New York City boasts of its diversity. Yet, according to a widely cited 2014 UCLA report, it has one of the most segregated school systems in the United States. With a substantial body of research demonstrating the merits of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools, notably cognitive, social and emotional benefits, enhancing diversity has been high on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda since his election in 2014.
In December 2020, de Blasio announced much-awaited policy changes, including a one-year pause on screening processes for middle school admissions. The policy was, in part, a response to disruptions provoked by COVID-19: school screens, which are admission selection criteria that include attendance and test scores, became unworkable. Proponents of screens criticised de Blasio’s ‘opportunistic’ use of the pandemic to alter the admissions system.
Yet de Blasio implemented a policy intended to increase diversity in public schools and address systemic segregation. The policy change followed recommendations by the School Diversity Advisory Group, appointed by de Blasio to craft policies. Evidence in favour of eliminating screens has been robust. The Advisory Group’s recommendation to end screens stemmed from evidence that screened schools were amongst the least diverse and “disproportionately under-serve[d]” Black and Latinx students.
Mounting research demonstrating how screens were amongst the main culprits of “extreme school segregation” was instrumental in public debate and policymaking circles. An end to screens gained overwhelming support from pro-integration advocates; through the mobilisation of research, advocacy groups rendered conspicuous the alarming ramifications of screens, making it a highly politicised issue.
The inclusion of parents, students and teachers in the Advisory Group promoted the formulation of holistic and context-specific policies by elevating ‘lay perspectives’. Civil society provided inputs to research, with students helping conceptualise the meaning of ‘integration’ that the Advisory Group employed. Students were vocal about their lived experiences of segregation, notably as avid demonstrators, which also sensitised policymakers.
The decision to eliminate screens was founded, in part, on a putatively successful ‘pilot’ in Brooklyn’s District 15. In 2018, District 15 was the first in NYC to drop all middle school screens and use a lottery admissions system. Locals drove this policy change, which was rooted in research, and parents championed it. Initial data on Brooklyn has been promising, with shifts in Hispanic and White student enrolment, which suggests that the policy encouraged integration.
However, de Blasio’s statement that such diversity programmes have had “tremendous success” and have “shown that it can work for everyone” were imbued with technical bias. District 15’s Diversity Plan is recent, hence, with a lack of robust, longitudinal data, firm conclusions are premature. The claim also confuses internal and external validity: that the policy appeared to ‘work’ in District 15 is insufficient to assert that it will ‘work’ elsewhere, let alone throughout New York City. District 15’s diverse sociodemographic profile, characterised by a mix of races and ethnicities living in proximity, could partly explain the policy’s ‘success’. Increased diversity in more homogenous districts may be contingent upon the combined effects of ending screens and students going to school outside of their district.
The decision to make the policy experimental, subject to re-evaluation based on further research, is wise. Although concerns that District 15’s policy would generate the flight of more affluent families may not materialise, family behaviour nonetheless differs and requires close monitoring. To that end, even small changes in how New York’s Department of Education measures racial representativeness can influence the success of diversification efforts.
Much is at stake in efforts to integrate education systems. Diversity should not be an ‘end goal.’ Rather, it should be a stepping-stone to improve schools and students’ education. Supported by rigorous research, New York can and must promote equal access to quality educational opportunities for all children and rightfully claim its title of a ‘diverse city’.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.