By Michael Johnson
Part 1- The Real Problem: What is to be done with all of those K-12 Black and Latino students who are on and/or above learning- and grade-level standards?
“Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.” —Ralph Ellison
“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” —Oprah Winfrey
“…Some NYC politicians, civic leaders and professional educators (who should know and act better) are floating, unknowingly or cynically, a dangerous narrative: That poor performance on a high school standardized admissions exam proves that there is something ‘inherently’ wrong with the brains of Black and Latino children; thus, the ‘problem’ requires an ‘admissions process’ fix rather than an expanded educational opportunity and an improvement of learning quality fix. They either ignore or don’t know that these students not having full ‘front-end’ access to a better quality of learning and test-preparedness are predictably doomed to suffer from academic underachievement and test underperformance. In our present national political climate, it is probably not a wise or helpful decision to imply, even by accident, that Black and Latino children are, ‘by nature,’ intellectually inferior. What is inferior is the quality of the K-8 education and test preparation too many of these Black and Latino students are receiving…”
At a recent public forum on the NYC Mayor’s Specialized High Schools (SHS) “Integration Plan,” a few Black parents raised some very thoughtful questions about the emotional and educational safety and well-being of their children, if admitted by way of the “plan” to a SHS. I share their concerns and many others about the “integration plan;” for sure, the “devil” is in the tale that leads up to the “plan,” as well as the problematic details in the “plan” itself.
As a former NYC high school principal, I took in students who “voluntarily” transferred from a SHS. What I gained from those experiences is my belief that SHS school culture generally is not structured and practiced in working with “struggling” students (who tested into a SHS!). And trust me, I have learned as a superintendent, school cultures don’t change simply because of a “directive” from central, and if the administration and/or staff don’t like or agree with that directive, well, the central office better “helmet-up,” for a passive and/or active resistance battle is about to begin where students could be the victims of some form of educational collateral damage! Will these SHS “integrated” children of color be seen as intellectually second-class students who gained access based on a political, rather than an academic, basis? And if these Black and Latino students have not received a quality K-8 educational learning experience, are we crippling their competitiveness and ultimately setting them up for failure? And what about those Black and Latino students who took, passed and gained admission to the SHS by way of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) entrance exam. When these students enter a classroom will a teacher assume that (and treat them like) they are a political integration admittance? Those concerned Black parents and I have been schooled by American racial life experiences, we know that you can’t legislate racial attitudes and perceptions. And having spent a lot of years in public school systems, I know that the real “racial achievement gap” is between what is rhetorically offered to students and what is ultimately expected of them; that which is promised and that which is actually done on behalf of children of color.
The critical underlining, unaddressed, and cleverly concealed problem here is that NYC and many other (including “northern liberal”) places in the US have failed to recognize and design a systemwide, comprehensive strategic plan that would effectively respond to the question: “What is to be done with K-12 Black and Latino students who are on and/or above learning- and grade-level standards?” High-academically performing Black and Latino public school students are in so many ways the invisible, forgotten and ignored children of public education. Why, one might ask, is there an artificially created scarcity of K-8 Gifted and Talented (G&T) programs in “designated” parts of New York City? Why are there so few good K-12 neighborhood school options in many neighborhoods of color in NYC? Why are Black and Latino students always being educationally ghettoized and characterized by the phrases “deficient” and “gaps?” Black and Latino children, like all children, cover a wide spectrum of interest, gifts, talents and abilities, and so why are we not sincerely and adequately addressing the diverse needs of these students?
Some NYC politicians, civic leaders and professional educators (who should know and act better) are floating, unintentionally or cynically, a dangerous narrative: That poor performance on a high school standardized admissions exam proves that there is something “inherently” wrong with the brains of Black and Latino children; thus, the “problem” requires an “admissions process” fix rather than an expanded educational opportunity and an improvement of the quality of learning fix. They either ignore or don’t know that these students not having full “front-end” access to a better quality of learning and test-preparedness are predictably doomed to suffer from academic underachievement (at any high school) and standardized test underperformance. In our present political climate, it is probably not a wise or helpful decision to imply, even by accident, that Black and Latino children are, “by nature,” intellectually inferior. However, what is inferior is the quality of the K-8 education and test preparation too many of these Black and Latino students are receiving.
But as wonderful and helpful as a K-8 G&T program (including a strong and rich arts component) can be in preparing students to gain admission to a NYC SHS, all that is required to effectively prepare a young person for the most academically rigorous requirements at any NYC high school is to simply provide them a K-8 environment rich with: high expectations, high teacher effectiveness, high efficacious behavior on the part of the school’s administrators and instructors, high teaching and learning efficiency (a high quantity of quality teaching and learning time), and the consistent (every grade) exposure to a standards (rich)-based K-8 formal and “informal” educational curriculum experience. There are a lot of places (G&T or not) where these empowering educational conditions exist in NYC public schools, just not in most places. And as professional educators, we must be brave and responsible enough to speak that truth to power and the public.
Many NYC Asian-American public-school parents, along with their political, religious and civic leaders have somehow figured this “public education thing” out. They are clear that the public education system is not what it claims to be (“give me your disinherited and politically disenfranchised children and we will…”). I love the promise, potentiality and possibilities of public education, and therefore the presence of this systemic hypocrisy is painful for me to admit, but it’s true, public schools, more often, sift out and destroy many of the most talented disadvantaged students rather than shift the unfair advantages away from students with unearned societal privilege.
The Asian-American “generationa- improvement woke” parents are not waiting for people whose children benefit from the existing “structural arrangements” of public schooling to create a “fair” school system that allows all children to learn and compete fairly. Therefore, they understand the need to create a parallel/supplementary learning-study-enrichment system that could even the playing field where the primary “gatekeeping” criteria is “objective” standardized exams. The thinking: “You (society) can perhaps discriminate against us, but you can’t discriminate against a good standardized test score, be it on a Regents exam, AP, SAT or the SHSAT!” And I can’t be mad at them, because to be honest, some of us (Science Skills Center, Inc.) were trying to do the same thing!
These Asian-American parents are now suing to save their children and their future. And it does not matter that I think that forming an: “all parents of color, the parents of working-class/poor children regardless of color, any NYC parent of conscience coalition, would be more beneficial for all NYC children; we are alas, in the unfortunate bitter place we find ourselves. And yet I can’t bring myself to feel anything but sympathy for their situation. For as a Black man living in America, I am ever-so-sensitive and aware of the practice of the “middle-of-the-game” rule-changing “trick” that occurs whenever Black folks master and start winning “the game.”
Easy villains make the battle feel more easily justified, but simple vilification can sometimes be the product of an intellectually deficient and theoretically lazy process. This entire SHS integration story would be much simpler (and easier for me to pick “sides”) if a George Wallace-type figure was standing in the Stuyvesant and Bronx Science school doors blocking Black and Latino 8th-grade graduates from entering those schools. But the hard truth is that these students are being blocked by a much more complex, subtle and politically entrenched form of bigotry. Removing this blockage is going to require tremendous feats of audacious strength and courage on the part of communities of color who, once deciding that educationally losing their children is everything, will then decide to risk everything on behalf of those children.
Next Week Part 2: The real history behind the NYC Specialized High School “Integration Problem” and how it could be fixed, if fixing it is really the objective…
Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal, and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]