The admissions policies of elite schools are under attack, including in court, for discriminating against Asian-American applicants.  In the Harvard case, awaiting decision in a federal district court in Boston, the document that paints a thousand pictures is one from a Harvard admissions officer commenting that a first in class Asian applicant with perfect SAT scores is “the proverbial picket fence.”  The applicant was not admitted.  De facto quotas imposed on these minority applicants from “communities of color” are ironically rationalized with the goal of diversity and inclusion.

Now the discrimination is moving “south” from elite colleges to admission into gifted/talented public elementary, middle and high school programs.  Like those at Bronx Science and Stuyvesant in New York City.  Two schools that have graduated the most and fifth most Nobel Laureates among all secondary schools in the world.  Third place on that roster goes to gifted graduates of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, while seventh place is shared by gifted graduates of Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn and Townshend Harris and Far Rockaway, both in Queens.  In the whole world.

When thinking about and considering action relative to school admission practices, liberals of an age, and those like this hopeless one of a certain age, should remember that we were those Asian kids.

When in the early 1960s we applied to the Big and Little Three, relatives and some guidance counselors warned us about Jewish quotas, once ubiquitous at the Eastern elites and then still rumored being utilized.  Fifty years later HL contributed to a book that researched and disclosed the truth about such quotas.  But back then most of us did alright in the admissions game, getting what we wanted or at least needed.  And with our degrees and affluence many forgot what that was like.

Tito Guglielmone

A quarter century after public high school graduation, I visited mine and remarked to Principal Tito Guglielmone that Herricks High School had “changed completely” from when I was a student and he was a social studies teacher.  How he asked.  “Back then the students were mostly Jews, Irish and Italians and now the kids are mostly Asian.” I said.  Tito laughed saying “the school is exactly the same – when the Asian kids get seven As and one B their parents give them an even harder time than yours gave you.  My advice to these kids is the same as it was to your crowd – go into psychiatry.”  Mr. Guglielmone’s gentle put down resonates even more strongly thirty years on.  It is in mind as I ponder two proposals from the administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

One proposal would eliminate the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Technical, the high schools with the city’s three largest and most prominent gifted/talented programs.

The other proposal, emanating from a panel commissioned by the mayor, would do away with most gifted and selective programs in elementary schools, so-called “screened” middle schools and some public high schools.  The proposed reforms are aimed at better integrating the city’s schools and its gifted/talented programs, which now educate mostly Asian and white students.  These proposals are countered by alternatives also designed to achieve greater integration.  They call for a major increase in the number and location of gifted/talented programs and would provide free universal preparation assistance for the test that determines acceptance into the city’s selective high schools.

Looking at the names of the Nobel Laureates from those New York City public high schools (and a few other NYC publics) I read:

Leon Cooper (Physics), Robert Lefkowitz (Chemistry), Sheldon Glashow (Physics), Stanley Cohen (Medicine), Steven Weinberg (Physics), Melvin Schwartz (Physics), Baruch Blumberg (Medicine), Russel Hulse (Physics), David Politzer (Physics), George Wald (Biology), Roy Glauber (Physics), Robert Solow (Economics), Martin Perl (Physics), Gary Becker (Economics), Arthur Ashkin (Physics), Barbara McClintock (Medicine), Richard Feynman (Physics), Burton Richter (Physics), Eric Kandel (Medicine), Arno Penzias (Physics), Rosalyn Yalow (Medicine), Gertrude Elion (Medicine).

Envisioned are two alternative futures: One in which many more Nobel winners and other extraordinary contributors to society come from the public schools in and around the great city, with many names suggesting Asian, Latino, African and Caribbean ancestry AND a future with many fewer achievers of any ancestry.  A future where gifted programs have been leveled in favor of giving more students a moderately enriched but far less rigorous secondary education.

That second alternative may be a step in the formation of a more perfect union.  But in thinking about that and possibly acting on it, I won’t forget that once I was that Asian kid.