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Has the ‘culture war’ come for NYC schools? What you should know about that contentious Atlantic essay

September 17, 2019 Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat NY
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“Has the ‘culture war’ come for NYC schools? What you should know about that contentious Atlantic essay” was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

Over the weekend, The Atlantic published a 10,000-word story that argues New York City public schools have been overtaken by a “new progressivism” encompassing everything from state testing boycotts to school integration.

Written by George Packer, a longtime reporter for The New Yorker, the story focuses on his family’s experience at an unusually progressive elementary school in Brooklyn and has sparked fierce reaction.

This new progressivism, Packer claims, is essentially outrage stemming from “ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity.”

The piece draws a line from that ideology to a range of policies playing out at his son’s school: A new effort that made all bathrooms gender neutral, a push to opt students out of state tests on the grounds that they are harmful and even racist, and a districtwide plan to remove academic screening as a means of reducing racial and socioeconomic segregation.

“It was as a father, at our son’s school, that I first understood the meaning of the new progressivism, and what I disliked about it,” Packer writes.

Conservatives have embraced the piece as an argument against the excesses of “identity politics.” But some close observers of the city’s schools have struggled to recognize the school system Packer is describing.

Here are three pieces of context that are crucial to evaluating Packer’s argument:

The elementary school Packer describes is not like most city schools.

Packer spends a large portion of the essay explaining his experience at an elementary school that is unnamed, but which is clearly the Brooklyn New School based on clues about its location, descriptions of its admissions, and Packer previously identifying himself as a parent there.

He holds up the school as a prime example of some of the problems with the “new progressivism” he eschews. There is fierce opposition to state tests, a focus on hands-on projects instead of skills like spelling, and, in an effort to accommodate a transgender student, a policy that made the school’s bathrooms gender neutral — reportedly without informing parents.

The context: While coveted among progressive Brooklyn parents, the school is by no means typical in New York City — making it hard to generalize his experience into a broader argument about the city’s schools. Brooklyn New School makes no secret of its progressive ideals and was one of the first in New York City to pilot an integration plan that gives preference to low-income students. Families choose to apply for admission, and the school accepts students from across Brooklyn.

Some of those parents have also disputed Packer’s characterization of the school’s curriculum, which he suggested sacrifices some basics like civics in the name of “activism.”

Packer is correct that the school sits at the center of the opt-out movement — more than 96 percent of its students refused to take state tests, according to the most recent data, far higher than the 4.4 percent average citywide. Throughout New York City, the boycott movement has lost steam in recent years, making Brooklyn New School even more of an outlier.

New York City is seeing some local efforts to diversify its schools. Packer’s piece illustrates the uphill battle those plans may face.

Packer notes that his family chose Brooklyn New School partly because of its diverse student body. “We wanted our kids to learn in classrooms that resembled the city where we lived.”

When his son ended up at a middle school that was far less diverse, he thought there was a clear reason why: “Competitive admissions had created a segregated school,” he wrote.

Until this year, middle schools in District 15 set their own competitive admissions criteria, called screens, which allowed them to pick students based on their academic record or criteria like attendance. But under an integration plan that went into effect this year, middle school admission there became based on a lottery, with a priority given to certain disadvantaged students.

Despite the fact that Packer wanted a diverse school for his child, and acknowledging that screening had contributed to segregation, Packer voiced only tepid support for that plan — and acknowledged he might have opposed it, had his family been directly affected. “I would have been sorely tested if chance had put him in the first experimental class,” he wrote, noting that the plan wasn’t yet in place when his son started middle school.

The context: Packer’s argument — that he is supportive of integration but not at the expense of “meritocracy” — has been a key objection to some of the city’s highest-profile integration efforts, including a fight to overhaul admission to the city’s elite but segregated specialized high schools.

Part of what makes integrating New York City schools so challenging is the extent of its academic segregation, with a large chunk of middle and high schools choosing their students. The system was structured that way, in part, to entice more white and affluent parents to public schools — parents now invested in maintaining access to those schools.

‘Good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools are not always as they seem.

Packer’s piece makes note of the gaps in academic performance between racial groups that are pervasive in American education, and acknowledges the role that poverty can play in those outcomes. But he also appears to question whether integration could help narrow those gaps.

He eventually writes off a “mostly poor and black” neighborhood elementary school, saying his family “assumed it would fail our children, because we knew it was failing other children.” He added that a black neighbor warned them not to attend.

“It was as if an eternal curse had been laid on it, beyond anyone’s agency or remedy,” he wrote.

The context: It’s true that segregated schools that serve mostly students from low-income families often have fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and lower academic achievement. It’s rare that schools find ways to surmount all of the ways poverty can set students behind their more affluent peers. Sometimes, however, raw test scores or other performance measures can mask meaningful progress, even if students don’t fully catch up to their middle-class counterparts.

On the other hand, some schools with stellar reputations may be doing little more than taking credit for the performance of students who are already ahead. Research has shown that may be the case for the city’s famed specialized high schools, which found little effect on college-going rates or whether students were admitted to selective universities.

There is also a trove of studies that show more diverse schools have benefits for disadvantaged students, including higher test scores, increased graduation rates, and even improved earnings as an adult.

There’s little evidence that integration hurts white students, and it may help reduce racial bias and improve critical thinking.

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