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25th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 25, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Efforts to reform our public education system received a blow recently when a federal court reopened a challenge to the testing procedure the State of New York requires as part of the certification process for new teachers. In question is whether the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test is job related. A disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers and prospective teachers failed this exam. The complaint is that the city discriminated against those removed from the classroom after failing the test. As the court considers the concerns of the city, state and aggrieved former teachers, the interests of schoolchildren are ignored.

I have had some contact with this exam. My son is a teacher, and took the test four years ago. I was shocked when I first saw this exam. Shocked not because I found it difficult and unfair, but rather amazed at just how easy it was.

The test appears to me to be more appropriate as an exit exam required for high school graduation than as an entrance exam for new teachers. The claims of the plaintiffs that the test is “culturally and generationally bound” is absurd. This is a simple test of general knowledge and skills that represents the least that we should expect of someone to whom we entrust with the education of our children.

If this requirement is removed, and it may well be as a result of this decision, it is the parents who should head to court. No parent should be comfortable putting his child in the hands of a teacher who cannot meet this standard. And who will pay the price? It will be the city’s public school children, 85% of whom are members of minority groups. Forcing inadequate teachers on these children can well be looked on as a form of real discrimination.

Those who believe in the ideology behind this suit also have their sights set on another area of the city’s educational scene, the specialized high schools.

A report issued by the Department of Education last week disclosed that the proportion of blacks and Hispanics attending the city’s three most prestigious high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, has been declining for a decade. Even the proportion of white students is slipping as Asians, representing just 15.3% of the total public school population, now represent a majority at all three schools.

Enter City Council education committee chairman Robert Jackson, who was quick to charge that blacks are being “shut out,” and suggested “institutional racism” might be the cause.This has been heard for decades. As Heather Mac Donald chronicled in her 1999 City Journal article How Gotham’s Elite High Schools Escaped the Leveller’s Ax, it was only the action of two Bronx state legislators in 1971, Assemblyman Burton Hecht and State Senator John Calandra, that has guaranteed that admission to the three schools only be attained by competitive exam.

It will take an act of the state legislature to reverse this, an eventuality that becomes more likely should Democrats win control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s Mansion.

I had a conversation this week with Council Member John Liu, the Council’s only Asian American member, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.

I assumed that as a Science alumnus and a spokesman for the city’s Asian population, Mr. Liu would support maintaining the testing standards that has served him and his constituents so remarkably well. I was wrong.

Like Mr. Jackson, Mr. Liu believes that the only reason that there is such a small contingent of blacks and Hispanics is due to “flaws in the test that result in a bias.” Since Asian students do so well on these exams, I asked him whether the tests were biased in their favor. Mr. Liu denied this.

How can one have it both ways? There are only so many seats to go around. Increasing the number of black and Hispanic students by revising the admission policy will come at the expense of white and Asian students. If someone like John Liu wants to scrap the current system, then it is indeed in trouble.

I have a different take on this. Children do not achieve the ability to pass the tough test required for admission to these three schools by eleventh hour cramming programs such as the city’s Specialized High School Institute, formed a decade ago to increase minority admissions.This didn’t work.

I believe the seeds of success are sown in kindergarten and even before. I lay much of the blame for these distressing results on the systematic dismantling of self-contained gifted and talented programs that we have witnessed over the past 20 years, a process that has even accelerated under the mayor’s stewardship of the schools.

Region One in the Bronx, with the largest minority population in the city, is the only one without even a single self-contained gifted and talented seat. This is not for lack of gifted and talented minority children. It is a matter of ideology. Is it any wonder that barely a handful Region One children attain admission to the Bronx High School of Science, which is situated there?

The gifted and talented programs were eliminated due to hyper-sensitivity on matters of race. The lower standards tolerated as a result is a clear manifestation of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Lower standards in the lower grades are the reason why blacks and Hispanics are losing ground in the quest to take their places in our most competitive schools.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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