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In Social Policy And In Business
Open Minds Are Needed
To Solve Intractable Problems

We often talk about Americans being unwilling to work in the fields and stagger at the thought of what we would have to pay and how we would have to change the job to get Americans to do this work.

It is the same situation with teaching — except the issue is not finding a person to do the job but enticing people of high intelligence into the field. For many years, we got such labor on the cheap, because women were constrained from entering many other fields. So high-IQ women became teachers,  nurses or social workers. Today, comparable women become doctors, lawyers and engineers.

The New York Times recently ran a lengthy piece titled, The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools. Written by Elizabeth A. Harris and Ford Fessenden, the article starts on the front page of the Sunday paper and then covers three additional full pages. It is the kind of commitment a paper such as the New York Times makes when its editors consider the story worthy of contention for a Pulitzer Prize.

The article is built around a premise:

Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities.

There is no doubt that the changes yielded meaningful improvements. The high school graduation rate is up more than 20 points since 2005, as the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has built on Mr. Bloomberg’s gains. The graduation gap between white and black or Hispanic students, while still significant and troubling, has narrowed.

But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school.

Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools — a situation that school choice was supposed to ease.

It is actually not clear that the system has yielded “meaningful” improvements at all. There have been efforts that relax graduation requirements for the 20% of students deemed to have disabilities, for students with low scores on required exams and an Occupational Studies Graduation Pathway option, which also relaxes graduation requirements. So to what extent the choice program has had an impact on graduation rates is quite unclear.

In any case the authors, in the end, condemn the system:

Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have.

New York is a unique place. Due to its scale and a robust public transportation system, it is feasible for the City to embrace “school choice” without engaging in the controversy over allowing private and parochial schools to be an option. Former Mayor Bloomberg opened the door only to students entering public high schools around the city.

Of course, there were select programs already in place that Mayor Bloomberg wanted to continue. New York has a long history of offering select schools based on merit or talent. Remember the movie Fame? That took place in New York’s High School of Performing Arts, now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which was established in 1947. In addition to meeting academic requirements, students are selected to that school by audition. 

If students want to get into The Bronx High School of Science, founded in 1938, or Stuyvesant High School, which started restricting admission in 1919, or other select schools, the students have to take the Specialized High School Admission Test, and they receive a level of instruction, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, that is not available in the typical neighborhood high school.

A newer pathway to high school choice was an explosion of specialty programs, most that do not have a rigorous testing requirement. The article mentions a veterinary program at George Washington Carver High school for the Sciences in the New York City borough of Queens. There is nothing wrong with using these types of programs to sustain interest among students who otherwise would not be focused, but it is also not really clear that there is much to do in high school that prepares one specifically to enter veterinary school or become a veterinarian.

Mainly the students need to study and learn to read, write, do math and science and to think!

In any case, only a small percentage of students have such specialized interests and needs when they are 13 years old and considering where to apply for high school.

The real purpose of offering this program is the consensus that many inner-city schools are bad — this is why those who can do so often move out to the suburbs so their children can go to better public schools. Those with enough resources who want to live in the city often send their children to private schools or parochial schools, which typically offer a less expensive private option.

So, since the powers that be have found it very difficult to improve these inner-city schools, the idea is that those parents who find their children trapped in a geographic locale that has a horrid school could use this new option to get their child a better education.

The article is certainly interesting but, beyond the specifics of this situation, we found it intriguing because it also provides an example of how we allow our own biases and desires to lead us to often focus on the wrong issues and to make bad decisions.

Three points come to mind:

First, always define your terms. This massive article is filled with talk about good school and bad schools — yet the only way it actually evaluates the schools is by graduation rates.  The authors recognize this is somewhat problematic:

Graduation rates are not a perfect proxy for education quality. In many schools, students arrive far behind, and it is a major effort to help them graduate on time. Elsewhere, ninth graders show up on Day 1 doing work at grade level or above, so the steps required to get them diplomas are less onerous. And it is difficult to say how much of a school’s success is because of what happens within its walls — the curriculum, the teachers, the leadership — and how much is because of advantages children bring from home.

But graduation remains a meaningful measure of a school, and of the opportunities it provides. If parents felt they had another option, how many would be happy to send their children to a school where more than a quarter of students do not graduate?

Yet graduation rates, as mentioned earlier, have a lot to do with graduation requirements so it not a fixed measure.  Besides, high graduation rates really tell us almost nothing about how good a job a school does in imparting knowledge.

Too often we focus on certain measurements because they are easy to measure — not because they give us valuable information.

Second, make sure you are focusing on the correct problem. This whole article is about a problem that has been defined as middle school children without advantages, being unable to navigate the system to get into the available good schools. But that is not actually the problem at all:

Last year, 146 seventh graders at Pelham Gardens took the state tests. On the English exam, 29 passed, which requires a score of at least 3 out of 4. Fifteen did that well in math. Only seven scored at least a 3 on both tests.

This means that a majority of the children had no real chance of getting into the most selective schools, like Manhattan/Hunter Science High School or Townsend Harris High School in Queens, where students must have a 3 or higher on the tests. 

