The Great OLSAT Pigment Test

March 10th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  6 Comments

Rex Babin, Sacramento Bee

The search for a public kindergarten for Dalia seems to be in a lull:  we’ve applied to all the schools in our neighborhood, including our zoned school (which maintains a waitlist each year because of too much demand), all the dual-language programs we can find, and even to PS333, which apparently will allow us the privilege of entering in its lottery, after all, despite the fact that we did not take a tour in December.

That just leaves the results of Dalia’s OLSAT test for Gifted & Talented. We held our noses through this entire process, mainly because when I went to the public forums on what G&T actually means for kindergartners, I came away convinced that the only defining feature of G&T kids was that their parents are reflexive  strivers who want to enter the club just because it seems hard to get into.

But now, after having toured all the schools in our actually very diverse neighborhood, I am starting to see the real nature of the OLSAT: it’s a pigment test. Literally. They say the G&T entrance exam is about recognizing patterns and whatnot, but secretly the test administrators must be bouncing a light meter off the kids’ foreheads to test for darkness. Because when you go from G&T to Gen Ed class and back again in school after school here, you realize: G&T classes are 1500% less black and Dominican than General Ed classes. This is true in PS84, PS75, PS165, and even in PS166, which struck me as more mixed (read: more white kids) throughout all its classes.

I say this as someone whose kids–my wife keeps reminding me–are somewhat pale, but not white. We don’t expect to find lots of Mexican-Japano-Jew-Germans like our kids dotting the schoolyard, but had perhaps expected something less nakedly segregationist than the current system.

This is, of course, terrible for the kids in Gen Ed. They’ve got time enough to learn that the deck is stacked against them for some pretty superficial reasons. Why start when they’re five? It also forces white families into tough decisions. You can be politically opposed to the G&T system, but you see also that it has left general education bereft of the school’s most involved parents: that means fewer PTA  perks, less parental pressure on teachers and administrators, and less everything. Now, do you put your kid in those classes to satisfy your politics? Is that punishing them?

I know I’m being naive. Of course G&T correlates to race. The G&T system–like all of Bloomberg’s “choice” in schools–is designed to appeal to an overindulged demographic for whom Choice is just another form of consumerism. It’s the smug feeling you get when you buy Kashi instead of Cheerios. Public education is only worthwhile to them if they know that there’s a lesser brand in the same building. It allows them to have that whiff of exclusivity, the taste of luxury purchase, that is hopefully intoxicating enough to lure them from private schools. So they prep their kids for the OLSAT, and those kids do well on the OLSAT. You can say a lot of things about Mike Bloomberg, but he understands the minds of the rich and of those who, in the words of Warhol, think rich.

My concern is what my daughter will learn in these schools. Kids her age may be math-dumb, but they’re socially very smart, and it wouldn’t take long to learn the lesson of the pigment test: This class is Gifted, the other class down the hall is Dominican.

I’m disappointed that these are the so-called Choices we have in school: a forsaken Gen Ed course or a high-scoring segregated class. But let me also be a realist. Manhattan is as segregated a town as any other, and the fact that we all ride the 2 train together (south of 96th, at least) doesn’t obscure that. In fact, Manhattan is a sort of perfect place to have schools that are two-tracked within a single building. We are talented at living elbow-to-elbow with, and yet completely ignoring, people who are different from us.

So the question becomes, should we expect the schools to attempt a vision of inclusiveness that either eludes or doesn’t interest our other institutions? Wall Street is segregated; journalism is too (DadWagon is heavily integrated, but mainly on the Judea-Asia axis). And housing is most definitely segregated: the reason why our neighborhood is so diverse is because it’s home to a lot of Mitchell-Lama housing and housing projects. Or, seen from the other side, it became diverse once the yuppies started coveting brownstones here. So if our housing, our reading, our banking, our commuting is all segregated, then is integration just one more ideal that we wish to preach to our children without actually practicing it ourselves? I’m so two-faced with my kids when I lecture them on everything from sleeping right to eating well to not dropping f-bombs that I really couldn’t bear to open up another deep vein of hypocrisy.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t automatically think my kids’ generation will solve racism just because they are doe-eyed and color-blind and innocent. The things that keep us apart are systemic and unwieldy and live in the bricks, not just the minds, of this town. And yet: if you can walk through the hallways of our public schools and not get pissed at the sight of a two-tiered, two-toned system, then you’ve already lost.


  1. Carly says:

    March 10th, 2011at 1:48 pm(#)

    Yes and thank you for airing all this! Tracking of all sorts is about containing poverty where it belongs–out of the lives and aspirations of the wealthy and their imitators. Race and poverty just happen to be statistically aligned in this country.

    The Clinton Administration’s answer to the problem of economic segregation was the Hope VI housing program which has had limited and mixed results. (This is where you see the tall towers being torn down and replaced with “mixed-use” units.) Magnet schools and busing were other attempts to get at the pernicious effects of housing segregation.

