New York City has mayoral governance in its public schools. As a central part of the school reforms imposed during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms, the New York City public schools instituted universal school choice for students in high school. While students with very high scores can test into the city’s limited number of exclusive magnet high schools, most students apply to an array of less selective high schools. At the same time Bloomberg introduced school choice for all high schoolers, his schools chancellor broke up the large high schools serving thousands of students into smaller high schools that were, in many cases, “co-located” into the old high school buildings. The new, small schools limited admission to several hundred, not several thousand, and promised personal attention to their students. Every student was to be known and feel known by the adults at the school. A new, short and readable report by Clara Hemphill on the overall impact of New York’s small high schools of choice was just published by the New School Center for New York City Affairs. There are successes and failures. Hemphill suggests ways that New York City can address the inequities that persist.
Hemphill explains: “While the graduation rate has steadily increased over the past decade, the proportion of students receiving an Advanced Regents diploma—one commonly used measure of college readiness—has stagnated. In 2014, just 18 percent of students starting New York City high schools four years earlier earned Advanced Regents diplomas.”
A serious problem is the limited curricula provided in many of the small high schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry. More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science… Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics. Many of these are the new small high schools that proliferated during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg… (Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools. Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.)”
“The result,” writes Hemphill, “is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system—one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to. Looking at statistics from August 2014, the Center for New York City Affairs found that 48 percent of the New York City public high school students receiving Advanced Regents diplomas are clustered in just 25 schools. At 100 other schools, on the other hand, not a single student received an Advanced Regents diploma… While white and Asian students make up less than one-quarter of citywide public high school enrollment, they constitute roughly 70 percent of the students at the top city high schools awarding Advanced Regents degrees. At the 100 schools where no Advanced Regents diplomas were awarded, the student body was 92 percent black and Hispanic.”
Hemphill explains how these disparities have evolved over time. While in a high school with 3,000 students, even if only one percent of students are prepared to take advanced math or chemistry or physics, it is economically worthwhile to offer at least one advanced math or chemistry or physics course. The percentages are very different, in a school of 400 students: “In a high school of 400 kids, however, the comparable critical mass for creating advanced classes has to be much larger than just 1 percent of the students before it makes sense to commit the necessary time and effort. Sometimes, that critical mass simply doesn’t exist… (F)or many students, the die is cast before they arrive in 9th grade… It is very difficult for students to overcome poor preparation in elementary and middle schools. Most students who enter 9th grade with weak math skills don’t catch up: If they go to college, they must take remedial classes.”
The new report from the Center on New York City Affairs suggests a number of relatively simple, though probably in some cases costly ways to address the problem. They include hiring math specialists across the city’s 5th grades, investing heavily in math instruction in all middle and high schools, and offering non-math-based “conceptual” chemistry and physics for students with poor math backgrounds. One rather obvious idea for students in small schools co-located in one building is to provide shared advanced courses in sciences and mathematics—introducing campus-wide economies of scale to overcome the limitations of the small schools.
The report addresses one of the most serious problems facing school districts where children who are far behind have become concentrated. Over time the high school curriculum becomes scaled back when not enough well prepared students come through the system to fill advanced courses at the high school. In what is perhaps the most easily conceptualized example, if a school district facing serious underfunding cuts back its elementary and middle school instrumental music program, sooner or later, there won’t be enough young musicians to fill the high school orchestra. In the same way, Calculus gets eliminated from high school math offerings when not enough well-prepared students come up through the system to fill even one classroom at the high school. Disparities in access to curriculum are the very definition of inequity.