Lowest Common Denominator

It has begun — the Philadelphia School District is dumbing down its elite schools in the name of “equity,” prying open doors to those who couldn’t get in under rules that demanded and created excellence.

The (vague) new policies for student admission, announced in the fall, are a transparent attempt to rebalance the racial mix at elite schools such as Central and Masterman using a predetermined, but unannounced, formula. Turning Dr. Martin Luther King on his head, the color of students’ skin becomes more important than the content of their intellect.

We are looking at an “equity” that makes everyone the same — the undeserving and the deserving, the unqualified and the qualified.

What little we know about the new policies was provided by the Philadelphia Inquirer last fall, in a story lacking necessary detail, while acknowledging the School District stonewalled on some issues.

I know the feeling.

Since December I have been trying to get straight answers out of the School District, first through communications officer Christina Clark. She pointed me to some online information, such as a generalized letter to parents lacking specifics about what the hell is going on, and a video of an October news announcement of the School Selection Process, that I think of as the Asian Removal Program.

I will explain that in a moment.

The October 6 announcement revealed that standardized tests have been dropped — no reason given (but we suspect they are somehow Eurocentric and racist), and that “some” schools (not mentioned by name) will still require a writing sample. The writing sample will be graded by computers, not by humans, said the School District, to free grading from the naked bigotry of American humans. (Small problem: Humans program the computers.)

Several “special admit” schools were conveying a message that “was not accurate,” said Student Support Services Chief Karen Lynch, who did not reveal what that inaccurate message was, but we suspect she was referring to racial imbalance. The facts: In 2020, Central’s 2,400 students were 38.7% Asian, 28.3% white, 19.6% Black,7.5% Hispanic, and 6.5% multiracial.

The District itself is 52% Black, 22% Hispanic, 13% white, 7% Asian, 5% other.

You see the message that needs correcting, don’t you? Student enrollment doesn’t match the racial balance. There are way too many Asians. This “equity” is an attack on them as obvious as the shameful Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited Chinese immigration. What we have today is the 21st Century version of the Yellow Peril.

In the past, kids were admitted on the color-blind basis of good grades, good attendance, and good behavior. Maybe good test scores, too, but the School District solved that problem by getting rid of the tests.

“Humane education is to meet students at their level,” which this does not, said Councilmember David Oh, a Central alum and the first Asian-American elected to that body. He disapproved of the changes, and joined with six other Council members, black and white, to ask the School District to suspend the changes due to “lack of transparency” and “ambiguous supporting data.” (The other Asian-American member of City Council, the quarrelsome Helen Gym, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Masterman and Central have for decades been the jewels in the crown of Philadelphia public education. Their graduates constitute a Who’s Who of Philadelphia achievement. They are the antidote for white flight, magnets that bind the middle- and upper-class to a public education system that otherwise scares the living hell out of them.

There are 39 magnet schools that draw students from around the city, but I’m focusing on just Central and Masterman, which in School District lingo are “criteria-based.”

For the first time, students for the “criteria-based” schools will be chosen by “a lottery-based process,” said Lynch, casually dismembering the concept of “criteria,” as in merit. Students who “meet the criteria” (which she did not specify) will be selected by lottery (which is random luck), like winning a turkey raffle.

“There will also be a zip code preference at several of our schools,” she said, without naming the schools or the zip codes. It was a master class in generalities and double talk, being oh-so-careful to avoid any hint that a big fat thumb is being put on the scale to benefit nonwhite “disadvantaged” students who live in the “wrong” zip code.

The changes are unwelcome to almost all Central alumni I reached by tweeting out a request for comment.

Attorney Richard Lipow, 67, class of 1971, said, “Reducing academic standards for admission and/or the rigor of study would not be good for the students.”

“I’ve read the proposed changes to the selection process, and I believe it does more harm than good,” said Joe Melloni, 38, a national sales rep. “Children should be taught that they earn things by their hard work and merits. To lessen requirements and allow children to enter a school they might be ill prepared for will damage them emotionally and mentally,” said Melloni, class of 2001.

A 49-year-old black man who requested anonymity because he is an active-duty Philadelphia police officer, said he is unhappy about the changes that “ultimately set some students up for failure.” He said, “I believe in equity of opportunity which already exists. Everyone can take the test, and everyone can do whatever it takes to be successful on that test despite any obstacles that are placed before them,” said the officer.

When pharmaceutical executive Jeff Morrison, 46, class of 1993, attended Central, “It was the absolute gold standard of academics and diversity … I think the demographic breakdown was 35/35/20/10 or something like that,” he said.“Everyone got along and straight up liked one another. Our yearbook lists home addresses of all students — every single zip code was represented,” he said.

“Whatever changes are being made are hurting the integrity of the school,” said Johnny Looch, 51, a DJ who was in the class of 1989.

Isabelle Ringing, class of 1999, a 40-year-old pharmacist said, “Everybody is outraged.”

Not quite.

“Demographic statistics regarding Central and Masterman are quite alarming given the demographics of the Philadelphia public school system,” said Elliott Weiss, 67, class of 1971, a retired professor at the University of Virginia.

“We are not lowering standards, we are measuring different factors,” he said, expressing a minority view — pun intended.

Maybe the School District should hire Weiss, because my request to have a face-to-face interview with a School District official was rebuffed. Email requests for information to two Central High School Alumni Association officers also were ignored.

Why? Just a guess — complaining about anything tagged “equity” is automatically “racist” to the woke. Here are the questions on my mind, “racism” be damned:

What was actually wrong with the long-standing school selection process?

If there were “too few” minorities in elite schools, what is the “correct” racial distribution?

Is a racial distribution formula applied to the teaching staff, which is almost 70% white?

When did Asians cease being minorities?

Instead of spending money on diversity, inclusion and equity officers, how about funding studies of Asian students? Is it something in their water, in their noodles, in their homes, in their culture, that results in achievement? Can their experience be replicated?

The School District now is rigging the system to restrict two groups — Asians and whites — to benefit two other groups — blacks and browns. Tests were eliminated in the name of equity. But at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts — for artists, actors, dancers, musicians — students will still have to audition to demonstrate talent. Is that equitable?

How about sports teams fielded by high schools? Will Overbrook have a few white basketball players for “equity”? Any room for Asian football linemen at Dobbins? Kidding aside, the School District’s desire seems aimed at giving some students a shot, but it is going about it in the wrong way — by lowering the bar.

It is the equity of the lowest common denominator.

    • Stu Bykofsky served the Philadelphia Daily News as an editor, reporter and columnist for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2019. He now publishes at the centrist stubykofsky.com. 

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