Turning On The Light
"For years, lawmakers in deeply blue, proudly progressive New York City have grappled with a seemingly intractable problem: Its schools are among the most segregated in the nation."
- The New York Times
And so Bill de Blasio, New York’s Mayor, who has been busy running for president, proposes to end the sorting-out system for the “gifted and talented” (G & T) that is theoretically responsible for that segregation. 75 percent of the G & T kids are Asian and white and, according to the school system’s Diversity Task Force, are not equitably distributed among the schools that end up being mostly black and Hispanic.
The proposal stoked a furor among those very “deeply blue and proudly progressive” parents whose G & T kids have been safely sequestered away from the “normals” who grind out their days in schools that only go through the motions of education and who come out years later unable to read or do math.
I’m a product of the New York City school system, so I know a little about it up close and personal, and many of its current features were well underway in the 1960s, when I was there.
My primary school, PS 6, on 82nd and Madison Avenue, was almost entirely white because the Upper East Side was entirely white. However, New York was a middle-class city in those days. The hedge fund had not yet been invented. PS 6 released us little inmates to the streets at noon every day — hard to believe now — and I spent many lunch hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a block away, and free in those days, and pretty empty on weekdays because all those middle-class adults were at work. Even stock-brokers were middle-class back then, though it might be hard to believe.
My parents had split up rancorously and liked to bludgeon each other over money, so private school was out of the question for me. They were also absolutely not interested in my school career, being preoccupied with their own affairs. So, I was consigned to Intermediate School 167 on 76th and Third. It was now the heyday of desegregation, so the district comprised a thin ribbon through the Upper East Side exploding into a big mushroom cloud in Spanish Harlem. Thus, the school was about 80 percent black and Puerto Rican (as Hispanics in NYC were denoted then). Every day there was like Riot in Cellblock D. The G & T classes were then called “Special Progress” (SP), and I was in them, but between classes we-who-could-write-and-do-math circulated through the anarchic halls where shakedowns and beat-downs were a daily ritual.
I got through it somehow without running away to join the circus and got into one of New York’s so-called “specialized” high schools of which there were four (Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and the High School of Music & Art). I went to the last one, M & A. It was perhaps 75 percent white, and quite civilized. The teachers were all various versions of Bernie Sanders. Shakedowns and beat-downs were unknown among kids who had to lug cellos and painted canvases through the halls. I disliked it moderately, though, because it was so far away it might as well have been in Czechoslovakia and the journey back and forth took hours. After that, I fled to college upstate and never came back.
Enough about me.
Obviously, the racial shuffle has been going on for decades in the New York City school system, but in these times of white privilege and intersectionality, the escape routes of G & T and SP must be plugged. No extra gruel for you!
But I have a remedy for the persistent problem of underperformance, one that has not really been tried: intense concentration, starting in preschool and going forward as long as necessary, in spoken English.
Language is the foundation of learning, certainly of reading skill, and too many children just can’t speak English. Without it, they’ll be unable to learn anything else, including math. The reasons for their poor language skills are beside the point. Whether they are newcomers from foreign lands or the descendants of slaves, they need to learn how to speak English and to do it correctly, with all the tenses and correct verbs.
They need to be intelligible to others and to themselves to make sense of the world.
The resistance to this idea would be mighty and furious, I’m sure. Some people will always be smarter than others, but the disparities at issue are badly aggravated by poverty in language. We don’t even pretend to want to take the obvious steps to correct this, even though it is obviously correctable. Learning anything puts people out of their comfort zone, so that can’t be used as an excuse. Diversity in language is a handicap, and it does not make you specially abled.