Integrate Schools And Improve Learning For All Kids At The Same Time

The headlines are full of the news that the School Diversity Advisory Group, appointed by Mayor DeBlasio of New York City, has recommended that the largest public school district in the country phase out its Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools, give up selective admissions in middle schools, and limit ability grouping in most high schools. The reason for doing all three is to eliminate segregation by race and family income in the city’s schools.

How are NYC schools segregated?

  • The New York City schools are comprised of students who are 74% economically disadvantaged, 40.5% Hispanic, 26% black, 16.1 % Asian, and 15% white.
  • There are currently two paths through the New York City schools: one path for white and Asian students, a notable percentage of whom test as gifted and talented in the early grades and qualify for select middle and high schools in the later grades, and the other path for predominately black and Hispanic students who attend schools that have no qualifying criteria and are open to all.
  • Students are selected for the Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools, based solely on their score on a standardized test taken when they are four years old. Affluent parents pay for expensive test prep courses and tutors so those four year olds maximize their scores. Out of 1.1 million NYC students, 16,000 are in Gifted and Talented Programs. Of those 16,000 students, 75% are white or Asian.
  • One fifth of middle schools and high schools select the students whom they admit. They screen applicants, based on their grades, standardized test scores, school attendance, punctuality, and teacher recommendations. The middle and high schools that are selective in whom they admit are 55% black and Hispanic while middle and high schools that are open to all are 72% black and Hispanic.
  • The eight premier high schools choose their students differently. They select students based solely on their score on a standardized test. In 2019, 1368 white, 316 Hispanic, 2450 Asian, and 190 black students were accepted to the eight premier high schools. Stuyvesant, the most prestigious of all, accepted 895 students and only seven of them were black.

The School Diversity Advisory Group recommendations are:

  • Eliminate Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools by not accepting new students into them or beginning new ones.
  • In middle schools, eliminate screening students for admission, based on grades, standardized test scores, attendance, punctuality, and teacher recommendations.
  • Establish magnet middle schools in which the curriculum focuses on topics which interest students.
  • Eliminate ability grouping in the middle schools and group students heterogeneously,
  • In high schools, diminish ability grouping and prevent tracking within schools.
  • Allow the 20% of high schools that have selective admissions to continue to base admissions on grades, standardized test scores, and teacher recommendations but delete good school attendance and punctuality as qualifications for admission.

What the School Diversity Advisory Group got right:

  • Seeking to increase educational opportunities for underserved K-12 students.
  • Recognizing that giftedness cannot be accurately determined in children as young as four years old.
  • Recognizing the inequity inherent in basing admission to Gifted and Talented Programs on one standardized test for which some children are coached.
  • Eliminating Gifted and Talented Programs in Kindergarten – Grade 3.

What the NYC School Diversity Advisory Group got wrong:

  • The curriculum that the SDAG recommends is inadequate. The proposed curriculum will not meet the needs of students labeled gifted and talented, students not labeled gifted and talented, students in selective middle and high schools, and students in open admission middle and high schools.
  • The SDAG Report refers to Gifted and Talented Programs as having enriched content and recommends that all students be exposed to similar enriched content and organized around topics of student interest. Of course, students should have topics that engage them. But that is not enough.
  • The SDAG Report proposes a curriculum in which the same content is covered for all students in heterogeneously grouped classrooms with the more proficient students receiving a larger dose of the content and less proficient students a smaller dose. That view of curriculum is outdated and will not equip students for the 21st century. Curriculum for the 21st century is about teaching students age appropriate strategies for developing as learners and thinkers.
  • The SDAG Report states says that highly proficient students “will not be harmed by mixed ability classes”. Not doing harm is settling for too little. The promise should be to challenge highly proficient students, and, indeed, all students, to go as far as they can and accomplish all that we can envision for them.
  • The SDAG Report should have stated that, as students progress through school, they go from being heterogeneously grouped to being more homogeneously grouped as the differences among students as learners and thinkers broaden.
  • The SDAG Report proposes a pedagogy in which a teacher meets the needs of each individual student in heterogeneously grouped classes. That kind of individuation is not possible in the high schools, given the broad learning differences among students at that age and the sizes of the NYC high school classes (about 26 students) and, even if possible, would eliminate for students the powerful learning environment of an interactive collaborative community which includes all the students in the class.
  • The SDAG Report leaves in place the discriminatory practice of one standardized test as the only criterion for admission to the eight premier high schools. Even though the ultimate decision regarding the admission policy for those premier schools rests with the state of New York rather than the city, the SDAG Report should take a stand against that clearly inequitable practice. A large body of research proves that standardized tests are inaccurate single predictors of student success. Currently, 29% of private  and 11% of public colleges and universities do not require standardized tests (SAT or ACT) for admission. Standardized tests have been proven to correlate most reliably with the income of parents and participation in test preparation courses – and leave the ability and potential of some students unrecognized.

What is missing from the SDAG Report is a plan to break up segregation AND, at the same time, provide all students with an excellent education. Here’s how to do that: 

  • Design a program for pre-kindergarten through high school to develop students as learners and thinkers. (The specifics to be discussed in a subsequent article.)
  • Involve teachers in professional development regarding the curriculum and its pedagogy.
  • Implement the curriculum so that students of all abilities, based on their grade level cognitive, social, and emotional development, are taught to explore their own questions, to collaborate, to problem solve, to think critically, to think creatively, to use their imagination, to express themselves, and to innovate.
  • Group students of all abilities together in the same classrooms until three differences among them become pronounced. Those differences are: 1) the students’ ability to read and understand complex materials, 2) the kind of structure and pace of learning experiences they need in order to be successful, and 3) their cognitive processing skills. When those three differences are wide, grouping students in major academic subjects with other learners similar to them is necessary for their development as learners and thinkers.
  • The goal of providing a curriculum designed to develop students as learners and thinkers is to give all students opportunities that previously were most assuredly given to only advantaged children and adolescents.

The SDAG has done an excellent job of highlighting the serious problem of segregation in New York City schools. Now it is time for the hard work of determining how to create BOTH  equity and the best possible education for all students. The curriculum proposal of the SDAG Report is too facile and would leave New York City schools to the fate H. L. Mencken described when he said:  “Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible — and wrong.”