by Christopher Paslay
District officials are using “equity” as an excuse to fill seats and maximize space.
The Philadelphia School District’s recent decision to cut admission standards at its four career technology education (CTE) schools has sparked debate. The question of “equity versus excellence” has been brought up in the media, and folks on both sides of the issue have voiced their concerns.
The only problem with this debate, though, is that it’s not about equity versus excellence at all; it’s about enrollment versus excellence. There are indeed enrollment issues with the city’s four trade schools. But equity issues? Not at all.
Let’s first look at enrollment. According to data on the Philadelphia School District’s website, Murrell Dobbins had an enrollment last year of 606 students, yet has a building capacity of 900; Jules E. Mastbaum had an enrollment of 754, with a building capacity of 1313; A. Philip Randolph had an enrollment of 518, with a building capacity of 569; and Swenson Arts and Technology had an enrollment of 668, with a building capacity of 875.
Granted, the building capacity numbers may not be totally accurate, as in Swenson’s case; as a teacher at Swenson I know our building can only safely accommodate at most 700 students.
Still, open seats and space are an issue. If you do the math, there are hundreds of open seats in Philadelphia’s trade schools. And from a budgetary standpoint, filling these seats makes sense financially. And how do you fill the seats? One way is through promotion and recruitment—increase interest in CTE programs citywide while keeping in place a minimum level of student accountability and excellence. Another way is to simply ditch the admission standards and pack in anybody and everybody.
The school district chose to do the latter. Why? Because it’s quick and easy. Load-up the schools with any student who wants to apply, regardless of whether or not that student is a good fit for a trade program. And if this hurts the tradition or culture of the school—or sacrifices excellence—so be it.
Of course, the school district can’t sell it to the public like this, so they are hiding behind the idea of “equity”. This is a great strategy. Set it up so it looks like you’re fighting for social justice, and no one can say anything to you. When you’re fighting for social justice, you can do lots of unfair things to lots of people, but it’s okay, because you’re leveling the playing field.
The only problem with this approach is that there are no equity issues when it comes to Philadelphia’s CTE programs. For the record, Dobbins is 89% black, 8% Latino, and 3% other; Mastbaum is 48% black, 44% Latino, 5% white, and 3% other; Swenson is 30% black, 26% Latino, 37% white, and 7% other; and Randolph is 91% black, 7% Latino, and 2% other. These schools also serve high numbers of special education students and economically disadvantaged children in poor neighborhoods; nearly 25% of Swenson students are special education. And of course, these schools serve girls as well as boys—girls and boys who travel from all parts of the city to attend these programs.
The media, as well as school district officials, would have you believe otherwise. The school district is currently citing Pew Charitable Trusts’ recent report as a way to suggest CTE schools are not equitable. Pew states that CTE schools’ admission processes are “complicated” and that they “systematically disadvantage” Latino students, particularly boys. How? Because Latino boys whose credentials qualify them for top schools don’t apply enough to make their numbers proportionate to Philadelphia’s population at large.
Yet Mastbaum and Swenson are 44% and 26% Latino (which are located in neighborhoods with a notable Latino population), and Dobbins and Randolph are 89% and 91% black (in neighborhoods that are predominantly African American). This sure seems equitable to me; interestingly, Pew doesn’t make a fuss about the fact that white girls are not nearly represented enough in any of these CTE schools.
But that’s how the game of “equity” is played—manipulate statistics and throw around phrases like “systematically disadvantaged”. Take WHYY’s article “New lottery system for Philly trade school admissions stokes debate” for example. This article, although it tries to remain objective, is misleading.
An early paragraph in the article states, “By shedding admissions criteria, officials say, these schools can serve all interested students, rather than casting aside those who may have tripped up in seventh or eighth grade.”
Tripped up? See, that’s what the school district wants the public to believe: that middle school kids who get rejected from CTE schools have simply “tripped up” in seventh or eighth grade. But that’s not the reality of the situation. Generally speaking, CTE schools have very reasonable admission standards: students who apply must have at least a “C” average academically, no “unsatisfactory” grades in behavior, and no more than 10 unexcused absences.
In other words, students who get rejected from a CTE school have D’s and F’s, unruly and disruptive behavior, and are chronically truant. This is a far cry from an “oops” or a “trip-up” in middle school.
The article goes on:
“This is all about creating access for children and making sure that regardless of where children live they have access to some of our more successful programs,” said superintendent William Hite. “There’s a lot of interest in CTE. We have children on a wait list, we have CTE programs that are not filled.”
Again, this is nonsense: Philadelphia CTE schools accept children from every neighborhood in the city.
The article continues:
District officials want to open the doors wider, by both adding seats at CTE schools and shedding the admissions criteria that, they believe, bar too many motivated students from entry.
“Interest is the criteria,” said Hite. “If children are interested in pursuing cosmetology or building trades or culinary arts…I want the children in those programs.”
He said that he concluded that schools were imposing “barriers to entry” for admission to programs that could actually change students’ attitudes about school.
Bar too many motivated students from entering? Seriously? Does a child with D’s and F’s, who has unruly behavior and is absent dozens of times sound motivated to learn a trade? Would a student like this be willing to get up early and take several buses across the city to go to a special CTE school every day? Should a student like this handle a circular saw in carpentry and a butcher knife in culinary?
Make no mistake: dropping the admission standards of Philadelphia’s trade schools is not about equity, but about enrollment. Instead of filling seats through promotion and recruitment, which would allow CTE schools to keep a minimum standard for admission, the district is taking the easy way out.
We can only hope this new approach won’t sink what’s left of a once-great trade school tradition in Philadelphia.