Accountability · Finding the Right School

The Big Con: Why NYC’s Plan For Raising Student Achievement Isn’t Close To Good Enough For All Kids

In the January issue of Big Apple Parents Paper, author James Breakwell asserted, “Nobody has secret math. Math at one school will be the same as it is at another school even if the other school has a swimming pool and a polo field.”

That is… an astounding amount of privilege.

Breakwell (a pseudonym) is raising his four daughters in Indianapolis, an apparent utopia where the only substantial differences between the schools available to them are which one has the swimming pool and which one has the polo field. (Strangely, these parents disagree with him.)

It’s a little different in New York City, where some schools report almost 100 percent of students performing at grade level in math… and some report none. Where an “A” in Harlem doesn’t equal an “A” in midtown. Where a student can think they’re taking Algebra, but it turns out to be only Pre-Algebra. (How’s that for “secret math?”)

This mind-blowing level of inequality having nothing to do with pools and polo, prompted the student-led organization Teens Take Charge to live up to their name and goal of adding youth voices to the education conversation. They proposed an Enrollment Equity Plan, requesting that:

  • By fall 2020, ensure that at least 10% and no greater than 80% of each high school’s incoming freshman class passed the 7th grade state English exam, math exam or both.
  • By fall 2022, ensure that at least 20% and no greater than 70% of each high school’s incoming freshman class passed the 7th grade state English exam, math exam or both.

Currently, only about 40 percent of NYC students are performing at grade level in English and/or Math. So, at best, all schools will end up with a minority of kids who’ve passed state tests. In practice, odds are some schools will have 20% and others will have 70%, better than the discrepancies in play now, but still with an end result of more than half of NYC’s kids not performing at grade level.

(Keep in mind this plan excludes high-performers who will opt for Specialized High Schools, and those who would quit the public school system altogether. Educational Option schools have been attempting something similar for decades, but the math rarely works out. NYC simply doesn’t have enough students performing at grade level to go around if they want to make every school a majority-passing school!)

The Teens Take Charge plan for high school admissions is akin to what rezoning was supposed to do for Upper West Side elementary schools, and what the removal of screens is intended to do for Brooklyn’s District 15 middle schools. It’s also the stated goal behind setting aside 25 percent of seats for students scoring a 1 or a 2 on their state tests in District 3 Manhattan middle-schools.

Just sit low-performers next to high-performers and watch those test scores rise! No talk about improving curriculum or teacher training or personalized learning. Just proximity. Proximity will single-handedly get the job done.

For the schools. Not for the kids. Especially not for the kids who need it most.

Let’s take, as an example, District 3’s Computer School. It’s principal, Henry Zymeck, has been a huge supporter of the new admissions plan from the start. Except, even before new students with failing test scores arrive in September 2019, The Computer School already has 33% of students not performing at grade level in math.

Since The Computer School is a screened middle school (currently 27 percent Free Lunch and 48 percent White, stats Mr. Zymeck could have tweaked without a District-wide moratorium but chose not to until the opportunity to virtue signal arose), we can assume either that these kids entered proficient at math and The Computer School lowered their scores, or they entered not proficient and graduated not proficient.

So, where was the value-add of sitting them next to high-achievers, again?

Plus, it explains why Mr. Zymeck is so publicly enthused about the change. It won’t actually alter his school (a recurring theme in diversity initiatives which the Department of Education really, really hopes you don’t notice). Heck, 25 percent non-proficient math students will actually be less than what he’s graduating now!

Moving kids around affects the average proficiency rates of schools, not students.

Placing a minority of low-achievers in schools with a majority of high-achievers will ensure equality – in that all schools will post more or less the same average passing rates (though do see my caveat above about there not being enough high-scorers to go around).

But the kids who were passing before will keep passing (their parents can afford test prep and other outside enrichment). And the kids who were failing before will keep failing.

Yes, a handful of those who were on the bubble will undoubtedly profit from the new peer-group. (You know me, I believe the main benefit to a Specialized High School is the other kids, not the teachers or the administration or the facilities).

So maybe we’ll hit a whopping 50 percent of NYC kids performing at grade level. Not really a cause to celebrate in my book. (Let’s set aside for now that kids who might have been at the top of a weaker school may end up at the bottom of a stronger one, and there’s research demonstrating it affecting their life trajectories.)

What about the remaining 50 percent who weren’t even within striking distance? The ones who enter high school, middle school, and elementary school so far behind that we’re no longer talking about equality but equity. Not giving every student the same thing, but giving every student the specific thing they need to succeed.

What will happen to that once all NYC schools are performing “above average,” and the DOE is patting itself on the back over their great achievement in equality (and diversity!)?

What incentive will there be to help those who are “below average,” when it’s no longer as obvious as “good” and “bad” schools?

Will any complaint be greeted with the offended rejoiner, “Look at these uniform test scores! Over half the kids in every school aren’t failing! What more proof do you need that all NYC schools are equally “good” and all kids are getting the exact same math? What do you want from us, pools and polo?”


What do you think?

2 thoughts on “The Big Con: Why NYC’s Plan For Raising Student Achievement Isn’t Close To Good Enough For All Kids

  1. While I agree with the content and heart of what you are saying, I don’t see any advantage to calling out the Principal at Computer School, who has been one of the few voices calling out the racism and offensive speech of white and advantages parents in the district.

    1. Henry Zymeck wrote a comment on an earlier post of mine. You can see it, here: I asked him a follow up question about what benefit his school will bring to students who are not performing at grade level considering that he currently has an even larger number of students already not performing at grade level. He did not reply.

      This is the biggest issue in this entire initiative, people are so busy “calling out the racism and offensive speech of white and advantages parents in the district,” they have absolutely nothing to say about how they will actually fix the situation for those without advantages. Henry Zymeck has gotten a lot of press for his words, while kids – the majority of whom are not white, and not wealthy – at his school are already failing, and he’s not doing anything about it. He is hardly the only principal in this situation, but he is one of the few who has made himself the subject of the story. He is ready to “welcome” these new students. Is he ready to teach them?

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