So we have this whole saga — thousands of words — about the unfairness of a system that doesn’t get students from poor neighborhoods the chance to get into good schools — and only seven out of 146 students are academically ready for 9th grade work. That is less than 5% of the students!

The whole article is written with the assumption that the differentiating factor between those who can work the system and those who can’t or won’t is either poverty or race — but the clear facts of the case tell a different story. The problem is not that these students are all prepared to succeed yet are being denied the opportunity to do so because they don’t know how to work the system. The problem is that 95% of the students the writers are referring to are not ready to go to high school!

And the article does nothing to establish that where these students go to high school would actually make much of a difference. The authors present not one study, not one statistical measure, indicating that students who in 8th grade are failing the state tests, will catch up and graduate high school ready to go to college — if they get in to “better” high schools. A Jesuit maxim, often attributed to Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit order, is “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

In many ways, the situation is a Catch-22.  When people say a school is a good school, they typically have no way of evaluating if it is any more effective at teaching than other schools. What they mean is that it is a school where almost everyone graduates, almost everyone goes on to four-year colleges and, indeed, the high school reputation is likely to shine in direct proportion to the extent the school’s graduates get accepted at highly competitive colleges.

So, a “good school” is a school that does not have students like these ill-prepared students. If, say, the crème de la crème of the New York Public School system, Stuyvestant High School, was to suddenly accept all these students, it would no longer be considered a good school because the vast majority of students who cannot pass 8th grade will not suddenly start succeeding at higher level work and get into MIT and Caltech, no matter what high school they go to.

Maybe Stuyvesant has better teachers — and so the students would thrive? We have no indication that would be true. We have some indications that a few highly charismatic inner school teachers, Jaime Escalante for example, can make a difference, but there is nothing scalable. Besides, who says that teachers who do a great job with Brainiacs are going to do a great job with remedial work? Possibly it is also a chicken-and-the-egg situation… if “good schools” have better teachers, maybe that is because good teachers prefer to work with students who are smart and studious. They like students whose parents will support the teachers. They like students focused on studying — not gangs — so the teachers can be in a safe environments. 

Third, don’t prejudge what is relevant; look for secondary effects.  The article is filled with small insights:

By Ms. Bryant’s estimate, there are only about 15 high schools in the Bronx doing a consistently solid job. The rest have disappointing records, with too few students graduating and even those who earn diplomas not possessing the skills they need for college.

But families at Pelham Gardens often choose schools in their home borough anyway. Getting to a school in Upper Manhattan, like the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, a successful school in East Harlem, can take an hour. Plenty of parents do not want to sign up their 14-year-olds to leave the house before sunrise and spend three hours a day on the train.

So they choose more local options, like Herbert H. Lehman High School, in the Westchester Square neighborhood of the Bronx, just two miles away from Pelham Gardens. But there, only 52 percent of students graduated last year. Ms. Bryant has warned Pelham Gardens students about the school, but 15 students have matched there.

When we were in high school, our suburban Long Island public school debated against Bronx High School of Science. The kids were wicked smart, well prepared and tough to beat. Many had stories about taking two trains and a bus and having to leave home at 4:30 AM to get to school on time. One can focus on the unfairness of this, but it also served as a kind of entrance barrier that proved one would succeed in a very rigorous school.

These were not rich kids. They were mostly poor immigrants from Asia, but their families valued education enough to say, yes, it is worth it to struggle and sacrifice to go to the best school. And, not shockingly, they found it worthwhile to struggle and sacrifice every day for four years to succeed in the school. So when other families don’t see the value in that sacrifice, it tells us something.

Many educators believe that some sort of preference should be created for low-income students, for example. That way, children whose parents do not have the ability to take them to open houses across the city are not competing so directly with those from families that can make the high school quest their mission. 

Note the assumption is that the key variable is financial — that poor families, busy working, unable to pay transit costs or miss work, are the ones who are unable to take their children to see schools or to make an application.

No support is presented for this assumption, and it was not our experience with the students at Bronx Science. The difference in our experience was not financial, but cultural. The schools in New York are very segregated, but the best schools are filled with Asian students, not because of any bias in their favor, but because their families value the education and make it a priority.

If a family is not motivated enough to make the sacrifices necessary to apply to a school — a one-time thing – are they likely to be motivated to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed over four years? Doesn’t it “take a village” to succeed?


The lessons go on. For example, why the focus on schools? Maybe the focus should be on teachers. McKinsey had a famous research study basically finding that the bulk of teachers were not in the top third in SAT scores. There is some indication there has been some improvement since that report was issued. But if we were to make as a prerequisite for teaching that a teacher had to score in, say, the top third on overall SAT scores, a good 60% of teachers would have to retireAnd if we said we want the top 20% in both the math and English portion of the SAT, the numbers aren’t public but it seems likely that more than 80% of teachers would have to retire in New York City.

Think what dramatic changes we would have to make to teacher salaries if we constrained the supply by requiring all teachers to score in the top 20% of both the Math and English SAT.

The New York Times article is really not very strong when it comes to analyzing the problem at hand, but it is exceedingly valuable in helping us note the importance of adopting a thought process where we are not blinded by our own assumptions but are open to alternative ways of seeing the situation.

Only this willingness to shed our own prejudices opens the door to finding new paths to success.

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