The U.S. continues to resist tracking in the belief that it is elitist. Any attempt to differentiate among students is seen as anathema to democratization. The latest example is New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system (“The Complex Disadvantages Underlying New York City’s Specialized-High-School Dilemma,” The New Yorker, Jun. 15).
The pride of the district are the nine high schools that are known for their rigor. Although the system is two-thirds black or Hispanic, less than a tenth of the spots went to them. According to critics, the culprit is the Specialized High School Admissions Test that is administered once a year to middle schoolers across the city who apply to eight of the high schools. (The city’s ninth such school uses auditions.)
Yet blaming SHSAT for the situation forgets that the specialized high schools were not always so segregated. In the 1980s, the three oldest and most prestigious such schools had sizable black and Hispanic enrollment. For example, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant were 67, 22 and 16 percent black and Hispanic, respectively. That compares with 14, 9 and 3 percent, respectively, today.
What accounts for the change? In a nutshell, the elimination of tracking. In the past, tracking was well funded and widely used. This strategy served as a pipeline for talented students. But in the early 1990s, New York City eliminated many of its honors programs. As a result, the most able students were shortchanged. Critics will argue that correlation is not causation. They say that poverty is greater today than ever before. There is some truth to that, but I maintain that the far greater cause is the abolishment of tracking.
Other countries with outstanding schools have no such problem with differentiation. For example, Singapore, whose students consistently finish at or near the top on tests of international competition, begins the process with its Primary School Leaving Exam and continues it throughout the school years. Singapore is not alone.
I support efforts to make specialized schools more diverse, but not if it involves the establishment of quotas. Enrolling students who lack the wherewithal to succeed sets them up for failure. Elite schools are not for everyone.
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