New York is a city of contrasts and extremes. It is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world and some of the poorest. While some New Yorkers worry about the fluctuations of the stock market and the price of antiques and rare art for sale at Sotheby’s, others struggle to find an affordable place to live and barely survive on minimum wage salaries. Politicians from both major parties come to New York to fundraise, bringing home millions of dollars from a single dinner, while New Yorkers in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and East New York cope with high rates of homelessness, asthma, diabetes and infant mortality.
Despite these glaring disparities, New York can seem like one big melting pot to an outsider. That is because in some parts of the city, the very rich and the very poor come into contact with each other on a regular basis. Walking along the busy streets of Manhattan or riding on the crowded subways, one sees the affluent and the disenfranchised crammed together. To the tourist, this seems like a truly remarkable melding of peoples and cultures rarely seen in other parts of the United States or the rest of the world.
Yet, appearances can be deceiving. On most measures of quality of life — health, employment, income, etc. — differences related to class and race are glaring and conspicuously apparent. The disparities are also profoundly tied to the neighborhood in which a person resides. East Harlem and the Upper East Side may be only a few blocks apart, but on almost every measure of status and well-being, they are, in fact, worlds apart. The separations and distinctions between the residents of these two neighboring communities are vast and profound.
Unfortunately, this same pattern of disparity is found in students’ access to good schools and to all of the opportunities that accompany this access. As this report from the Schott Foundation reveals, more often than not, the opportunity to learn and to attend a high performing school is largely determined by the neighborhood in which a child lives. While the term “redlining” might seem strong given that it implies a deliberate attempt to deny certain communities access to educational opportunities, this report will show that evidence of blatant disparities amount to Apartheid-like separations that have been accepted in New York for far too long. Rather than being angered by the language used, my hope is that readers of this report will be outraged by the fact that education in New York City is more likely to reproduce and reinforce existing patterns of inequality than to serve as a pathway to opportunity.
It was not supposed to be this way. For the past ten years, New York has been in the midst of an unparalleled period of reform. Many of the measures that have been implemented — decentralization, school closures, grade retention and, most recently, the release of value-added measures to evaluate teachers — were put forward as a way to improve schools, raise achievement and increase accountability. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg and the various chancellors he has appointed have consistently justified these measures by claiming they would help those students who have traditionally been least well served by schools. They have castigated their critics as defenders of the status quo and boldly defended their reforms by asserting that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
However, missing from the vision put forward by the Mayor and the New York Department of Education is any mention of what should be done to address the extremely high levels of segregation by race and class in the city’s neighborhoods and schools. Our leaders have known for some time that most of the “failing” schools in the city were located in the poorest neighborhoods and were serving the most disadvantaged children. So far, no effective action has been taken to begin to ameliorate these profound inequities.
This does not mean that none of the actions taken under Mayor Bloomberg to improve schools have been successful. Graduation rates have increased and several new schools that were created over the last ten years are thriving and unmistakably superior to the ones they have replaced. However, despite the changes that have been made, too many children continue to languish in schools that lack the resources and capacity to meet their academic or social needs. Most of these children are located in the city’s poorest and most isolated neighborhoods.
Hopefully, this report will compel the next Mayor and Chancellor to pursue a different course of action. It has become increasingly clear that policies like school choice, while providing access for some to better school options, have also exacerbated inequities among schools and contributed to the concentration of the neediest children in a small number of “failing” schools. These policies have also contributed to an ugly polarization among parents who are competing desperately for access to successful schools and facilities. It is clear that the battles with the teachers’ union over school closures and the release of value-added evaluation measures are doing little to advance genuine improvements in the city’s schools.
New York needs a renewed commitment to equity to insure that the opportunity to learn is not determined by the census tract where a child resides. Creative leadership is needed to find ways to promote integration so that our schools no longer concentrate the neediest children in the most troubled schools, while ignoring their de-facto exclusion from Gifted and Talented programs and high-performing schools. For the health and well-being of the entire city, New York needs an approach to reform that focuses on expanding and enhancing learning opportunities rather than merely raising test scores.
Let us hope that the policymakers who read this report understand its implications and have the courage and foresight to act upon the recommendations.