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Diversity or Excellence?

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Diversity or Excellence?

New York City’s liberals are outraged by the success of Asian-American kids on a key admissions test. March 15, 2017
New York
Education

The admissions-test results for New York City’s “specialized high schools” were announced last week, followed inevitably by a spate of articles bemoaning the continued lack of diversity, in terms of black and Latino enrollment, at the highly selective schools, and by renewed calls from progressives to gut the test. In an article in the Summer 2014 issue of City Journal, I discussed how poor and working-class Asian-American kids from immigrant families have come to dominate enrollment at these eight schools—particularly the flagship Stuyvesant High School—and how the effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio and other affluent white liberals to replace the admissions test with “holistic” selection criteria would primarily benefit their own privileged children, rather than underrepresented minorities, at the expense of these Asian students. A subsequent study by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at NYU confirmed this suspicion.

The most recent test results continue the pattern of Asian dominance and disappointing performance by other minorities. Asian students received offers for 53 percent of the slots at the eight schools, and 65 percent at Stuyvesant. (Once some offers are declined by students opting for private schools, these figures will likely increase to roughly the same 60 percent and 73 percent population shares, respectively, that Asians have held at these schools the last few years.) By contrast, black test-takers received only 4 percent of the offers at the eight schools and 1 percent at Stuyvesant, while Hispanic students received 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Attempts by de Blasio, the NAACP, the United Federation of Teachers, and others on the left to change the state law mandating an objective admissions test for the specialized schools have stalled in the legislature—owing largely to the grassroots opposition of many in the Asian-American community. Instead, the city has implemented and expanded, and the state has funded, various efforts, including outreach and tutoring programs, to identify and prepare black and Latino middle-school students capable of passing the test. (The city has also tinkered with the test in largely innocuous ways but has apparently abandoned an almost certainly illegal trial balloon to add a subjective essay section.)

These outreach initiatives are not only justified but morally imperative. The city has an obligation, as Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. told the Wall Street Journal, “to nurture gifted students in every neighborhood.” But these efforts are fundamentally different from the defeatist and ironically racist push to scrap standards in the name of diversity.

They’re not likely to have a very big impact on the admissions figures, though. That’s one thing that the progressives who attack these efforts are right about. The effect of such individual nurturing on group differences in achievement is obviously dwarfed by much broader and more powerful socio-cultural and other influences. These complex factors are the subject of study by scholars such as the great African-American Stuyvesant dropout Thomas Sowell, and are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that family structure is crucial, and while decline can be precipitous, improvement is glacial. So the ethnic makeup of the specialized schools is unlikely to undergo significant change anytime soon.

But so what? It seems reasonable to assume (though there does not appear to be any data on it) that white ethnic groups with historically lower educational attainment levels are also underrepresented at Stuyvesant and the other specialized high schools, albeit not to the same degree as blacks and Latinos. Yet what could be more insulting, bigoted, and demeaning to the Irish-American, Italian-American, and other white-ethnic kids who do pass the test than to lower standards in an attempt to increase their numbers? Perhaps there are greater arguments for preferences for black students, if not Latinos, to counter historical discrimination in society at large (though there is no evidence of racial discrimination at the specialized schools). But the same stigma would still apply to those in the favored groups—unfairly labelling the next Thomas Sowell as an affirmative-action selection who couldn’t make it on his own, while setting up those who really couldn’t make it on their own, and don’t have the talent to compete against the smartest kids in the city, for failure.

What about diversity, now touted with evangelical zeal as the highest and loftiest goal of society? Put aside the Orwellian irony of saying that schools with 60 percent minority enrollment are not diverse. The even greater irony is that the fetishization of racial diversity for its own sake by modern liberals has made diversity’s genuine benefits harder to realize. The true value of diversity at a place like Stuyvesant is the excitement of bringing together the best and the brightest of all races, religions, and ethnicities—without regard to race, religion, or ethnicity. Liberals decry that only 13 African-Americans have been offered seats in the Stuyvesant class of 2021. But is diversity better served if a brilliant young Chinese-American physicist works on an equal level (and perhaps forms a  close lifelong friendship) with a brilliant young African-American physicist from among those 13—or if the Chinese kid passes 20 black kids in the hall?

For these reasons, defenders of merit selection at the specialized schools should not fall into the trap of accepting the liberal view that diversity is itself the goal, and that the continued disappointing numbers are some sort of crisis. By all means, we must double down on nurturing “gifted students from every neighborhood.” But we can never lose sight of the pursuit of excellence for which we’re nurturing them.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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