No Child Left Behind?

November 29, 2007
By Jensen Reckhow, NYC, NY

On October 14th, New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced his support of the efforts of a benevolent philanthropist group (Medina par. 3). The efforts involved rewarding high-performing high school students for scoring well on AP exams in the spring. While this may seem a delightful opportunity at first, critical analysis reveals that the policy is both discriminatory and condescending. This new program is causing more harm than good, and is not an adequate solution to the city’s educational disparities.
The program was designed by Whitney Tilson, a major hedge fund manager and benefactor to the public school system (Green par. 4 - 5). In donating $1 million to this effort, the philanthropist group Tilson is involved in will provide $500 to students who score a three on an AP exam, $750 for students who score a four, and $1000 for students who earn the top score of a five. The students receive their reward in the form of cash that they can spend however they please. These benefits will be available to students attending twenty-five public schools and six private schools in New York City (Medina par. 3 - 5). These lucky schools were chosen based on two slightly discriminatory criteria: the school had to either possess a largely black or Hispanic student body or be located in a low-income area.

These criteria leave many students helpless and unacknowledged by the program. One major group of students who feel cheated by this effort is the No Child Left Behind students. Instituted in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act is a federal policy intended to allow all children to receive an education in the United States (“U.S. DOE”). In New York City, this means that students who attend low quality schools have the opportunity to switch to more high functioning schools. Ironically, now that these children are at better schools and by proxy receiving a better education, they are no longer eligible for the monetary rewards they would have received for scoring well on AP exams had they remained at their old schools. Another group cheated by this initiative is the lower-middle class: students who attend decent schools but still cannot afford to pay for the college process. “What about the ‘middle people’?” an anonymous student at the NYC Lab School said on the subject. “What about the kids whose parents make enough money for them to not technically be considered low-income, but who still need this money to pay for college? Are white people not allowed to be poor too?” Addressing that concern exactly, William Bassel, principal of Long Island City High School in Queens (one of the schools recognized by this program), said, “We don’t think Advanced Placement classes should be an elitist thing.” (Medina, pp. 16). But isn’t it elitist to only reward some students for an achievement many more are making? The plan is essentially based on a double standard: when a non-minority student performs well on an AP exam, the city does nothing in terms of a reward or even acknowledgement. Yet when a minority students performs well on the very same test, they get up to a $1000 cash reward. This program does not help level the playing field for high school students—it merely provides a select few with a new opportunity, leaving the others to fend for themselves.

Aside from being innately discriminatory to reward only a select ethnic group of students for an achievement that is entirely independent of race, this program is also extremely condescending and judgmental of high school students. What makes this philanthropist group believe that students are only academically motivated by money? Is it not possible for a student to be conscious on their own of the importance of their education without materialistic motivators? There are plenty of students in New York City who are fully aware of how important their education is, and do not need a superficial incentive to try hard in school. Frankly, this policy is unjustly patronizing and degrading to students, and represents the manifestation of a prevalent stigma concerning the rarely accurate image of teenagers in society as haphazard, ignorant, and lazy.

While it may seem like an excellent idea at first—motivating students to do well in school, improving the chances for students to go to and graduate from college—this program has several major drawbacks. Not only is it inherently discriminatory and belittling, but the program also encourages the already ubiquitous stigma concerning ethnicity and academic success in New York City. The philanthropists are essentially implying that only schools in which minorities are present need academic encouragement, that only low-income schools need a scholastic booster. These generalizations are not only completely false and unjustified, but are also degrading and demoralizing. This policy needs to be seriously reconsidered, so that the city’s education system can develop in a more favorable, level environment.

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