Stumpf
Alie Stumpf and her family

Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.

As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.

But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.

And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.

Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.

Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.