Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Asians, Immigrants, Race Politics, Class Politics, and NYC's Elite High Schools

Here are two interesting sets of numbers for Brooklyn Tech, one of the New York City high schools where entrance has been determined by competitive examination. First, by race: the population is 61% Asian, 24% white, and 15% Black and Latino, when Black and Latino students comprise a majority of the system. But also, 63% of the student population is economically disadvantaged, and the most disadvantaged racial group is the Asians. (New York Times)

Brooklyn Tech is full of immigrants and immigrants' children, from all over the world. Many of those immigrant families are quite poor in dollar terms. A majority of Brooklyn Tech's Asian students speak a language other than English at home. They do not see themselves as "privileged"; they see entrance to an elite high school as their ticket out of poverty, and it has indeed worked that way for thousands.

Arguments about these schools have a way of devolving into fights about race and racism, but the debate also raises fundamental questions about education. For example, what is education for?

A certain sort of educational system sees its mission as winnowing: such a school separates out the few who will rise to the top from the rest, and sends the losers toward menial jobs. A different model is that the schools are supposed to lift up everybody. Obviously modern public school systems have tried to do both, but emphasizing one approach makes a big difference. In the US, schools make much use of gifted and talented programs, pulling the best students out for advanced instruction. But globally many systems do not do this; instead they get the advanced students to tutor their slower peers, with the goal of raising up everyone. In the US, studies have regularly shown that slow students do better in classrooms that also include much better students, poor students do better in classrooms that include richer students, and Black students do better in classrooms that are not all Black. On the other hand, studies also show that students in gifted and talented programs end up going to higher-tier colleges and making more money. Who should sacrifice for whom?

You can see this argument in its starkest form when the subject is math. Some elite mathematicians are already doing cutting edge work by the time they are 18, so making them sit in classes with non-mathematical kids might be a big waste of their time. At a somewhat lower level, it is very difficult to get into a college engineering or science program if you did not have Calculus in high school, but most high school students have no interest in that level of math, and despite what certain educational theorists like to say, I do not believe all students could do it even if they tried. And why should they try? I am a quasi scientist and sometimes use statistics in my job, but I haven't used calculus since I finished my high school class. Some people say we should cultivate mathematicians and scientists the same way we cultivate young athletes, using talent scouts to spot them young and then pulling them into special programs with other elite prospects. That would probably be the best way to create more Nobel Prize winners; but is that our goal?

I see the fight over elite public high schools as a fight over what all schools are for. Those who defend these schools see education as providing pathways for the ambitious to achieve excellence; "realize your dreams" might be their slogan. They also tend to think that the economic future of the nation depends heavily on the achievements of elite engineers and managers. Those who resist elite schools think that the main mission of education should be equality, or maybe justice. They resist the whole notion of separating or winnowing, and think we should all rise or fall together. 


G. Verloren said...

Who should sacrifice for whom?

Those most able to sacrifice with the least detriment to themselves, and in so doing creating the largest benefit for others. That seems obvious.

Gifted students are going to do well in life no matter what. Struggling students are only going to do well in life they receive help. How is there any question as to who should be receiving help, and who should be sacrificing to help others?

The housed should give homes to the homeless.
The shod should give shoes to the shoeless.
The fed should give food to the starving.
The rich should give money to the poor.
The healthy should cure the sick.
The sighted should guide the blind.
The gifted should teach the ungifted.

How are these things up for debate? How is basic fairness and justice in question?

If I have plenty enough to spare, and someone else is suffering from want that it is within my power to eliminate without serious hardship to myself, then in what lunatic fever dream are ~they~ supposed to sacrifice so that ~I~ can benefit, rather than the other way around? How can someone contemplate that and not be sickened by the gross immorality and selfishness of such a supposition?

Katya said...

"The gifted should teach the ungifted"

What about those who have no gift for teaching?

In America, 8-12 year olds somehow have become responsible for the progress of other 8-12 year olds.

I have three children. Two had no issues with this

For the third--it has been pretty much a nightmare. Ongoingly.

Anecdotal, sure. But if you make children do things that they don't want to do, don't do particularly well, and can't see the reason for doing, you are probably teaching those children things that you don't intend to teach them.

Shadow said...
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G. Vereloren said...


Obviously, as with everything, individual needs and capacity matter. Exceptions will always exist, and ought to be accommodated.

You are bizarrely focusing on specific exceptions in response to what are obviously generalized arguments. For example, "The healthy should cure the sick" doesn't literally mean every single person in good health should be a doctor or medical worker. That'd be absurd.

It's implicit that the statement is discussing a general stance - particularly since the statement is a response to the question of "who should sacrifice for whom", which carried it's own implication of whether schools should be about winnowing out the "losers" to uplift the "winners", or if we ought to be trying to help everyone.

Those who are able to help without hardship should help. Those for whom helping would be a hardship should not. That should be obvious, and applies at both general and specific scales.

Katya said...

Well, I don't see it as bizarrely.

*My* kid had the needed support to get through this situation. I think, and often, about those who find themselves in this situation and have no way to articulate that things aren't going well.

"General" stances lead to bureaucratic choices that can be highly damaging without... a local understanding of actual impact.

I see the "kids mentoring other kids vs. [changes higher up the ladder]" as akin to "people should recycle vs. large-scale corporations should be held accountable for their pollutants."

With the added issue of asking children to accomplish what adults aren't/haven't.

My kids, btw, were educated in the public school system of the Twin Cities, MN., which leads the country in discrepancy of achievement, racially, in America. In the 17ish years in which my family has participated in the system, these numbers have, it is my understanding, not significantly budged, despite a variety of approaches via successive schools superintendents.

Katya said...

P.S. I read the article John is discussing here with interest before John's post here, so perhaps am less focused on the specifics John brings up than on my own thoughts on the article content. Your comment "Gifted students are going to do well in life no matter what" very much stuck in my craw.

Even for students with advantages beyond any inherited "giftedness," this is very much not the case. I think about Mark Twain's short story, "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven:

"The greatest military genius our world ever produced was a brick-layer from somewhere back of Boston--died during the Revolution--by the name of Absalom Jones. Wherever he goes, crowds flock to see him. You see, everybody knows that if he had had a chance he would have shown the world some generalship that would have made all generalship before look like child's play and 'prentice work. But he never got a chance; he tried heaps of times to enlist as a private, but he had lost both thumbs and a couple of front teeth, and the recruiting sergeant wouldn't pass him."

szopen said...
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RGH said...

@G. Valoren, all your talk of sacrifice is on a micro level and does not actually look at how the micro-economics of sacrifice transfer on a macro level.

As a specific example related to the post here. If a mathematician or engineer is put through a gifted program (i.e. not sacrificing on a micro-level), it's also very possible that he will make a scientific breakthrough that lifts society up far far more than that sacrifice that helps only a few people in his cohort.

Now, I'll admit that blue-sky research spending is much more of a bottleneck in the US, but if Terence Tao had been held back, what would have been the net negative effect on society?