Part 3—The breeze from Wobegon: It's the con our liberal world simply never stops selling.
This con has been active for at least fifty years. Our team never quits with this con.
To which con do we refer? We refer to the con in which we pretend that our low-income, urban, minority schools are crawling with superstar students.
The beauty of this particular con is fairly obvious. It absolves our team from the task of addressing the giant achievements gaps which obtain in a city like New York. It lets us dodge an obvious fact:
In the end, we simply don't care about struggling, low-income kids; few things could be more obvious. In effect, the con to which we refer today lets us borrow Garrison Keillor's joke about Lake Wobegon, "where the children are all above average."
Full disclosure: Lake Wobegon was fictional, but New York City is not. For ourselves, we may have encountered this con for the first time in the late 1960s, when we read Herbert Kohl's 36 Children—an iconic book about Kohl's allegedly giant success teaching sixth grade in New York.
Enough with all the background noise. Let's return to the present.
We thought we encountered a hint of the "Wobegon con" when we read Jim Dwyer's column in last Saturday's New York Times. As we noted yesterday, Dwyer wrote about the imperfect process by which New York City's eighth-graders get admitted to eight of its nine high-powered "specialized high schools."
The eighth-graders take a one-day test. Admission to those high-powered schools is granted on the basis of those test results alone. Plainly, that's an imperfect system. But even as Dwyer began his piece, we almost thought we sensed a breeze blowing off Wobegon:
DWYER (6/9/18): In New York's ragged history of race, class, privilege and equity, the city's specialized high schools have long been proxies. For some, they are the ideal of meritocratic opportunity, incubators of working-class genius and talent; others see their admissions policies as the picture of ''monumental injustice,'' as Mayor Bill de Blasio described them this month in Chalkbeat.As we noted yesterday, that's the way Dwyer started his column. In that highlighted statement about all those capable students, we almost thought we sensed that breeze from Wobegon.
Now, in a system where the overwhelming majority of students have no access to advanced science or math classes, no matter how capable they are, the mayor and the new schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, are campaigning to change the admission process at the specialized schools, the most famous and prestigious in the city.
For the record, that statement about "advanced classes" is perhaps slightly misleading; we'll discuss that point tomorrow. For today, we'll show you the part of Dwyer's column where the breezes began blowing harder:
DWYER: Most city students never come near a physics classroom. Although it is the keystone discipline of modern science and technology, the subject is barely taught in the public high schools, outside a select few programs such as those at the specialized schools and elsewhere.For what it's worth, those highlighted statements all seem to be accurate, or at least technically so. Still, we thought a breeze was possibly blowing off a (fictional) lake as Dwyer seemed to describe a giant school system crawling with "capable students."
That lack of opportunity hits with greatest force in schools where most students are black or Latino, according to Angela Kelly, a professor of science education at Stony Brook University.
''If a student wants to pursue a college major in life science, engineering, or health, physics is really a gateway course for being able to be succeed,'' said Dr. Kelly. ''Having limited opportunity to learn physics has many social and economic ramifications.''
That tells us something else. Hidden behind the proxies is another monumental injustice: The supply of excellent schools cannot meet the demands of capable students, whatever their backgrounds.
An obvious question arises at this point in Dwyer's column. If New York City has that many capable students seeking advanced classes in math and physics, why doesn't the city open additional "specialized high schools?"
Why stick with eight high-powered schools? Why not start eight more?
Also, why stage a racial/ethnic war about the seats in the schools which exist? Why not open additional high-powered schools to serve all those high-powered students?
We'll discuss that obvious question tomorrow. For today, let's move on to the essay by Mayor De Blasio—the essay Dwyer cited right at the start of his column.
Could a breeze be detected in Dwyer's piece? In de Blasio's essay, the winds began to howl.
We have no doubt that Mayor de Blasio is a good, decent person. But fifty years later, we think progressives should perhaps react with angry contempt to essays which start like this:
DE BLASIO (6/2/18): I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.De Blasio is blown away by all the smart kids he meets. He sees talent in New York's schools in something which may resemble the way Trump sees talent in Kim.
The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools–including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School–rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed–it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.
If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.
Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.
Alas! According to de Blasio, many of Gotham's brainiac kids are being "locked out" of the specialized high schools, all because of the SHSAT. (Actual acronym.) In his next paragraph, he cites the small number of black and Hispanic kids getting admitted to those "prestigious schools," and he calls the existing state of affairs a "monumental injustice."
Perhaps the mayor believe what he says! A bit later on, he instructs the gods to make the winds howl off that lake:
DE BLASIO: My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.Amazing! Those schools are full of Asian-Americans kids because so many excellent, high-performing black and Hispanic students missed the cut-off by just one or two points!
This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.
This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.
We liberals have thrilled to stories like this since at least the 1960s. And how do we know that this is twaddle? For starters, just consider what the mayor just said:
Under his magical instant reform, "the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent."
Imagine! The number of admission offers will go all the way up to 16 percent, in a city where black and Hispanic kids make up roughly two-thirds of the student population! That's what happens if you adjust for income, and lower the acceptable score, in ways which aren't here defined.
For ourselves, we aren't necessarily opposed to adjusting for income, though tribal wars start as you do.
Beyond that, it may be a perfectly decent idea to lower the admission score. If you want to read his whole essay, de Blasio goes on to recommend other changes in admission procedures which would bring black and Hispanic enrollment in those schools all the way up to 45 percent.
De Blasio goes on ot swear that none of this would lower standards at these high-powered schools. "Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative," he dictatorially states.
It may be true that de Blasio's reforms would open these high-powered schools to lots of kids who would benefit from admission. It may be true that the specialized schools would be just as good academically as before—and that they'd be much better socially due to their greater inclusion.
What de Blasio doesn't do is answer that obvious question:
If there are so many excellent, capable students out there, why doesn't the city simply establish additional high-powered schools? More on that question tomorrow.
It might be a very good idea to admit more kids to these high-powered schools. There may even be ways to accomplish this task without igniting the inevitable race/ethnicity wars we liberals seem to enjoy. More on those wars tomorrow.
That said, we merely want to comment today on a familiar breeze off a certain lake. Specifically, we were struck by the way this appalling mayor blew right past his school system's achievement gaps as he ran a decades-old street-level con in his essay:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, NaepThose are gigantic achievement gaps, right there in that mayor's schools. They suggest the possibility that quite a few kids in this man's Wobegon may not be "above average" after all, or anywhere close to same.
New York City Public Schools, 2017
White students: 290.71
Black students: 255.63
Hispanic students: 263.56
Asian-American students: 306.03
Where do those achievement gaps come from? How should those gaps be addressed? When people like de Blasio hand us pleasing pabulum from Lake Wobegon, they are telling us pseudo-liberals that we should stop worrying about the hundreds of thousands of low-income kids on the very short end of those gigantic achievement gaps, the gaps we love to avoid.
They're telling us it's all a mistake, that those punishing gaps don't exist. In the process, those kids are thrown under a big yellow bus and the mayor, pleasing our uncaring tribe, drives the bus over their bodies.
We liberals have run this familiar old con since the dawn of time. We keep finding ways to avoid the gaps. This allows our disinterest in low-income kids to live on.
It's just one or two points on some test, we declare. This allows Times readers to return to their weeping about the late Kate Spade and her wonderful bags.
More on that topic tomorrow. We'll incldue this trip, by private yacht, to the Washington Post.
Tomorrow: Concerning those "advanced classes"