Posted on November 6, 2020

The Racial-Justice War on Merit-Based Schools

Vince Bielski, Real Clear Investigations, November 02, 2020

At a virtual town hall in Brooklyn about how the pandemic will change admissions to high-performing selective schools, New York City officials got a lecture on systemic racism.

“Racism is foundational in all of our institutions, in our government, our economy, our health-care system, our legal system and our education system,” Ayanna Behin, president of a school district council, said at the June meeting. “It’s our recommendation that we prioritize the end of racial segregation in our schools.”

Behin’s comments reflect a racially charged debate in New York City and across the country invoking Jim Crow-era language to describe an education flashpoint more recent than old-fashioned enforced segregation. The conflict — influenced by critical race theory, the idea that racism is embedded in the structures of society — is over disparate racial and ethnic admissions, which critics deem so pernicious that seemingly neutral yardsticks like grades and test scores are actually reinforcing them. These critics aim to integrate coveted, elite schools by removing the performance barriers that many white and Asian parents defend as fair and objective measures of achievement.

In one of the recent conflicts, the school superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., is pushing through changes to the competitive admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the nation’s top-ranked high school, over protests from Asian parents who say their kids are being penalized for working hard. At Lowell High School in San Francisco, a plan to drop merit-based admissions for next year because of the pandemic created an uproar at a virtual school board meeting in October from parents who want to protect its reputation for rigor.

In New York City, advocates, backed by hundreds of staffers in the Department of Education, are demanding more sweeping changes in the nation’s largest school district. They are calling for the end to admissions screening for almost 200 selective middle schools, or more than a third of the total. And a mayoral advisory panel has also urged the city to rid elementary schools of gifted and talented programs and erase the “gifted and talented” wording from the system because it’s not in keeping with the spirit of integration.


In this polarizing battle, parents who support screening for accelerated education are tarred as racists on social media. The idea that all students benefit by vying for admissions to top schools because it nurtures a drive for academic excellence is dismissed as a tool of segregation. Even moderate proposals to expand gifted and talented programs and make them more diverse face strong opposition.

“Our culture and economy thrive on excellence. When I think of New York, I think of artistic and intellectual excellence,” says Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on making accelerated education more accessible to disadvantaged students. “And now, particularly in urban districts we are seeing a backlash, where the ideology is turning against excellence. We are institutionalizing anti-intellectualism, and that has long-term implications for us.”


With 1.1 million students, New York City has one of the most segregated systems in the country, a result of entrenched housing patterns and the proliferation of selective schools. Today blacks and Latinos make up about two-thirds of public school students. But in more than half of city schools, they comprise over 80% of the students and sometimes beyond 90%.

In this system, achievement gaps have remained remarkably wide. In 2019, only about a third of black and Latino students reached proficiency on math and English state tests for grades 3 through 8. That compares with roughly two-thirds for white and Asian kids. But the question of how to improve academic achievement for blacks and Latinos defies easy answers.

Advocates say greater diversity is the remedy. They are pushing the city to replace test, grade and attendance-based admissions with a system designed to mix students of all backgrounds and academic abilities together. In such integrated schools, low achievers rise partly because of the influence of high achievers, who don’t regress academically, says Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who researches education policy. What’s more, students from different racial and ethnic groups build bonds at a time when America’s social fabric is fraying.

Parents fighting to keep selective schools in New York City reject the everybody-wins narrative as naive. Yiatin Chu, co-founder of Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE), says students of all groups have a wide range of abilities and lumping them together in classrooms makes it impossible for teachers to challenge all of them at once. A 2013 study, published in Gifted Child Quarterly, of five diverse elementary schools in several states found reading levels in classrooms ranging from about two years below grade level to about six years above it.

“I see a huge disparity in terms of abilities, and is it reasonable to expect our teachers in big classrooms to differentiate the teaching to really meet the needs of all students in that class?” says Chu, who has a child in public school. “The truth is no, they cannot.”

PLACE is fighting an uphill battle against the education department. New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has called screened schools “antithetical” to public education and has talked in vague terms about changing gifted-and-talented programs. Last year, as PLACE was advocating to keep admissions screens, the department reached out to integration groups, telling them to “make more noise.”

While advocates say academic research overwhelmingly shows the benefits of integrated schools, there is in fact significant disagreement among scholars. {snip}

David Armor of George Mason University carefully controlled for students’ backgrounds in a robust 2018 study. He found that the socioeconomic composition of schools had a negligible impact on results in math and reading tests in grades 3 through 8 across three states and over multiple years.