STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL is considered the crown jewel of the public schools in New York City. The magnet school, which teaches intensive maths and science, is one of America’s biggest feeders to Harvard; a list of illustrious alumni includes four Nobel laureates. For those reasons it is also one of New York’s most competitive schools, admitting pupils on the basis of a single, high-stakes exam and little else. To some, that seems the meritocratic ideal. To others, it yields alarming results. Of the 895 places available last year, only seven (or 0.8%) were offered to black students (in a district where 25% of students are black). Asians do far better on the entrance exam and are 73% of the school population—or four times their share of the student population in the district.
“You have to believe either that there are only seven black kids capable of doing the work of Stuyvesant or that there is something horribly wrong,” says Richard Buery, a graduate of Stuyvesant who is now chief of policy and public affairs for KIPP, a well-known network of charter schools. “Even at that point where there were many more black kids than there are now, I felt very acutely that I was from East New York and that I was black. I didn’t want to go, to be honest.”
The debate over whether gifted education segregates students on the basis of pre-existing privilege rather than cognitive ability is neither new nor uniquely American. The number of selective, state-run grammar schools in Britain reached a zenith in 1965, before the Labour government of Harold Wilson embarked on a largely successful effort “to eliminate separatism in secondary education”. The three-tiered German education system—which sorts children on the basis of ability at the age of ten into either university-preparatory schools or vocational ones—has always been criticised for fostering social segregation. That the children of new Turkish migrants are now disproportionately sorted into lower-tier secondary schools instead of selective Gymnasiums adds a disquieting racial divide.
In America, the debate is kicking up anew. The issue is nationwide: the most recent national statistics show that whites are 80% likelier than black students to participate in gifted programmes, while Asians are three times as likely. But the principal battleground for it has been New York City.
Much of that is due to Bill de Blasio, the city’s left-wing mayor, who has staked his administration (and recently imploded presidential run) on the promise of reducing inequality. In August a panel convened by the mayor, called the School Diversity Advisory Group, proposed a sweeping reform to “move away from unjust gifted and talented programmes and school screens”—eliminating them entirely. Though the policy has not yet been implemented, it triggered a furore among parents, particularly Asian Americans, fearful that their children’s chance at a good education was to be sacrificed at the altar of diversity.
Emotions run hot because the quality of education in New York City, as with most other aspects of life there, is so uneven. There are schools with perfect graduation rates and some where more than 30% of students drop out. An astonishing 40% of high schools in the city do not teach chemistry, physics or upper-level algebra, notes Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of InsideSchools, an education-policy website. “The problem is not learning linear algebra in schools, but not knowing arithmetic.”
Choice outside of a possibly poor neighbourhood public school is constrained—both by geography and by financing. New York has exceptionally good private schools, available at exceptionally high prices. Horace Mann School, a well-known academy in the Bronx with its own lengthy list of prominent graduates, costs $53,200 a year, from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. In other words, something on the order of Wall Street money—not merely college-educated, New Yorker-reading, comfortably upper-middle-class money—is needed. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, provide choices to the masses. Often, they draw poorer students from neighbourhood schools. Some of the highest-performing ones, such as Success Academy, draw bids from middle-class parents as well.
Anxiety and resentment are rife. In a city where motivated parents seeking the right pre-school placements will often camp out overnight and endure the humiliation of screening interviews themselves, the feeling of a competition of all against all is rampant. The gifted and talented programmes offered by the city foster extreme competition both because they offer some reassurance of a free, high-quality education and because space is extremely limited. Only 6% of high-school students attend one of the eight sought-after specialised high schools. Because admissions are based on high-stakes tests, concerned families spend considerable sums on test preparation—which of course makes the process less egalitarian than intended. Tutoring centres in the city do brisk business selling one-on-one preparation for $200 per hour or more. Asian parents of all socioeconomic strata are especially keen on the centres.
There is no doubt that the system of gifted and talented education could be improved. It seems unlikely that giftedness can reliably be established in four-year-olds on the basis of a standardised test (as is now the norm). More seats would help de-escalate the test-prep arms race. So too would giving the screening test to all students, rather than just those who opt in. Implementation of such a policy in Broward County, Florida—the sixth-largest public-school system in the country—doubled the number of Hispanic and black children in gifted programmes. Using more criteria than a single test (such as teacher recommendations or grades) is another option. Mr de Blasio floated the idea of scrapping the admissions test and admitting the top 7% of students from each middle school to specialised schools, though at some middle schools in New York that would include some who did not even pass the state maths exam. That infuriated many Asian parents, who do not see why their children should be punished for studying hard.
Children from disadvantaged homes have problems that need to be tackled long before they reach high-school age. A good education system should be as capable of delivering remedial instruction as it is gifted education—and herein lies the problem. Segregating students in schools of extremely high poverty, with few additional resources, is a recipe for stagnation. The aim of integration should be to eliminate such schools, but perhaps not to dismantle upper-tier courses. The fear that this might trigger white or middle-class flight from public schools may be overblown. Parents in Park Slope, a mostly well-to-do neighbourhood in Brooklyn, proposed their own integration plan for middle schools which went into effect last year. The share of white children in the schools did not drop a bit.