Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Specialized Schools and the Big Test

Everyone's talking about the SHSAT, the test that gets you into Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and the other specialized high schools. Or not. Evidently there is an ethnic mix in those schools that does not remotely represent our city's population. The underrepresented want in. Those in want to stay. Everyone wants a place. The article seems to suggest that students targeted for these schools will do well whether or not they get in.

Clearly any solution will make some people unhappy, and I'm not gonna sit here and claim to have a better idea than either side. Nonetheless, my viewpoints are created from where I am, and for over 25 years that's been Francis Lewis High School, the largest school in Queens and the most overcrowded in New York City.

There are reasons why we're so overcrowded. Reason number one is we're perceived as desirable. Students do relatively well in our school, and the metrics and stats that regularly get press coverage seems to bear that out. I'd attribute this to the fact that the ESL teachers are incredibly smart and good-looking, but others have their own points of view. For example, we generally have great kids.

Here's the thing, though--there is no cap on enrollment at community schools. If ten thousand freshman move into our neighborhood tomorrow, we'll go from over 200% capacity to over 500% capacity, or whatever. It doesn't matter to the city. Everyone gets in. Do the kids really live in the neighborhood? No one really knows. You can establish residence at your cousin's house, at your friend's house, or wherever. Once you're in, you're in, You can move back to wherever you really live and that's it.

I don't anticipate the city doing anything about that anytime soon. So it's hard for me to muster sympathy for entirely selective schools. In fact, it's hard for me to see what the big deal is about academic achievement when you're entirely selective about who gets in. I'm not familiar with the SHSAT in particular, but I do believe the adage that test scores tend to measure zip codes rather than ability. If I have money to prep my kid for the test and you don't, my kid is likely to do better than yours. Even if the schools offer support, the more money I have, the more support my kids will get.

Teachers have known these things for years. In New York City, Michael Bloomberg's favorite hobby was closing schools that didn't get the test scores he wanted. I'm pretty sure he's managed to close every comprehensive high school in the Bronx. If one or two survived, I'd like to know about it. This was pretty much a game of dominos. One school closed, the replacement students would exclude those with special needs, like ELLs, and they'd be sent to another, whose scores went down and was closed too.

I don't believe students in Queens are smarter than students in the Bronx. I don't believe I'm a better teacher than teachers in the Bronx. I believe the only reason I'm not an ATR is because I was lucky enough to transfer out of John Adams before it became an issue. I also think the big test to gain admission into the specialized schools works in favor of those who can prep for it. Does the test really predict how well students will do? Does it exclude only those who would not do well? Probably not, on both counts.

There must be a fair solution. Mine is to open up the specialized schools to both those who do well on the test and those who don't. That's what we do at our school, and it's worked for us. If it doesn't work at Brooklyn Tech, well, what can I tell you? It's not my fault if they can't handle their building at over 200% capacity. If we can, everyone can.

On the other hand, if you really want to talk about equity, create spaces everywhere in the city for children who need them. I don't see why students who pass some test merit better treatment than mine. If the students in specialized high schools are that good, it won't matter if they study in trailers that freeze in the winter and boil in the summer. They can study in airless closets converted into classrooms. It won't matter if their rooms are next to custodial workrooms that leak gas and diesel fumes. It won't make any difference if their gym classes are held outside because there's no space inside. If they have to eat lunch at nine in the morning and stay until five it's no big deal.

You can talk about equity until you're blue in the face and someone will always be disappointed. I'm tired of being disappointed for every one of the 4,600 kids who attend our school. If the city can place well over double capacity there, let them do it in every specialized school too. If students and faculty in those schools don't like it, well, I can't blame them. I don't like it either.

Test or no test, every kid in New York City deserves a reasonable place to study and learn.
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