Both The New York Times and the New York Post ran stories this week about the demographic breakdown of students accepted to New York City’s eight elite public high schools. Though dealing with the same numbers, the news items were starkly different. The Times piece was focused on lack of diversity, noting that only 10 percent of students accepted were Black and Hispanic, even though those groups make up 67 percent of all New York public school students. But, there was one word that, somewhat shockingly did not appear in the article — the word “Asian.”
At the Post the opposite was true. There the headline blared, “Asian kids dominate admission to city’s elite high schools.” What the Times had neglected to mention in its coverage was the wildly disproportionate number of Asian students accepted into these schools. It is basically the inverse of what we see with Black and Latino students; over 50 percent of accepted students are Asian, though Asians only make up about 13 percent of all public school students.
The Times’ decision to leave out such a huge piece of a story focused on efforts to increase Black and Hispanic enrollment is indicative of a paradox progressives face in tackling the disparities. Any Lefty worth his salt is happy to jump on board an effort to redistribute resources to minority groups, but in this case, in order to do so, that redistribution must come at the expense another minority group, one largely made up of immigrant families. That’s a tough spot, so the Gray Lady just ignored it.
A Campaign Promise Not Kept
In his 2013 run for mayor, Bill de Blasio pledged to change the admission policies for the city’s elite public high schools, to address the low enrolment of minority groups. By law, these schools, widely considered the equal of the nation’s top private schools, may only consider test scores in admission. This leaves no room to massage the results as our top colleges do, and replace higher scoring Asian students with other minority students.
So far, the mayor has made a few small changes, offering more test prep to minority students and making a few alterations to the test itself. The result has been a further decline in the number of Black and Hispanic students. Now progressives are demanding more wholesale changes to the admission policy, to look at factors beyond simply test scores.
De Blasio’s reticence to make these changes likely has to do with the fact that doing so would be a direct effort to limit the number of Asian students in the schools. That may sound hyperbolic, but the numbers bear it out. Take Stuyvesant High School, considered the best of the eight, according to Business Insider. In 2016 the student body had 23 Black and Hispanic students, 178 white students and a whopping 680 Asian students.
While it is well established that affirmative action programs always disproportionately harm Asian students, the numbers in New York are so stark, that there is no way to move the needle on diversity without the vast majority of those negatively impacted being Asian. This would require the mayor to tell thousands of Asian students and their families that even though they worked hard and got the best score, they are being passed over.
Is There Asian Privilege?
Traditionally affirmative action programs have been based on the idea that white students have advantages that stem from structural racism in our society. It is a way of redressing past and current discrimination and leveling the playing field. This argument makes a lot less sense in regard to Asian students, especially in New York City where most are first or second-generation immigrants. It strains credulity to suggest that somehow American society was created to enshrine Asian privilege.
This leads to some uncomfortable questions. How do we explain this wildly disproportionate dominance of admission to these schools by Asian students? There is no innate quality such as IQ that can explain such a vast difference in success. More likely, we are dealing with something cultural. We see books and articles about dragon moms, and are familiar with stereotypes about overbearing Asian families that insist on academic excellence.
This cultural explanation has some precedent in New York, also one tied to the immigrant experience. In the 1930s and 1940s the public City College of New York was regarded as the “Jewish Ivy.” It was a disproportionately Jewish school, attended by poor and middle class immigrant Jews that produced a number of important thinkers. It was an experience close to what we see in New York’s elite high schools today, and it came with similar stereotypes of bookish Jews with academically demanding families.
Can Diversity Be Achieved Fairly?
But if the explanation is primarily cultural, what can be done to promote diversity, without unfairly punishing kids and families making sacrifices for their education? If we accept the premise that having top schools better reflect the demographics of the city, and there are advantages to this, what’s the best way to make it happen? The answer must not be to discriminate against Asian students, but rather to raise the academic levels of other groups.
In New York City, charter schools may be providing the answer. Though controversial, the city’s charters have a success rate that is undeniable. According to a Stanford University study, translating standard deviation in achievement growth between traditional public schools and charters, “This advantage for charter students is equivalent to 23 more days of learning in a 180-day school year in reading and 63 days in math.”
This is a stunning result, and one that should obviously lead de Blasio and other city leaders to increase these opportunities for better elementary and middle school education. Would that lead to significant change in the numbers at the eight elite high schools? Maybe, maybe not, but whether it does or not, it puts students in a much better position to learn and succeed.
New York City’s top high schools serve a unique purpose, and there are only eight of them (a ninth is a performing arts school that admits based on auditions) in a city of eight million people. For decades they have been point of pride in Gotham. There is no excuse to change the recipe that has had so much success because we don’t like the skin tone of the kids getting in today. Asian students deserve better than to be targeted in the name of diversity. De Blasio must reject calls to change the high standards at these top schools, and instead offer more choice to parents of all races who seek a better education for their kids.