New York City Public Schools Should Be Evaluated Based on Diversity, Not Just Tests, Panel Says

Eliza Shapiro, New York Times, February 12, 2019

A high-level panel commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the city to adopt a sweeping measure to address entrenched segregation in education: create diversity targets for all 1,800 schools so that their population reflects the racial and economic makeup of the surrounding areas.

Over the next five years, the panel recommended, elementary and middle schools should reflect the racial makeup of their local school district, and high schools should look as much like their local borough as possible, in terms of race, income level, disability and proficiency in English.

New York’s schools have become increasingly divided along racial lines over the last two decades, and the city is currently home to one of the most segregated urban public school systems in America.

Mr. de. Blasio, now in his second term, ran on a promise to reduce inequality in all aspects of city life. But, when it comes to school segregation, he has been stymied by the same quandary that previous mayors faced: How to redistribute resources so that black and Hispanic students have more access to high-quality schools without alienating middle class, white families.

New York’s schools have been able to retain more white students than some other large public school systems across the country; in other cities, white students have fled to suburbs and private schools.

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Though New York City’s school system is made up of nearly 70 percent black and Hispanic students and some school districts have an almost exclusively minority student body, recent waves of gentrification have diversified several local school districts, including parts of central Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan and western Queens. But an influx of middle class, often white, families have not integrated schools in those districts, leaving many overwhelmingly minority or white.

The panel’s proposal, which puts schools on the hook to match district averages in race, class, and student ability, would change that.

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For the last decade, the city’s schools were considered desirable if they had high student test scores, or other academic markers. What the panel is suggesting constitutes an additional way of rating schools, along with traditional academic measures.

“The idea of a good school versus a bad school is based on these narrow assumptions,” including tests and attendance, said Matt Gonzales, a member of the group that issued the report and the director of New York Appleseed’s school diversity project. “We wanted to shift the narrative about how we measure school quality. Good schools are integrated schools.”

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The report does not provide a clear road map to integration, and many of the particulars, including consequences for schools that do not meet diversity targets, would have to be worked out by the city’s top education officials.

“Our schools are best when they reflect the diversity of our city,” the mayor said. “This report marks crucial progress in turning that vision into reality.”

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The group left many implementation details of its plan up to the mayor, though it is expected to release a second, more detailed, report before the end of the school year.

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Because of the city’s student demographics, full integration is all but impossible without some kind of transportation plan or the elimination of geographic districts to determine admission, measures the mayor has not supported. But even short of those changes, the group found that many schools can be significantly more integrated than they are today.

The city’s charter schools, which have overwhelmingly black and Hispanic student bodies, should be rewarded for creating diversity goals, according to the report.

One potentially important proposal is the creation of a chief integration officer, who would be responsible for holding schools to diversity targets and would oversee a broader integration effort.

In order to track how close schools are to diversity targets, the report suggests the city annually release the metrics used to judge schools’ integration efforts. The city’s existing school quality reports, which are designed to help parents select schools, should include diversity “as another measure of school performance,” according to the report.

Mr. de Blasio should also focus on integrating schools in neighborhoods that may have wealth disparities and segregated schools, the group said.

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Mr. de Blasio should also ask all 32 of the city’s local school districts to consider whether their gifted and talented programs and schools that admit students using academic criteria are causing further segregation, the report suggests.

But the group stopped short of pushing for any citywide mandates that would require parents to choose more diverse schools or school rezonings that would force more racial and economic integration.

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The mayor has taken some incremental steps to boost diversity. Last year, he set aside $2 million to support local parent groups’ efforts to draft their own integration plans, and he has approved a small-scale program for schools to set aside seats for students who are low-income, learning English or otherwise vulnerable.

Several local school districts have already come up with their own integration plans, and a few high-profile rezonings have brought some integration to schools in diverse neighborhoods. The mayor released a preliminary diversity plan in 2017, which included a target to increase the number of students in integrated schools by 50,000 over five years. But researchers found the city was likely to meet the goals in its plan even without any significant action.

The promise of the report’s eventual release has been something of a crutch for Mr. de Blasio’s administration — proof that the city was in fact working on a plan — but it may cause headaches for the mayor now that it actually exists.

Though the report focuses on suggestions rather than mandates, it puts the responsibility of integrating the system on Mr. de Blasio.

Mr. de Blasio has consistently avoided using the word “segregation” to describe the state of the city’s schools, and has instead advocated for “diversification.” At times, he has described desegregation as a charge beyond the scope of the Department of Education, and even beyond his office.

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