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Burying the Lead

Writing in the pages of today’s New York Post, Marcus Winters, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that charter schools might improve the chances for Black and Hispanic students to enter New York City’s prestigious exam high schools.  The key evidence for this is the fact that 2.4% of the Black and Hispanic eighth-grade students who attended charter schools in 2009 were offered admission to the eight exam schools, compared to 1.5% of the Black and Hispanic eighth-graders attending traditional public schools.  Comparing these rates, he states that Black and Hispanic eighth-graders in charter schools are 60% more likely to obtain a seat in the exam schools than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

It’s true that 2.4% is 60% more than 1.5%.  But both percentages round to the same whole number, 2.  So it’s hard to say that the likelihood of admission is dramatically different for students in charter and traditional public schools.  And, although Winters pays lip service to the notion that these data are solely descriptive, there’s no mistaking his desire to use these data to argue that the quality of charter schools is in fact responsible for this small increase.  “Charter schools could,” he writes, “increase minority access to the city’s esteemed high schools by offering a higher quality elementary and middle school education than is available in the traditional public schools system.”  Yep, that’s true, they could.  They could also be successful in recruiting some talented minority students with families that are highly motivated to help them succeed in school.  In the latter case, the primary dynamic is selection into charter schools, not their academic consequences.

By focusing on the relative rates of minority access to New York City’s specialized exam high schools for students in charter and traditional public schools, however, Winters has buried the lead.  The real story here is the fact that, in a system that is overwhelmingly made up of Black and Latino students, very few are getting into the most prestigious high schools.  71% of the eighth-graders in New York City’s traditional public schools are Black or Latino, but only 16% of the students offered seats in the specialized exam schools are Black or Latino.  Another way of representing the same information is to look at the probability of admission to the exam schools for members of different racial/ethnic groups.  As Winters noted, 1.5% of the Black and Latino eighth-graders in traditional public schools were offered admission to the specialized exam schools.  But 19% of the white and Asian eighth-graders attending such schools scored high enough on the entrance exam to be offered admission.

Either way you cut it, the data demonstrate the persistence of a huge achievement gap between Black and Latino students, on the one hand, and white and Asian students, on the other.  Data such as these give the lie to the persistent claims of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein that New York City has closed the achievement gap.  It’s just not true.  The evidence strongly suggests that the reforms introduced by the Mayor and the Chancellor over the past decade have done little to improve the academic prospects of thousands and thousands of Black and Latino children and youth—the vast majority of which attend the traditional public schools for which they are responsible.

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