Our Time Press

NYC Public Schools, a History of Systemic Racial Discrimination and Bias

By Michael A. Johnson

There’s a reason why the book “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ended up in a lot of US elementary school’s classroom libraries over the years. I know it taught this 1960’s Brooklyn P.S. 9 kid the importance of acknowledging “a thing for what it truly is.” And yet, after so many years of failed “school improvement schemes,” and so many billions of dollars ($773 million recently in NYC) wasted, we still refuse to listen to people like Ronald Edmonds, Lorraine Monroe and Jaime Escalante who identified “the problems” for what they truly were, and then offered workable solutions to those problems. Their collective diagnosis and “treatment plans” for our public education underachievement illnesses are as true today as they were when they first proscribed them. We ignore these thoughtful educators in part because their focus was totally on student learning and not on adult (from classrooms to the highest level of school governance) job satisfaction, financial enrichment and political covetousness.

Three things public education is good at doing: (hint: effectively educating Black and Latino children is not one of them) (1) Wasting money, (2) Wasting time and effort and (3) Wasting money, time and effort doing things that sound “sexy,” but in actuality, distracts us from the real work that would really work to successfully educate Black and Latino students. Part of the problem is the knee-jerk reaction on the part of many to jump on any “bandwagon idea” when certain trigger words are thrown into the collective misunderstanding of how and why schools work or don’t work. And so, all it takes is for some folks to hear: “Segregation,” “Racism”, “Bigotry” and “Implicit Bias” and the very willing “consultants” will come running to (again) take us in the wrong direction. We get so excited by these admittedly bad words that we lose all sense of knowing the how, why, what and when to ask the most important pedagogical questions like: “How does this action explicitly improve teaching and learning?” (Every initiative in schooling is measured by its “pivotal effect” on the quality of classroom teaching and learning.) We fail in engaging sound inquiries into all types of incoherent and sometimes contradictory systemic initiatives. For example, as NYC tries to “cure” teachers of “implicit bias,” at the same time these teachers are being told that Black and Latino children don’t have the “natural brains” to perform well on a Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). And having observed and evaluated hundreds of classroom lessons, I suspect that the later negative lesson of Black and Latino student “natural inferiority” will be the one that will stick. The systemic workplace rules biases (the untouchable political “third rail” here) is that those children never had a chance to do well on the SHSAT because they received a “mind-crippling” K-8 education. Further, although capable, many were denied access to Gifted and Talented programs. And yes, removing the SHSAT will provide an artificial “pass,” but it’s a cynical “seeking-a-sucker” move, because lowering and/or removing any standardized exam standards won’t make those for whom the lowering pretends to benefit any smarter or more capable to compete at the next level (ACT-SAT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, NTE, etc.) where they’ll be forced to face assessment standards that won’t be “racially rigged” just for them to pass. Further, their national and international competition, who are being taught to meet and exceed the test standards, will leave them in the life-success dust!

There’s a primary cause of NYC Black and Latino student chronic academic underperformance and that bias is found in a learning opportunity gap that exposes these children to excessive years (1+ any) of inadequate and nonaffirming miseducational practices.  Some of us wear our “institutional memory” in our hearts. We remember many years ago the ugly opposition that appeared when then-Deputy Chancellor of Instruction Lorraine Monroe’s name was simply “floated” on the short list of those being considered to be Chancellor. The reasons for the huge political push back (and ultimate defeat of her “candidacy”) was that Dr. Monroe was known to take on and defeat the real racism that existed in NYC public schools. To her personal and professional detriment, she believed in the systemic-wide Integration of a quality learning environment and high instructional practices, regardless of a child’s zip code. She also felt that children who arrived to our schools with informal learning experiences disadvantages required the services of our most capable and efficacious school leaders and teachers, beyond the many children harming “contractual” rules restrictions.

As one of Dr. Monroe’s mentees, I believe as she did that rather than lowering standards so that more Black & Latino children could “appear” to achieve academically, we should instead raise academic standards so that they could truly achieve. Further, like her school-based administrators need to stand in the “parental gap” and be that “pushy activist” parent for those disenfranchised children who have no effective “parental posse” to support, protect and defend them.

School districts must employ systemic-wide expectations and operational practices that empowers the affirmation: Having been properly prepared, students of color can and will master the most challenging academic work and assessments that’s provided for their educational peers in NYC or the World! Any belief to the contrary automatically cancels out any “committed to equity and the equality of educational opportunity” rhetorical claims made by that school system.

This will be my last article for Our Time Press as I take leave to complete my second book on school leadership. I want to thank the Publisher David Mark Greaves, Co-Founder Bernice Elizabeth Green, Maitefa Angaza and the great OTP staff for making this columnist experience one of the best learning opportunities of my life. Please support OTP!


Michael A. Johnson has served as a NYC public schoolteacher, principal, school district superintendent and an adjunct professor of education at St. John’s University. His book on school leadership is titled: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.”  [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]


Tags: Implicit Bias, Racism, Discrimination, NYC Department of Education, Segregation, Bigotry, SHSAT.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Leave a Reply