Are there too many Jews in Hollywood?
Are there too many transgender people in the military?
Are the too many Latino baseball players?
Are there too many Asian students at the New York City specialized high schools?
Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above?
Asian students make up 17% of the 8th graders in New York City. They also make up 35% of the students who take the SHSAT and get 52% of the offers to the specialized schools.
Latino and Black students combine to make up 68% of the 8th graders, 32% of the SHSAT test takers, and 10% of the offers.
Statistically speaking, an Asian student is about 16 times more likely to get an offer to a specialized high school than a Latino student or a Black student.
These are the facts and they serve as a starting point for the big questions that this series of posts has been building toward.
To the question “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?” some might say that this is the wrong question to ask. The proper question, they might argue is, “Are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?”
Are those the same two questions, just worded in different ways? I don’t think so. The second question “Are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?” has, in my mind, an obvious answer which is ‘yes.’ The more important question which cannot be answered so easily is “Why are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?” I will address this later in this post, but first I want to explore the other question “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?”
There are a finite number of seats at the specialized schools. The only way for there to be more Latino and Black students offered seats at these schools would be for Asian students to be offered fewer seats at these schools. But if you believe “There are too many Asian students at the specialized schools?” you probably won’t feel comfortable saying it too loud. It has the same structure as the other “There are too many X in Y” statements I referenced at the beginning of this post. In any expression of this form, if the ‘X’ is not ‘white men’ you are treading into dangerous territory.
So how do you answer the two questions? Do you think that ‘yes’ there are too few Latino and Black students but that ‘no’ there are not too many Asian students at the specialized high schools. Or do you think that ‘yes’ there are too few Latino and Black students and that ‘yes’ there are too many Asian students at the specialized high schools. Or do you have some other set of answers to those two questions?
I think there are some people who believe (whether or not they say it so bluntly) that there are too many Asians in the specialized high schools and I want to address that belief here.
Some people who have been reading this series do not like when I use sports analogies, but with the summer Olympics going on right now, it is hard not to. There are certain events in the summer Olympics that have been historically dominated by different countries. Russia has won every gold medal in artistic swimming (used to be called ‘synchronized swimming’) since 2000. South Korea has won nearly every gold medal in women’s archery since 1984. China has won almost all the gold medals in table tennis ever awarded. Kenya has won all 9 golds in the history of the men’s steeplechase. Hungary has won nine gold medals in men’s water polo since 1928.
Does anyone see it as a ‘problem’ that Hungary keeps winning at men’s water polo? When you hear that Hungary won again in men’s water polo, how does it make you feel? Do you think that there is something about water polo that gives Hungary an unfair advantage? Do you think the rules should be changed so that it is a little easier for some of the other countries to win? Maybe the other countries get to start with a few points? Probably not. You probably just think that it is pretty impressive that Hungary is so good at men’s water polo. We don’t think the Hungary men’s water polo team is cheating in any way. We don’t say “Oh, it isn’t fair, they spent a lot of time practicing water polo.” There’s probably a culture in Hungary where kids aspire to be on the men’s water polo team and they’ve got water polo little league and the names of the men’s water polo players are household names. Maybe you don’t agree with all the rules of water polo, like how only the goalie can handle the ball with both hands and if another player does, they lose possession of the ball, but at least all teams have to play by the same rules as arbitrary as they may seem. You probably don’t think that Hungary has won “too many” gold medals, you tip your hat to Hungary and admire their accomplishment.
The United States hasn’t gotten the gold in men’s water polo since 1932. But does that mean we don’t train for the Olympics? Maybe the fact that Hungary will be participating is a motivating factor for the United States team to try to compete with the Hungarians. And even if the U.S. team, again, fails to medal was all that training a waste?
But when it comes to the specialized high schools some people don’t think this same way about the Asian students who gain admission to these schools. It’s not “Wow, those families supported supplemental learning for their children. How great.” For some of these families, maybe they take an ongoing course where the students improve their skills. These skills will not just help them on the SHSAT but in high school and beyond. For some families the supplemental learning may not involve a course but just that they encourage their child to sit for a few hours a week with a skills book. However they do it, why is supplemental learning not something not everybody wants to celebrate? In my opinion, the more students who study at home, the better. So that’s why I don’t agree with you if you think there are too many Asian students at the specialized high schools.
The former New York City schools chancellor Carranza was pretty clear about his feelings when he said at a press conference “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” about the fact that about half the specialized school offers went to Asian students.
