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The recent news that New York City’s Department of Education will suspend the use of fifth graders’ prior test scores or grades as admissions criteria for some of the most sought-after middle schools — known as screened middle schools — marks a huge, even if temporary departure from the educational system’s overreliance on test scores as a central measure of students’ “ability.”

This policy change creates a real test for more affluent white parents who say they live in New York City because of the diversity and then send their children to segregated schools.

As a white parent and researcher whose son attended New York City public schools and who has interviewed hundreds of white parents about their school choices, I know through experience and evidence that white, well-educated and affluent parents in New York and elsewhere are the most likely to say they value racially and ethnically diverse public schools — and the least likely to choose them.

This is the demographic of parents with the widest mismatch between their stated ideals and their actions when it comes to public school choice.

This paradox is too often rationalized in terms of test scores and shared perceptions of schools that enroll many students of color and have even slightly lower test scores. They get labeled “terrible” schools, even when that is not at all the case.

Studies show that these perceptions of schools with lower numbers of white students as “terrible” are often engrained, even when white parents have never set foot in the schools or talked to the principal or any of the parents who send their children to these schools every day.

One has to wonder whether the test scores, which are too often correlated with race and class due to their cultural biases and the unequal prior academic opportunities that students have had, are not really the point. Perhaps they are a proxy or a rationale for something else, namely “whiteness,” which automatically becomes equated with a “goodness” in ways white parents do not even recognize.  

New Yorkers pride themselves on being more progressive than people living in other regions of the U.S. Yet we have some of the most racially and ethnically segregated public schools in the nation.

Through their playground social networks, such ideas are reinforced and become the gospel of the school choice process for white parents. If their children are not admitted to the “good” schools with a predominant or at least disproportionate number of white students, they often feel as though they have failed their children and will seek alternatives to public schools or leave for the suburbs.

The research on gentrifying urban neighborhoods also shows us that when white gentrifying parents do choose schools that enroll predominantly Black or Latinx students, their main goal is too often to “fix” these schools, which means making them more like the predominately white schools, before they have figured out what goodness existed there before they arrived.

While white parents can bring much-needed resources to urban public schools, many are often unmindful of both the structural racism that allowed them to accumulate these resources in the first place, and the aspects of those school communities that the long-standing educators, parents and students valued most before white families arrived. The New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents” illustrated this process at several points in the long history of just one school.

Related: Measuring diversity without holding schools accountable won’t bring about integration

If promoting school diversity is usually more about making white parents feel comfortable with their school choices — and if schools with high percentages of students of color are always perceived by white parents as “terrible” or reclamation projects to be “fixed” — it is no wonder so many people of color have given up on the ideal of school integration and the promise of diversity.

Thus, we have arrived at a moment of truth: The recent announcement by the New York City Department of Education will test white parents’ commitment to sending their children to truly integrated schools that value the culture and communities of students of color, promote intercultural understanding and better prepare them to participate in a diverse democracy.

It’s time for NYC white parents to sign up for virtual tours of middle schools that were not otherwise on your list. It’s time to talk to school principals you would never have met before the pandemic, and to reach out to parents at those schools to hear what they value about a school that your playground friends would not even consider.

If you choose one of these schools and your child enrolls in the fall, enter into that space full of wonder about what goodness existed before you arrived and how you can embrace it.

New Yorkers pride themselves on being more progressive than people living in other regions of the U.S. Yet we have some of the most racially and ethnically segregated public schools in the nation.

At this moment when there is a pandemic-induced shortage of test scores, we all need to embrace the reality that the tests have divided us as much as the Jim Crow laws did the South in the middle of the 20th century.

This is a unique opportunity for each of us to reflect on what we mean by “diverse” in a city in which only 15 percent of our public school students are white but many of our screened schools are predominantly white.

Each parent, but especially white parents, should seek to develop a broader, anti-racist understanding of what makes a good school for a child, a community and our deeply divided nation.

Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she directs Reimagining Education: Teaching, Learning and Leading for a Racially Just Society, and a member of the New York City Mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG).

This story about New York City public school segregation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. So explain to me why this is better? In a way can this easily back fire by disenfranchising white/asian children because of their parents. It’s essentially giving an unequal leg up in accessing better education. In a sense to me (coming from a district in NJ that had kids bused in from Camden) it will take away chances to children who are equipped educationally better for a school with higher standards. Essentially by making parents do this, your laying it on them, and not their children’s academic standings. It would be like giving a kid who had b’s into the gap program because of his race a place in the program, compared to say my brother who got in because academically he should have skipped a grade… Or two. He had no assistance from my parents at all, they were more focused on me and my learning disability.

  2. So children who work hard and get the grades should not be rewarded and get into their choice of schools. Is this fair. Parents also have to take responsibility and encourage kids .how come you see so many kids goveuptheirtime and weekends to study.reward the children .don’t takeaway all theirhardwork

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