    The NYT recently covered the efforts of the Raleigh NC school district to balance schools not by race or income but by student achievement (so each school had to have 70 percent ‘successful’ and 30 percent struggling students). They said it was politically easier but effectively the same, since achievement is so dependent on household income. If all the people making above average went to public school, and if public school funding was regionally or nationally based, and if those funding regions were themselves representative of a swath of incomes, then we would have no education problem. (Or if we closed the dramatic wealth/poverty gap, and I don’t see anyone talking about that.)

    Public schools are different than Wall Street or journalism in so many ways. They have a legal mandate to educate all children under the age of 16 (or, to put it another way, all children under the age of 16 in most states are legally obliged to show they are being educated). I’m sure there’s a reader out there who can put it better than I about how this all got argued in Brown v Board etc. But, in theory, one that I think has been put to the test in the courts around the country, segregation in the schools, intentional or otherwise, gets in the way of existing US law. See also: Gary Orfield’s Dismantling Desegregation (1997) and Orfield’s work in general.

    Knowing all this, I still don’t know where my 4 yo will go to K, in part because the local public does involve huge personal investment of time on our part as parents: all the vetting and assuring and meetings, many of which the school administration appears to have no interest in having parents attend in the first place. There are few to no upwardly mobile nudges already enrolled, and this, so tied with prior parental wealth and education, is what actually determines school success.

  2. Tim says:

    March 11th, 2011at 10:38 am(#)

    Nathan, dual-language programs aren’t a refuge from segregation, they’re notorious for it. PS 75 and PS 84 don’t even have G&T classes—what you saw as “white” classes were almost certainly dual-language classes. Some of the “white” classes at 165 and 166 were probably dual-language, too.

    G&T existed long before Bloomberg came on the scene, and I can’t accept the theory that its current “branding” was his plan to keep the rich-thinking well-heeled in the public schools. Those kinds of families can’t even comprehend the idea of sending their kids to public schools.

    Maybe I’m justifying our own choices, but I truly believe that any involved and concerned parents (of any race) who send their kids to public schools in New York are part of the solution, not the problem. An education professor at NYU named Pedro Noguera had a great line about the city’s schools and Brown vs. Board of Ed—there literally aren’t enough white kids (and/or kids not living in poverty) in the system to successfully integrate it. The city is 40% white, but white kids comprise only 15% of the school population, and something like 83% of the kids are free- or reduced-price-lunch eligible (which means that experiments like Wake County, NC, referenced by commenter Carly, or Montgomery County, MD, won’t work here). If G&T programs keep families from going private or parochial or moving to even more highly segregated suburbs (or ‘integrated’ suburbs like Montclair, New Rochelle, or Maplewood, where the segregation occurs at the classroom level), aren’t they fundamentally a good thing?

    I’m pretty confident that your daughter will do great no matter where she goes, but I have to confess that for the sake of this particular argument, I hope that she qualifies for a citywide. She’d have only about a 20% chance of lotterying into NEST or Anderson, but she would be almost guaranteed to get a seat at TAG. You want to talk about a gut-check for your principles (and some potentially great blogging), that’s it right there.

  3. Nathan says:

    March 12th, 2011at 12:33 pm(#)

    Tim — Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think in general you’re right about dual-language, although interestingly enough, this year, PS163’s dual-language program is about 90% Hispanic (apparently the DOE yanked a second class just before the school year, so they could only take kids from their zone; they promise next year will be more 50-50). You are absolutely right that public schools, no matter in what form, are worth patronizing.

    We are trying hard to get into a school like PS333, which is not G&T, but is still a bit of an intentional community. People are there because they want to be there. I don’t know what their demographics looks like, but they at least are not split inside the school.

  4. Shay MacKenzie says:

    April 7th, 2011at 3:37 am(#)

    Great blog. Great angle of attack – or reflection – on these issues.

    I am a white father of a spectacular little 4 year old who has a wonderful asian mother. We live in Asia and deal with many of the ‘pigment’ questions raised in your piece.

    My take on your dilemma here is less about the specific school/program choices presented to you – in all their complexity – but rather with the over-arching question of how we jettison race/ethnicity as a poisonous complex of misunderstanding and power.

    You say…”I don’t automatically think my kids’ generation will solve racism just because they are doe-eyed and color-blind and innocent. The things that keep us apart are systemic and unwieldy and live in the bricks, not just the minds, of this town.” You captured perfectly the problem of seeing this issue from a deeply personal vantage point, but with that colossus of society looming large like storm clouds over any indiviual attempt at change.

