Monday, October 1, 2012

Affirmative Action, Education, Stuyvesant High School

The Supreme Court will shortly start its new term. It is going to take up yet another affirmative action case. Hopefully The Janitor will have a post on this with his normal attention to historical and legal detail. I want to talk about educational affirmative action from a slightly different and rather painful aspect. First things first. I am a strong supporter of workplace affirmative action. I have seen too damn many people get hired, groomed, and promoted for reasons that have little to do with qualifications. I actually did pretty well on standardized tests and naively had a belief that advanced degrees and skill sets mattered. I was shocked to learn that other things matter much more. Does your boss like you? That is really the greatest single factor on whether or not you're going to succeed in your job, though perhaps not your career. I have performed superhuman feats for bosses who for whatever reason didn't like me and didn't find my diligence worthy of reward or even notice. Other times I have been less than heroic but still received strong support and encouragement from bosses that liked me. Go figure. Since blacks and whites generally live apart and inhabit separate social worlds is it really possible for whites to judge blacks fairly? Can I get a fair evaluation at work from someone who, outside of the work environment, does her best to avoid people who look like me?

My career has occasionally suffered because I'm not plugged into certain (white) social networks. You need to know which assignments to take or decline. You need strong allies not only among your peer group but also among higher level managers. Otherwise, you can spend years grinding away and then look up and wonder why people with similar or less education and experience have zoomed past you. I sometimes think it would be wise for workplace promotions, hiring and assignments to be based on standardized aptitude testing. Either you know the material or you don't. There would be no more worries about losing promotions to a peer whose husband is a business partner of a higher ranking boss or to another peer who plays golf with your direct boss. Yes both of these things happened to me. It seems I am still peeved. Snicker. Of course companies would HATE this idea because it would prevent managers and company officers from hiring and promoting as they see fit. Managers might correctly argue that a workplace test alone doesn't provide enough useful information about the person's professional competence. If the below people all pass the test, should they be promoted?
  • Someone who ignores basic American hygiene standards and makes people scheme on how to avoid sitting next to him in meetings?  
  • Someone who dresses like she's working a street corner and has her peers making weekly bets on how much leg or chest she will show?
  • Someone who falls asleep in meetings or at their desk? 
  • Someone who refuses to travel even though the promotion requires travel?
  • Someone whose accent is so bad that few people can understand him and everyone makes fun of him behind his back?
  • Someone who knows her theory but freezes in crisis or when reality and theory clash?
  • Someone whose first response to any idea is always negative and who enjoys spreading bad news? 
  • Someone who is expert in his field but is also a loud profane bully that delights in humiliating people who make mistakes and picking fights just for fun?
  • Someone who gets in a squabble with a subordinate and then makes fun of that person in front of their children?
And yes these are all real life examples with which I am directly familiar. So in the workforce, where there are other considerations besides pure knowledge, a single test isn't the best way to determine aptitude. I might have to concede that.
But in an academic arena, shouldn't pure knowledge be the ONLY consideration? And if so, what is the best way to measure that knowledge? Or should there be other things besides knowledge taken into account to measure academic success?

