Council Chambers during Thursday's packed hearing (photo: @MarkLevineNYC)
There is no more important factor than classroom diversity to assure quality education and a just society for our children. I commend the New York City Council for its courage in addressing this issue since we know that actions to correct segregation are almost as painful and politically dangerous as a failure to act.
Recently, I have discussed the need to adjust the Department of Education's policies around the placement of so-called "over-the-counter" students; single-test admissions to the city's elite high schools; and the school choice system.
On Thursday, I testified at the City Council, expressing wholehearted support for legislation to require the DOE report each year on diversity in the city's schools (Int. 511) and calling on the DOE to officially establish diversity as a priority in admissions policies and practices (Res. 453). These are necessary steps to focus the Department of Education's attention on schools and school processes that limit diversity. Every time a selection procedure fails to provide for diversity of academic, economic, geographic, racial, linguistic, gender, and ethnic populations, the DOE should have to justify not just the reasons for disproportionate inclusion of certain groups but why others are excluded.
We know from studies of student progress that all gain from exposure to difference. Even if, in a given school, test scores go up or down, individual student scores do not decline and the humans behind those scores infinitely profit from diversity's cognitive, affective, and social benefits. If the administration is serious about reducing pressure on test scores, that will have the beneficial effect of reducing pressure on principals to pre-select high scoring students.
When we ignore the importance of diversity in the name of privilege or identity, we take a step backward in fulfilling the American promise. Current crises of racial polarization, income inequality, and sexual predation are tied to the limited opportunities and demographic isolation inherent in segregated school settings. Int. 511 and Res. 453 put the Council squarely on record promoting those goals.
In qualifying my support for the third piece of legislation at hand on Thursday (Res. 442), I note my long and vigorous involvement in the federal complaint against the current Specialized High School exam which has a clear, shameful discriminatory impact against Black and Latino students.
The test also fails to meet modern standards of merit-based admission practiced by other selective high schools and colleges nationally. The exam's single great appeal is that it sorts quickly and numerically, inducing a test centered culture mired in racial bigotry. But to my mind the answer is not to amend New York State Education Law 2590-h(1)(b), which requires the test admissions practice, but to repeal it.
Why should the State Legislature be dictating selection procedures at all, setting in stone criteria which will always be, at best, imperfect? I prefer to devolve selection procedures to the city, without this strange legislative strangle-hold established by Calandra-Hecht in 1971.
David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Educational Leadership at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.