    My son is the future. But do I gift him the burden of answering the race challenge… undoing these tightly wound strands of prejudice, division, delusion? It won’t happen in his generation. Maybe not for many. And… most importantly… I do not expect any school to be a part of what could prove to be a solution to these issues. It will always happen at home, in the family, in the mind. Schools are not a ‘real’ social unit.

    Keep up the great writing

  5. Andrea K. says:

    June 23rd, 2011at 12:43 pm(#)

    Yesterday I went to register my 4 year old daughter at TAG. She scored a 99, so back in May, we also had the ‘privilege’ to attend the tour at Anderson back. We had ranked Anderson first, TAG second. I have no apprehension about the academic level at TAG, but it does sting hard when the facilities at TAG compared to Anderson underscore the cartoon that you have used to illustrate your article. It does sting when I am being signed in at the security desk, and your dear police officer says sh***t as part of her animated conversation with a gentleman who has no uniform and looks like he is just hanging out. It does hurt that, after a long and drawn out process that carries such a commitment (we live far in the Bronx), the parent coordinator handles your registration as uneventfully as if she was handing out a queue number at the post office.

    Meanwhile, Anderson is poised to host a wine and cheese hour complete with a circus show for the entering parents. Wine and cheese aside, it would have been great to have had the recognition of our efforts and dedication. It takes so much consideration by the families, from logistic to moral desirables, as have been highlighted by all the previous commenters here. For a black, latino, and any other child who have scored 97 and above, and who have working parents and all the rest of the social implications that go with it, coming into TAG should be a cause for celebration. The school should have planned to get us families together to mark the moment. So yes, the water fountain at TAG still drips and has rusty marks.

    The point about choosing public school as more socially desirable and responsible than going private or moving out of the city is well taken, but it is no consolation for parents who live in districts with poor performing schools that middle class and upper middle class parenst choose public school which, incidentally, they fund so heavily, that they can no longer even be strictly compared to another public school, say, in the Bronx. As long as we have property taxes so tied up with education this rich/poor/non-white/white scenario will always be here, and frankly most parents do not feel a social responsibilty to integrate anything. In addition the system that is put in place by the G and T (so few seats and exam) thrusts parents into competition where there would be none. Of course the keeping up with the johnses does come into play once the schools encourage people to donate money and time, and of course when the school’s address is right.

    During the Anderson tour, the two administrators who gave the introductory remarks did not wait long before stressing how much they counted on parents and fully expected that they would contribute to the schools resources, especially those “who have deeper pockest” and who would alternatively be sending their children to private schools. There are probably a few parents every year who won’t even rank Anderson based on this pressure alone.

    Although I had ranked Anderson first (outdor space: better; playground set:better; library: brand new under construction; etc. etc.),I was not confortable with the obvious segregation. I am a mixed race person myself (black and white–thus within the american social culture ‘black’). My husband is white, and my three daughters are all phenotipically white. Whenever I am at an area in NYC that is somewhat affluent, people always think I am the nanny. Furthermore, I am the product of someone who went to good schools on scholarships and just as one might expect I was always the one out of two (maybe) black children in every class from elemetary garduate school. Therefore I am particularly sensitive to these issues, and I did cringe during the tour at Anderson, when our group of parenst had to stop in the hallway to wait for this extremely rowdy group of middle school students to pass ahead of us on their way to the cafeteria. They were all black, and looked like poor children. The parent giving the tour was actually embarrasssed and immediately made an apology, “you know, kids are loud…” I had a stomachache after that. Interestingly enough, the parenst stood there silently observing and wating for the black students to move along, and sort of proceeded as if nothing had happen. No one asked about issues of security and teenage fights.

    In contrast, during my tour at TAG, the mirror image of the same situation had the opposite effect, and the parents wanted to know about safety given that the building shared space with these other schools. It was as if the prestige of Anderson was enough to keep these other students hermetically shut away from the brighly lit G and T classrooms, while at TAG, the classes filled with talented black children did not help allay the parenst’ worries about the other students. I decided that the reason was that there was no color coding to help the parenst feel that there would be enough of a separation between them and us.

    Back to registration day at TAG. I called the school’s office to complain about the security guards’ language and did register how anti-climatic the registration process was. The person on the phone was sympathetic, took my name and assured me that they would take care of these professional lapses. I actually believed she would. I imagine that as a TAG parent I may have to require accountability more often than I might somewhere else. I also don’t like the fact that racial diversity is almost totally lacking, but I do like that for my daughter going to school with bright kids will not be synonymous with white kids.

    One final point for another time. I wonder about the actual IQ portion of the test. In district 7 in the South Bronx, for example, there 122 kids who took the G and T test. Only 7 qualified. In constrast, the numbers for the various districts in the city are much, much higher keeping all proportions. So, unless you subscribe to the arguments in that infamous book, ‘The Bell Curve’, then it may be time to revisit the actual engineering of the test.

    Best to all–Andrea, North Bronx


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