Are New York Schools “Inherently Unequal?” Will Diversity (aka, School Integration) Improve Outcomes for All Students? or, Are “Test and Punish,” Funding Inequities, the Absence of a Rich Curriculum and Teacher and School Leader Voice the Culprits?

Sometimes a comment made at a lengthy meeting resonates; I was at an all-day conference, “Improving Outcomes for Young Men of Color,” and, on a panel of high school seniors and college freshman one of the students asked, “Why do I have to go to school with white kids to get a good education?” The question could be the topic for an entire conference, or, a book.

Our nation has grappled with the issue of race since its beginnings, and, one hundred and fifty years ago took steps to bring about racial equality.

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment (July 9, 1868), states,

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The “original intent” of the amendment, to use the terminology of the conservatives on the court, was to guarantee “equal protection” under the law. To assure compliance President Grant and the Congress used federal troops as well as setting up the Freedman’s Bureau to ease the transition from slavery to freedom.

However, the backroom political deal that allowed the Republicans to maintain the presidency in 1877 included the end of Reconstruction and the end of the occupation of the Confederate states by the Union army; with the end of Reconstruction the erosion of rights seemingly guaranteed by the 14th Amendment began.

The Supreme Court in decision after decision eroded the clear meaning of the 14th Amendment, slowly but inexorably supporting Jim Crow laws that created a racially separate peonage system in the former Confederate states. (See Lawrence Goldstone, Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, (2011))

In Plessy v Ferguson (1896) the SCOTUS decision upholding racially segregated railway cars, averred,

The object was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality or the commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting or even requiring their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of one race to the other and have been generally if not universally recognized as within the competency of state legislatures in the exercise of their police powers.

 The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet on terms of social equality it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits … If one race is inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.

Justice Harlen, in the dissenting opinion, “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.”

  My wife vividly remembered having to change cars in Washington DC, to a segregated car, on a trip to visit relatives in South Carolina.

It wasn’t until Brown v Board of Education (1954), fifty-eight years later, that the court overruled Plessy.

The unanimous Warren court wrote,

[D]oes segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. …

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.” …

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

 The Court appeared to resolve the issue of equal facilities and coined the term “inherently unequal.”

 A decade later the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), which President Johnson described as “bringing equal access to quality education” directed federal dollars to high poverty schools.

The reality was quite different.

In the South poorer white students either attended integrated public schools and wealthier whites fled to private academies; in a few districts the courts forced school districts to create school integration plans, New York City introduced an integration plan for high school students, and, with considerable pushback, a few school busing plans in the elementary schools.

As the decades passed housing patterns changed, large cities became increasingly segregated. The view that school integration would be the key to improving outcomes for minority children waned. The school reform movement moved on to charter schools and vouchers, to attacking teacher unions, to testing as a tool to expose achievement gaps, to dense accountability metrics, and the goal of school integration was left behind.

In 2014 a UCLA report turned the spotlight back onto school segregation, and highlighted New York City and State

New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future

Date Published: March 26, 2014

New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.

The UCLA report resonated across the city and state. The Board of Regents created a Work Group on School Diversity and Equity, advocates and members of the New York City Council called for a Department of Education Diversity Plan, and, the progressive city became embroiled in battles, the same battles that were unresolved over the previous hundred years.

Two adjacent schools in Manhattan, one all white and one all minority seemed a perfect place to create an integration plan. Months of bitter conflict, the all-white school [The all-white school spent $500,000 from a 501 c 3 not-for-profit account) fighting to prevent any changes in school district lines, politicians taking sides, in a few other districts “controlled choice” plans were approved.  At most, a few hundred minority children would move to predominantly white schools; a few hundred in a school system of 1.1 million students.

From all-white private academies in the South to “screened” and “examination” schools in New York City, names changed, segregation by race, class and income was unchanged.

The NYU Metro Center just released a report  taking a deeper dive into “most” and “least” diverse schools by comparing state test scores and graduation rates.

The report examined whether school diversity had led to better outcomes for the City’s most vulnerable students.

Analysis of 2015-16 achievement data suggests that there is a modest benefit for vulnerable students attending the City’s most diverse schools. Third and eighth grade students attending the most diverse schools modestly outperformed students attending the City’s least diverse schools on state standardized tests in both English and math.

In addition, students attending the most diverse high schools were slightly more likely to graduate on-time than their peers attending the least diverse schools …. By contrast, White, Asian, and more economically advantaged students were much more likely to graduate in four years in the City’s least diverse schools than their peers.

