You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught

And now, an update on the high-profile controversy surrounding reports of rampant racism at the renowned Boston Latin School (from which this author graduated in 1995):

I was thrilled to hear of the selection of former Boston Latin headmaster Michael Contompasis as interim headmaster (a permanent replacement for Lynne Mooney Teta, who stepped down in late-June after months of being criticized for her perceived negligence in addressing discrimination at Boston Latin, will be announced next year). “Mr. C” was headmaster during my years at Boston Latin, and while he was not always a popular figure among my classmates, few can deny his commitment to educational excellence. Contompasis deserves tremendous respect for his efforts to defend the Boston School Committee’s efforts to ensure a diverse student body at Boston Latin when those efforts were under withering legal assault in the 1990s (an assault that was ultimately successful, and directly led to the current crisis at the school); “Mr. C” has always recognized the importance of diversity to a well-rounded educational experience, and his leadership in this regard is needed now more than ever.

Speaking of diversity, education and the law, I’m fascinated by the debate over whether Boston Latin’s admissions policies should be altered to increase the shrinking numbers of African-American and Latino students admitted to the school after the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals permanently enjoined the Boston School Committee from using race in any capacity to determine who gets a seat at the school in 1998. This debate is taking place amidst a national discussion over how to diversify elite public high schools. PBS NewsHour ran an excellent segment on this discussion in mid-June:

I’m not exactly sure that critics of Boston Latin’s current admissions policies–which are based exclusively on an applicant’s grade point average and their performance on the Independent School Entrance Examination–are correct when they suggest that a failure to alter those policies may be viewed by the courts as de facto discrimination against African-Americans and Latinos, especially if right-wing federal district and appellate court judges hear legal challenges to the current policy. Having said that, it should be noted that Boston Latin didn’t always use a test to determine who was admitted to the school:

When Contompasis went to the school as a freshman in the 1950s, a student who sought admission merely showed up with a recommendation from a school official or an alumnus and a good report card.

For years, admission to the school was determined through an unspoken system not only of what you knew, but whom you knew. In the 1960s, as pressure to get in increased, the school stopped taking tuition-paying students from outside the city [of Boston]. Entrance exams were instituted in 1964. The result was that enrollment was more than 95 percent white.

Contompasis defended the role of the ISEE test in the admissions process earlier this year, but there is apparently no legal mandate in Massachusetts for the test to remain a part of that process (as there is in New York state for elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant High School); in addition, considering the longstanding controversies over high-stakes standardized tests, and whether or not such tests are truly accurate in determining who has the aptitude to achieve at elite public high schools, there may be a valid argument for eliminating the ISEE test as part of the admissions process. Having said that, the chances of the ISEE being removed from the admissions process are, as the old saying goes, slim and none, largely because the Boston School Committee doesn’t want to be accused of watering down academic standards (or worse, de facto discrimination against students who tend to do well under the current process).

Perhaps the School Committee could add interviews and student essays to the admissions process, in an effort to determine who is indeed best suited for Boston Latin’s academically demanding environment (and who will not threaten the lives of fellow students). I remain hopeful that the School Committee will ultimately come up with a policy that will disprove, once and for all, the notion that diversity and academic rigor are mutually exclusive educational goals. Such a policy can be replicated by other elite public high schools throughout the United States, as a means of embracing both equity and excellence.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.