The Case of Education for Minority Students in NYC

NYU Professor, Pedro Noguera. Photo courtesy of SpeakOut - The Institute for Democratic Education and Culture.

This week, from May 29 to June 2, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will convene in Times Square, crediting New York City’s energetic environment and diverse population as a fitting backdrop for its 25th anniversary year.

Race, social justice challenges and access in American higher education are topics that keynote speakers, including green jobs guru Van Jones and professors hailing from area universities such as NYU, Princeton and Columbia, will discuss with an audience of  administrators, faculty, minority affairs officials, campus life leaders and students.

Though the conference focuses on college education, its chosen setting of New York City should give local secondary educators pause for reflection. Given school closures, failing grades and turnarounds, how well is New York City serving its minority students? How many young New Yorkers will have a chance to move on to higher education?

Pedro Noguera, professor at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and one of the NCORE keynote speakers, is an urban sociologist whose work concerns education reform, diversity and the achievement gap. In April, he wrote the foreword to a report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City.”

The Schott report analyzed nearly 500 NYC middle school students’ scores on eighth grade English Language Arts and Mathematics assessments to illustrate “disparities in opportunities to learn in New York City,” both between the more than 30 community school districts and in different schools within those districts.

The study found that students who live in predominately black, Latino or impoverished white or Asian neighborhoods have the worst performing schools, with the least senior teachers, and subsequently, the lowest incomes. The racial disparity in education is something the New York City Independent Budget Office also confirmed in its April report, “Making the Grade? Assessing School Progress Reports’ Measurement of Annual Academic Achievement,” noting about the grading of schools themselves: “All other things equal, elementary, middle and high schools with a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students were consistently likely to have lower overall scores than other schools.”

The following is an excerpt of Noguera’s foreword to the report:

The opportunity to learn and to attend a high performing school is largely determined by the neighborhood in which a child lives.

On most measures of quality of life — health, employment, income, etc.— differences related to class and race are glaring and conspicuously apparent. The disparities are also profoundly tied to the neighborhood in which a person resides. Unfortunately, this same pattern of disparity is found in students’ access to good schools and to all of the opportunities that accompany this access. More often than not, the opportunity to learn and to attend a high performing school is largely determined by the neighborhood in which a child lives. My hope is that readers of this report will be outraged by the fact that education in New York City is more likely to reproduce and reinforce existing patterns of inequality than to serve as a pathway to opportunity.

Many of the reform measures that have been implemented in the past ten years — decentralization, school closures, grade retention and, most recently, the release of value-added measures to evaluate teachers — were put forward as a way to improve schools, raise achievement and increase accountability. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg and the various chancellors he has appointed have consistently justified these measures by claiming they would help those students who have traditionally been least well served by schools.

However, missing from the vision put forward by the Mayor and the New York Department of Education is any mention of what should be done to address the extremely high levels of segregation by race and class in the city’s neighborhoods and schools. Our leaders have known for some time that most of the “failing” schools in the city were located in the poorest neighborhoods and were serving the most disadvantaged children. So far, no effective action has been taken to begin to ameliorate these profound inequities.

This does not mean that none of the actions taken under Mayor Bloomberg to improve schools have been successful. Graduation rates have increased and several new schools that were created over the last ten years are thriving and unmistakably superior to the ones they have replaced. However, despite the changes that have been made, too many children continue to languish in schools that lack the resources and capacity to meet their academic or social needs. Most of these children are located in the city’s poorest and most isolated neighborhoods.

It has become increasingly clear that policies like school choice, while providing access for some to better school options, have also exacerbated inequities among schools and contributed to the concentration of the neediest children in a small number of “failing” schools. These policies have also contributed to an ugly polarization among parents who are competing desperately for access to successful schools and facilities. It is clear that the battles with the teachers’ union over school closures and the release of value-added evaluation measures are doing little to advance genuine improvements in the city’s schools.

New York needs a renewed commitment to equity to insure that the opportunity to learn is not determined by the census tract where a child resides. Creative leadership is needed to find ways to promote integration so that our schools no longer concentrate the neediest children in the most troubled schools, while ignoring their de-facto exclusion from Gifted and Talented programs and high-performing schools. For the health and well-being of the entire city, New York needs an approach to reform that focuses on expanding and enhancing learning opportunities rather than merely raising test scores.

This year’s NCORE conference will take place at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.  Participants can continue registering until the day of the conference either online or on-site. Professor Pedro Noguera’s keynote address on Sat., June 2, is “Education for a Just and Equitable Society.”

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