Diversifying without excluding

By Jason Lim

Recently, The Washington Post published an article titled, “Asian Students Dominate Admissions to Elite Thomas Jefferson High School,” explaining that 66 percent of the incoming freshmen class of this crown jewel of the Fairfax County school system in Northern Virginia consisted of Asian Americans of various descent. In contrast, only 10 black and 8 Hic students were accepted out of an incoming class of 487 students.

This is similar to what’s been happening to other well-known elite magnet schools in New York City. According to an article in NPR, “blacks and Latinos make up around 70 percent of all the kids in the city’s public school system, but make up just a tiny share of the kids at those three schools. At Stuyvesant, generally considered the best school in the city, they made up less than 4 percent of the total student body last year” In fact, only 10 black students were accepted out of an incoming class of 953 students.

This imbalance has led to handwringing on the part of school officials and local politicians, who have pushed for a more “holistic” admissions process that relies on more than one entrance exam to determine who gets accepted. In fact, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has already proposed broadening the entrance criteria to increase diversity.

No one should be surprised to see a political backlash against Asian American success in these schools. It’s unrealistic to think that such an imbalance that amounts to de-facto segregation against black and Hic students in elite public high schools won’t go unchallenged, especially in the absence of a strong Asian American voice in the local political process. Further, the current imbalance ?no matter how fair, equitable, and “merit-based” the current entrance exam system might be ?is not sustainable in other words, how can you ask the black and Hic community to continue supporting a system when they don’t have any equity in its sustainment?

But how to “fix” it? The implicit assumption is that Asian American parents drive their children to study for the test, prepping them with tutors, test preparation classes, and other expensive academic programs from early on that give their children an unfair leg up in the “all or nothing” entrance exam So, let’s expand the admissions criteria to include other factors such as the GPA, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and essays, among others that will mitigate the reliance on a single test. The expected outcome would be more black and Hic students that are admitted.


A recent Economist article cites that , “Sean Corcoran of New York University has found that offers based on state test scores, grades and attendance would increase the share of Hic and white students in the specialized high schools, and reduce Asians, but would not increase the proportion of blacks. Inequalities in achievement, he writes, are lsquobaked in long before high school’. ”

Alia Wong writing in the Atlantic backs this up by pointing out, ” [A]mong the students who came from one of the top 30 feeder middle schools, 58 percent were in gifted and talented programs that required a test for admission, and 29 percent were in other types of screened schools that admit kids based on criteria such as exam scores. This phenomenon is also known ‘tracking,’ which even the DOE has described as a modern-day form of segregation, and indicates that a much deeper problem lies in the tendency to test and segregate children from the get go. The analysis raises questions about the extent to which inaertent engineering ?starting with the so-called ‘rug-rat race’ ?is exacerbating the achievement gap.”

In other words, the policies being proposed as a “fix” won’t fix anything. It actually might make it worse. That’s because the policy prescriptions pushing to fix this imbalance are confusing representation with diversity.

What the policy makers are proposing is actually an Equal Opportunity program for elite high schools designed to effect a more equitable representation of different demographics the tool they would use is different, more holistic entrance criteria, rather than some arbitrary quota system However, Equal Opportunity programs are necessarily backward leaning ?they are designed to address problems of the past. It’s also exclusionary in its implementation, since it enforces a certain percentage of representation in order to drive change to the system In other words, it needs to exclude one population to redress the past exclusion of another population. No matter how it’s applied, it would necessarily victimize Asian American students for successfully playing the game.

What we need is a true diversity program that focuses on the future. Diversity is actually the reverse of Equal Opportunity philosophy. It promotes change to drive representation, not the other way around. As such, it focuses on the processes that lead to the imbalanced representation. What both Corcoran and Wong speak to is a design of omission, in which the needs and circumstances of many black and Hic children are not considered when designing an educational system that “bakes in inequalities” early on. As such, a true solution would have to be an “inclusive” solution that changes the end-to-end process criteria for participation to include the backgrounds, experiences and cultures of all of our children, not a self-contradictory solution that excludes to fix exclusion.

Jason Lim is a Washington, DC-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at jasonlim@msn. com, facebook. comjasonlimkoreatimes and @jasonlim2012.

SOURCE: The Korea Times