Like some other urban school districts, New York City has a system of elite, specialized, high schools, admission to which is governed by a test. As Dropout Nation readers already know, I have documented the role these schools play in perpetuating the racial caste system that condemn so many black and Latino children to poverty and imprisonment. And once again, the data shows that this continues.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoAs the New York Times reported last week, of “the 5,103 students offered placement in eight specialized high schools [in 2014-2015], five percent were black and seven percent were Hispanic, the same as last year . . . At Stuyvesant High School, historically the hardest to get into, black students earned 10 of the 953 seats.”

That is, one percent, in a school system in which 30 percent of the students are Black. Of course, “black” students are not necessarily African American and students admitted to New York’s specialized high schools have not necessarily attended the district’s middle schools. All 10 of those “black” new freshman at Stuyvesant could be the children of foreign diplomats. At the one percent level, anything can happen.

Year after year the city administers an admission test claimed to be objective and year after year the result is on the face of it discriminatory. What do we say about a situation in which the professed objectives and the actual outcomes differ so greatly? We say that the actual goal of the process is that which is achieved: to exclude African-American students from the best educational opportunities available.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools has released a policy brief on the issue. The authors, Sean Corcoran and Christine Baker-Smith, found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just five percent of the City’s public middle schools.” Were those excellent middle schools located in the three extraordinarily segregated neighborhoods in which most of the city’s Black students live?


Corcoran and Baker-Smith tested various alternatives to the current system as paths to equity. They found that an “admissions rule that would substantially change the demographic mix of the specialized high schools—and reduce the concentration of offers in a small number of middle schools—is a rule that guarantees admission to all students across the City who are in the top 10 percent of their middle school.” This approach has been used in Texas for admission to that state’s elite university.

The present system of admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools is damaging in many ways.

It, along with the entire structure of school choice and gifted and talented education, validates the differences in the quality of education offered by the city’s schools, putting the onus for a student’s educational opportunities on the student’s family, rather than on the system itself. In other words, it helps maintain the inferior quality of education available to students from impoverished, less highly educated, families. That is on the input side, as it were. On the output side, it limits lifetime opportunities for Black students, denying them access to the educational and social networking opportunities of the elite high schools.

In this way, racial discrimination in the United States is supported by the nation’s education system as a full partner in that effort with the nation’s criminal justice system. What happens in Ferguson, Mo. – where the district and law enforcement come together to condemn the lives of Black people – also happens in the City of New York.

The top 10 percent rule would require a change in the law. Perhaps Mayor Bill de Blasio could add that to his legislative agenda. How hard could that be, at least to try?

Meanwhile, 95 percent of New York City’s Black students are denied the opportunity of the world-class education offered by the city’s outstanding specialized high schools, one of which is attended by the mayor’s son.