New York City

A better plan for black and Hispanic NYC high school students

The focus on the small number of students attending New York City’s specialized high schools is diverting attention from policies that could benefit the rest of the city’s students, writes Manhattan Institute education expert Ray Domanico.

A Brooklyn public school.

A Brooklyn public school. Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has the city’s political and educational communities focused on one number: seven. That’s how many black students initially received offers to attend Stuyvesant High School next year, based on the results of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. The mayor wants to scrap that exam, the SHSAT, which is used as the sole criterion for admission to Stuyvesant and the seven other elite high schools. He is joined in this effort by Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has taken to admonishing some criticisms of the plan as “offensive” – and, implicitly, as racist.

Abolishing the entrance exam to these schools might be a good sound bite for de Blasio to deploy on the presidential campaign trail, but it will not actually do much for the vast majority of New York City’s black and Hispanic students. My recent Manhattan Institute report cites academic research from New York and other cities documenting that the outcomes for students at highly selective high schools are not solely a function of the school’s programs and practices. In other words, the impressive alumni from Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech would have done just as well in life had they attended lower-profile high schools. Wherever they went to high school, the qualities that led to them to perform well on the test would have gotten them into good colleges and launched them on to successful careers. Further, those students who earn a place at these schools due to changes in admissions policies do not seem to benefit academically, compared to how they would have fared had they attended other, nonselective schools.

This doesn’t mean educational inequality isn’t a real problem in New York City. The city absolutely must do more to create greater educational opportunities for children from lower-income minority families. The mayor and chancellor’s focus on the 1% of high school students attending Stuyvesant is diverting attention from needed actions that they could take to benefit the other 99%, including tens of thousands of children of color. Instead, the city should provide more opportunities to strong students of color by expanding offerings at schools just below the eight specialized high schools and by identifying and supporting high-achieving students early in their school careers.

The mayor and chancellor are doing a disservice to the many students of all races and ethnic groups who are performing at impressive academic levels at other high schools. My report documents that, based on outcomes such as SAT scores and college readiness, there are other good public high schools in New York City, which also happen to serve more racially diverse student bodies than the specialized schools. For example, 88% of the students in Medgar Evers College Preparatory School are black; its graduation rate is 97% and its college readiness rate is 87%. East Side Community High School is 54% Hispanic and boasts a 97% graduation rate and a 90% college readiness rate.

Rather than tinkering with the selective high schools, Carranza should take a hard look at these successful schools to determine what it would take to ratchet them up to, or close to, the achievement levels of the selective schools. That might require additional resources for more challenging coursework and additional counseling services to work with their students from ninth grade on to find the best college placements for them.

Many of these high-achieving schools were created under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, as part of a plan to replace large failing high schools with smaller innovative ones. Thus, 15 of these schools are small, serving 500 students or fewer; this is also true of three of the selective high schools. Some of the success of these schools may be due to their small size, but that also creates a limit as to how many advanced courses they may offer. The city should consider the possibility of carefully enlarging these successful schools to serve more students with a greater array of advanced courses.

The city should also encourage the creation of more of these experimental schools. De Blasio’s hostility to charter schools is well known. Less talked about is a process that Bloomberg put in place to allow Department of Education teachers and others to propose and create new middle and high schools. Not all of these schools succeeded, but independent research gave a positive review to the overall program and quite a few top-tier high schools today, including York Early College Academy, All City Leadership Secondary School and others were created as part of this effort. De Blasio moved away from this approach during his first term, denying an untold number of students greater opportunities in high school. This effort should be reinstituted, allowing the city’s public educators to create more high-flying high schools in the communities where they are most needed.

The city needs to focus on identifying high-achieving black and Hispanic students early on in their school careers. They should be nurtured with challenging school work throughout elementary and middle school in a system that allows them to reach their full potential rather than holding them back in low-expectation schools. This might, ultimately, help diversify the specialized high schools as there would be a larger pipeline of black and Hispanic students who are able to excel on the SHSAT.

Finally, high-achieving black and Hispanic students are found in all types of schools. My report identifies traditional public high schools with large numbers of them. Black and Hispanic families also seek out charter and private school placements for their children. One-quarter of black schoolchildren in the city attend either charter (19%) or private (6%) schools. Charter elementary schools include an outsized number of black students scoring at the highest level of the state exams. Numerous college preparatory private and parochial high schools serve significant numbers of black and Hispanic students. Many students do so at great financial sacrifice by their parents. Others are fortunate to get scholarships from privately funded organizations. A well-designed tuition tax credit program would increase the number of low-income students able to take advantage of these programs.

Some might argue that increasing access to charter and private schools will draw more high-achieving students away from the traditional public schools and thereby further isolate low-income black and Hispanic students. New York City’s own experience does not support this view. Between 2006 and 2018, the city’s traditional public schools saw their test results catch up to schools in the rest of New York state, having started out well behind. This occurred during years when enrollment in charter schools in the city increased by more than 107,000 students.

The mayor apparently dreams of being president. My dream is that he and others like him see the need to invest in schools – whether public, charter, private or parochial – that are succeeding in providing a high-quality education to those most in need, rather than focusing all their attention on the top 1%.