Meritocracy at Brooklyn Tech

The virtues of a meritocracy may be lost on Harvard students like that “queer Middle Easterner,” but they come through clearly in this excellent New York Times article by Michael Powell. His piece deals with the subject through the lens of Brooklyn Tech, an elite New York City high school from which one of my cousins graduated in the 1960s.

Brooklyn Tech hasn’t yielded to demands that it stop admitting students based entirely on merit, as measured by an entrance exam. Consequently:

[Asian students] make up 61% of Brooklyn Tech, although they account for 18% of the public school population. . .Sixty-three percent of the city’s public school students are Black and Latino, yet they account for just 15% of Brooklyn Tech’s population.

This doesn’t mean that Brooklyn Tech lacks diversity. Indeed, says Powell:

The river of teenagers who pour into Brooklyn Technical High School. . .are Bengali and Tibetan, Egyptian and Chinese, Sinhalese and Russian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, West Indian and African American.

It’s just that the student body isn’t racially balanced.

Diversity and racial balance are two different things, though Supreme Court jurisprudence has tended to conflate them. Maybe the Court will delink them in the Harvard and North Carolina cases.

Should Brooklyn Tech engineer a more racially balanced student body? Powell lets both sides of that debate state their case. There is only one winner, though. On the one hand,

“Educationally, we don’t need these schools,” said David Bloomfield, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. “These students cannot be in a bubble. They need to be in a more diverse student body, where you could have advanced classes.”

Note the conclusory nature of these assertions. No evidence is presented to support them.

By contrast:

Those who champion specialized high schools point to alumni who became top scientists, among them 14 Nobel Prize laureates. With few exceptions these were the children of working-class and immigrant families. The best students, they argue, should press as far ahead as brains and curiosity might take them. . . .

There’s a big literature on the value of accelerated classes, and it’s very favorable,” said James H. Borland, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College. “There’s a strong research base that shows it’s very beneficial.”

Powell makes two additional points that seem relevant and, indeed, important. First, Asian-American students, including those at Brooklyn Tech, are the least “privileged” racial/ethnic group in the city, if privilege is defined in terms of economics and/or cultural acclimation:

Fully 63% of Brooklyn Tech’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged. Census data shows Asians have the lowest median income in the city, and a majority speak a language other than English at home.

Second, black students used to make up a much larger percentage of Brooklyn Tech’s student body than they do now:

Decades ago, when crime and socioeconomic conditions were far graver than they are today, Black and Latino teenagers passed the examination in great numbers. In 1981, nearly two-thirds of Brooklyn Tech’s students were Black and Latino, and that percentage hovered at 50% for another decade.

(Emphasis added)

What happened? The war on standards happened:

To understand this decline [in black students’ performance] involves a trek back through decades of policy choices, as city officials, pushed by an anti-tracking movement, rolled back accelerated and honors programs and tried to reform gifted programs, particularly in nonwhite districts.

Black alumni of Brooklyn Tech argue this progressive-minded movement handicapped precisely those Black and Latino students most likely to pass the test. Some poor, majority Black and Latino districts now lack a single gifted and talented program.

(Emphasis added)

Accordingly, Powell asks a very good question: “Why obsess about the anti-egalitarian sins of a handful of high-performing schools that hold 6% of high school students?” Why not focus on restoring meritocracy in the neighborhood schools that used to feed Brooklyn Tech with a large number of applicants who meet its standards?

Because progressive race hustler won’t have it, I guess.

Finally, what do current Brooklyn Tech students think about meritocracy at their school? Assuming Powell has chosen a representative sample (and why wouldn’t he?), they like it. Tausifa Haque, a 17-year-old daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants whose father drives a taxi and whose mother is a lunchroom attendant, says:

This is my great chance. It’s my way out.

I have classes with students of all demographics and skin colors, and friends who speak different languages. To call this segregation does not make sense.

Ricardo Nunez, who is black, says:

I don’t feel like a minority. We resist being pitted against each other at this school.

Ayaan Ali, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, would like to see more black students and thinks Brooklyn Tech should “bring grades or class rank into” the selection process. However, Ali adds that “abolishing the test is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.”

Given the cratering of black test scores after neighborhood schools moved away from tracking and honors program in response to pressure from “progressives,” the gunshot wound was self-inflicted. Moving schools like Brooklyn Tech away from a meritocratic model would inflict another wound.

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