“White and Asian students seem to benefit incongruently from segregated schooling, which means that school segregation may give some students an unfair and seemingly unhealthy advantage – thus, sanctioning uneven opportunities for success,”

“The academic achievement and high school graduation evidence that we analyzed suggests that increasing diversity can increase equity in New York City schools and significantly decrease gaps in some student outcomes such as high school graduation,” Kirkland concluded. “Thus, plans to stimulate diversity in New York City schools can pay off for the City’s most vulnerable students.”

The report recommends Breaking Up “Opportunity Monopolies,” a direct assault on examination and screened schools.

“Segregated schooling seems to allow for steroid schooling – types of performance enhancing experiences that students locked into the depravities of social injustice (e.g., racial discrimination, poverty, housing instability, inadequate school faculties, non-rigorous curricula, low expectations, unstable teacher workforces, health risks, and so on) do not enjoy.

… Policies must be aimed at disrupting systems of privilege in New York City. These systems promote “opportunity monopolies, excessive privileges for certain groups that make possible the manipulation of opportunities.

The report calls for changing the admission requirements of the so-called specialized high schools, moving away from the current test-based system to one admitting the top 10% in each middle school.[Note: the admissions requirements for the specialized high schools are embedded in the law]

An example is LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, a school with a long history of producing students who thrived in the arts. The law requires,

Candidates for admission to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts and other schools which may be established with similar programs in the arts, shall be required to pass competitive examinations in music and/or the arts in addition to presenting evidence of satisfactory achievement.

A new principal has changed the emphasis, from demonstrating excellence in music and/or the arts to high test scores. See an article in the NY Post  focusing on complaints from staff over the actions of the principal.

Another report recommendation; to enhance inducements to promote diversity,

There is some evidence that inducements such as smaller class size, child and health care services, and additional material resources to school systems, families and students in diverse setting can foster can bolster student outcomes.

The report goes on to criticize the false choices between desirable and other schools, desirable schools controlled by elites, schools that promote hostile environments for other students, as evidenced by the extremely low number of minority applicants to Stuyvesant High School.

The report concludes by responding to the student at the conference cited supra,

While the authors suggest a number of concepts to increase diversity they also recommend, Recruiting and Retaining Highly Effective Teachers of Color and Developing Culturally Competent Educators,

A hundred and fifty years later segregation has become redefined as “more” or “less” diverse schools, the polices have morphed from laws prohibiting the mixing of the races to policies, that whether intended or not, result in racially separate schools.

Some readers will wince and argue that the failure to adopt ED Hirsch and his Cultural Literacy curriculum is the source of our current aimlessness. Others reject the concept that the race of the teacher matters and see “culturally relevant curriculum” as a return to Ebonics strategy of the 90’s.

Whether or not the race or the cultural competency of the teacher positively impact outcomes will be vigorously debated.

We have far more questions than answers, and, the push for diversity in a city in which only a minute fraction of school population can be impacted ignores the central questions. Creating diverse schools alone without impacting what goes on in classrooms is a fool’s errand. Too much of our system is fragmented, driven by the fear of standardized tests; too much is dictated by faraway offices, too many teachers are adrift.

In a classroom connecting with students is the key to success, a simple question: Is using rap to connect with students and stimulate discussion an acceptable strategy? Can Vince Staples or Kendrick Lamar lead to discussion of Shakespeare?

And, if you don’t know them, are you “culturally competent?”

Just asking …

2 responses to “Are New York Schools “Inherently Unequal?” Will Diversity (aka, School Integration) Improve Outcomes for All Students? or, Are “Test and Punish,” Funding Inequities, the Absence of a Rich Curriculum and Teacher and School Leader Voice the Culprits?

  1. Public Schools are inherently unequal. They have always been so. Diversity is one ingredient that does make for a better soup. Gentrification has been the spark for much needed diversity. In the past 3 years we have witnesed such gentrification in Harlem and Bed Stuy, and it is no coincidence that over that same period of time, school performance has yielded higher test scores and parents are more intricately involved , and that involvement is received as welcome pro active support rather then token organization of the school candy sales.. With gentrification comes an upwardly educated parental body. Such a body will know failure or mediocrity when it sees it, and they will know how to address it beyond calling their school leaders stupid mfers. They will not be bamboozled by the old yokedoke excuses that have been time tested get overs spoken by incompetent school leaders.Towit: I have to take the teachers assigned by the Bd of Ed..We don’t have the necessary funding for this or that..Many of our students are economically deprived, and have little family support.


  2. Paula Washington

    Interestingly, LaGuardia is and always has been a high achieving school that is perhaps the most diverse in the city. Not only are students of many races, ethnicities, nationalities and economic backgrounds present, they enjoy sitting together at the same lunch tables. Only in the last four years, when test scores entered into admissions criteria contra to the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971, have graduation rates dropped slightly along with ethnic diversity.


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