But let’s say you’re someone who doesn’t think the problem is too many Asian students. You have no problem with the number of Asian students, you just think there should be more Latino and Black students. Well, I also think there should be more Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools.
The big question that everyone (or at least the 10 or so people who have been reading this 50,000+ word series of blog posts) wants me to answer is “Why are there so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?”
The reason there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools has little to do with the specialized high school admissions policy. Yes, you can change the admissions policy if you want and get the numbers you think there should be, but that’s not fixing the problem really. If you fix the problem the correct way, not only will you get more Latino and Black students into the specialized high schools but as an added bonus even the Latino and Black students who don’t get into the specialized high schools will be more prepared for college or whatever future they choose to pursue.
One reason there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high school is that politicians and high level NYC DOE administrators have not cared enough to ask the right questions to find out why there are so few.
For example, surely there are some Latino and Black students going into 8th grade next year who would be great candidates for the specialized high schools. But they aren’t going to take the SHSAT maybe. Have people at the NYC DOE ever tried to find out why those students don’t want to take the SHSAT? Have people getting paid to think about this stuff at the NYC DOE ever really tried to learn why Latino and Black students are not enthusiastic about the idea of going to a specialized high school?
And what about the Latino or Black student who was a superstar at his or her middle school and seemed destined to ace the SHSAT but didn’t make the cutoff? Has anyone ever taken a close look at the test they took and the answers they wrote? Has anyone looked over their math scrap paper? Has anyone ever sat with that kid for a few hours and asked, “Why did you write choice C for that one? What was your thought process?” If nobody is doing that kind of scientific research and getting this kind of data so you can more easily answer the question of why there are so few Latino and Black students meeting the SHSAT cutoff score, it says to me that in the current system there has not been the will to understand what the problem is.
There are a lot of theories about why there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized schools. Someone from the NYC DOE actually should investigate them and see which of them are true, if any. But they don’t because they don’t care enough to apply the scientific method to this important issue. One theory is that private schools offer scholarships to the top Latino and Black students. Is this true? How many students does this affect?
Another theory is that many of the top Latino and Black students are attending high profile charter schools. These charter schools lose many of their low performing students over the years when the schools threaten to make them repeat a grade if they don’t transfer out. So the few students who make it into 8th grade in those schools are likely very good at standardized tests. So why aren’t those students taking the SHSAT? And if they are taking the SHSAT, has that charter school helped them succeed on it or do they discourage those top performing 8th graders from taking the SHSAT or preparing for the SHSAT or even from accepting offers if they do well on the SHSAT? The theory is that those schools want those students to attend the charter school high school. I think this theory has some truth in it. Here is something from the Success Academy blog about how two of their students qualified for Brooklyn Tech but elected to say at Success Academy for high school anyway. How many more Black and Latino students could there be in the specialized high schools if those students were encouraged to consider it? Again, this is something that someone at the NYC DOE should have already thought about and should be working on this. You’ve got to approach this scientifically.
But the bigger issue is that by the time students are in 8th grade, the low SHSAT scores are merely a symptom of a bigger problem that had been going on for decades. If Asian students are supplementing what they get in school in order to get better at math and reading, why can’t that supplementation be given to Latino and Black students as part of their regular schooling? I’m talking here about resources, or more specifically the lack of resources. With more money invested in the schools from K to 8, like for smaller class sizes, maybe the Latino and Black students would be more prepared for whatever the specialized high school admissions process is, even if it moves away from just being the SHSAT. This type of thinking leads to an authentic solution which benefits everyone. Even if it doesn’t change the demographics of the specialized high schools as much as some people hope it would, everyone would be better off.
I know there is a lot more to the issue than I’m able to fully appreciate. Here’s an article from The Atlantic called ‘Don’t Scrap The Test. Help Black Kids Ace It’ with a similar perspective. And here is an equally thoughtful piece with the opposite perspective from The Daily News called ‘Scrap the SHSAT, for diversity’s sake: Mayor de Blasio is right about selective high schools’. Here is another interesting take called ‘Is New York City’s Plan to Diversify Specialized High Schools Racist toward Asian Americans?’ by a bi-racial writer who says ‘no’.
I’m sorry if you were hoping that I would be able to give a more satisfying answer to this difficult question. I tried to offer some short term and some long term solutions. I don’t have the data to answer the question any better but through these posts I hope I have modeled for somebody what it means to approach something scientifically and to raise the right questions in order to tackle the big questions.
In the next, and final, post in this series, I will try to make some final reflections.