To the Editor:
After reading Abe Greenwald’s article, I wanted to note that the New York City school system is organized to prevent many minority students from achieving at a high enough level to pass the exam for admission to the special high schools (“The War on Asian Americans,” January).
This wasn’t always the case. When we were in elementary school in the Bronx of the 1950s, classes were arranged, after the earliest grades, by reading ability. As reading is fundamental to most learning, the best readers tended to be the best in other subjects. Such separation benefitted students at all levels. Teachers were able to teach to the general level of their class and move forward at the speed that best suited the children in front of them. This is equal opportunity.
This became unacceptable and was thrown out in favor of the egalitarian principle of equal outcome. Every class had to reflect the cross section of the entire student body. This resulted in many classes consisting of some students whose abilities matched their grade level and some who could achieve two or three grades above or below the grade they were in.
We have known many New York City teachers. Typical comments about the current structure include: “I worry about the average students in my class because I have to devote so much time to the slower ones that I can’t be sure the average ones fully understand my lessons” or “The bright students catch on easily, but I can’t teach at the level they’re capable of because I’ll lose the rest of the class.”
Contemporaneous with these changes in class structure was the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron.” It begins: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”
In Vonnegut’s story, such equality was accomplished by the office of the “Handicapper General,” which assigned physical handicaps to bring everyone down to a common low level. Smarter people were required to wear a government-supplied ear implant that “every twenty seconds or so” produced a loud noise that prevented high-level thinking. New York City schools don’t require ear implants but do require that each class have an equal share of its grade’s disruptive students. The disruptive students inhibit all students’ ability to learn.
About 10 years ago, a now retired fourth-grade teacher in the Bronx confided that at the end of the school year, she and the other fourth-grade teachers were doing something that would result in their being disciplined if the administration discovered it. It was June, and the teachers were arranging the class rosters for the next school year. They were keeping one class free from disruptive students so that the resulting fifth-grade class could be taught without disruption.
The city should go back to classes where all students are similarly capable. Teachers could then go back to teaching to the general level of their class, thereby maximizing the amount of material each student absorbs. Those who show the possibility of doing well and have a low family income should be offered scholarships to the preparatory courses for the special high-school admissions exam.
A way must be found to stop disruptive students from destroying the education of others, even if this means classes of only those with a history of disruption under specially trained teachers.
If these changes are made, there will be many minority students making it into the special schools with the same qualifications as those getting in currently. This, of course, would thwart the “Handicapper Generals” now running the school system.
Helene (Neuman) Krauss,
the Bronx High School of Science, 1961
Martin Krauss, the Bronx High School of Science, 1960 Rye Brook, New York
Abe Greenwald writes:
Helene and Martin Krauss make a persuasive point about teachers’ being allowed to teach to students’ levels. I suspect their suggestions for change would provide a better education environment and allow merit-based diversity to flourish organically. But those who want to do away with the admissions test altogether aren’t interested in that. They’re trying to engineer a specific ethnic makeup in classrooms, and that requires their bending the educational meritocracy out of shape.