NYC's Stuyvesant High School has been in the news recently for a couple of reasons, neither one much good. A number of kids were caught cheating. Stuyvesant is a hyper-competitive school in which only the best of the best are admitted. Admission is based solely on a standardized test which is used by the eight top schools in NYC. Stuyvesant has the highest cut off. Stuyvesant has a student body which is, shall we say, different from the usual demographics of NYC schools. The school is roughly about 72% Asian and 25% Caucasian. This has resulted in some people trying to tip toe around some unfortunate implications while others snicker and glory in same. Recently a group of apparently mostly Black and Hispanic civil rights and educational groups decided to file a complaint with the Department of Education. Their claim is that use of the test violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it causes racial disparity. I think their heart is in the right place but I'm not sure I can support their framework here. I remember occasionally having teachers in college or before who radiated contempt for black people. Few things were more pleasurable to me than to score among the highest in the class or correct them when they were wrong. There is something wonderful about objective knowledge. No matter how much someone might believe in black inferiority, they can't stop you from succeeding educationally. As I wrote above I wish I still had that clear approach in corporate life. I think it is approaching shamefulness to make a public argument that amounts to "this must be discrimination because I'm not good at it". Obviously the Caucasian and Asian parents don't wish to change the admissions criteria because their children are succeeding under the rules. Manjit Singh's statement is likely reflective of his parents' thoughts as well.
The test-only rule has existed for decades, as have complaints about its effect on minority enrollment. In May 1971, after officials began thinking about adding other criteria for admission, protests from many parents, mostly white, persuaded the State Legislature to enshrine the rule in state law.  Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference on Thursday that the schools were “designed for the best and the brightest” and that he saw no need to change the admissions policy or state law. “I think that Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “There’s nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That’s been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it’s going to continue to be.”
When asked the uncomfortable question of why the racial imbalance existed, some students mentioned the intensive tutoring services that are out of reach of poorer families. But others did not hesitate to say that they believed the family culture of Asian and white students put a higher value on educational achievement than others.
“African-American and Hispanic parents don’t always seek out extra help for their kids and their kids don’t score as high,” said Manjit Singh, a senior. “But it’s the same test for everyone, so how can it be discriminatory? If you can’t handle the test, you can’t handle the school, and you’re taking up someone else’s spot.”
Noah Morrison, a senior who is black, was not ready to change the policy, either, but he agreed that “there needs to be more racial diversity at this school.”
“There are no black people and it’s horrible,” he said. “The test is fine, but there need to be more opportunities for people to do well on it. There need to be more test-prep programs in underachieving middle schools with high black and Latino populations. It’s a socioeconomic problem.
Ms. Miles, for her part, said the city needed do a better job disseminating information about the test and the free preparatory programs available. The city’s Education Department has been offering such a program, with weekend and summer coaching sessions to promising but disadvantaged sixth graders — and, this year only, seventh graders — for more than 20 years. Its original mission was to increase the number of blacks and Latinos, but after a legal challenge in 2007, income became its main eligibility criteria. Since then, however, the program has shrunk —2,800 students attended in 2008, down from 3,800 two years before — and even among those who participated, black and Latino students were far less likely to take the entrance exam than Asians and whites.

So it's rough. There is a question then about why Black and Hispanic students aren't doing as well on the test or even taking the test as often as Whites and Asians. I think there are a number of reasons for that which need greater discussion than we can do in just one post. Poverty, single parent homes, hunger, exposure to lead based paint, low birth weight and other factors all have impact on educational achievement. But the big factor here and one I have struggled with myself sometimes upon entering the cold cruel corporate world is living up (or down) to stereotypes. Henry Ford once said "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right".  Dr. Claude Steele, Shelby Steele's twin brother, has done some research which confirms Ford's off the cuff observation. And not only are black people watching too much television but media often subtly or not so subtly tells black people that they aren't worth s***.

And if you don't think that the attempt to succeed will make any difference in your life because of false stereotypes and very real racism in the job market and the justice system, then you might want to protect your ego by not even trying. After all, being admitted to a competitive high school in NYC won't stop the NYPD from harassing and insulting you if you happen to be Black or Hispanic. Hearing "I don't care if you are an A+ student, put your black a$$ against the wall!!" would tend to mess with your equilibrium.

It also comes down to just doing the work. This isn't easy. But if you believe that people are basically the same, then you have to accept that work can get you where you want to go. We all have different gifts. There are few people who can play professional sports or have the patience for delicate lab work in physics or biology or can sit down and create new music or so on. But when you go to a concert and see someone play a guitar for three hours without a mistake or go to a basketball game and watch someone seemingly defy gravity it is worth remembering that you are watching the end result of years and years and years of hard work, competition, dedication, and insane drive. Academics aren't any different.
So my solution to the Stuyvesant issue is not to file a federal complaint of racial discrimination. I don't think that is warranted here. My solution is to change the culture, put down the video games, turn off the television and hit the books. And as I support affirmative action I think that there must be more public and private partnerships to identify and nurture talented Black and Hispanic children, convince them that they can succeed and give them all the training and then some that they need for the test. Success is their heritage not failure. If WEB DuBois could get a Ph.D. from Harvard in the 1890s, near the nadir of American racism, today we have no reason to let a little high school admissions test stop us. Because the Manjit Singhs of the world aren't going to have sympathy for you.
I usually do my grocery shopping in an area close to the U-M engineering and physics schools. The demographics have changed rather significantly since I went to U-M. There are a lot of East Asian nationals and Asian Americans who have settled nearby and work or attend school. They've evidently put in the work to get those jobs or attend the classes. So go and do likewise ladies and gents. Go and do likewise. Game on.

Is there a valid Federal racial discrimination complaint here?
Why aren't there more Blacks and Hispanics attending the best schools?
Should disparate impact be removed as a possible racial discrimination cause?
What sort of school reforms do you want to see implemented?
Do you think intelligence is racially based?
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