Racial Quotas Would Destroy, Not Reform, Boston Latin School

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At present, there is a grave threat to the long tradition of excellence at Boston Latin, the nation's oldest public school.

A group of black citizens led by Thomas Atkins, a Boston attorney and former city councilman, is demanding the establishment of racial and ethnic quotas for the Latin School identical to those for other magnet schools in Boston. To reach these quotas, it would be necessary to manipulate or eliminate the results of the entrance examinations that students wishing to attend the school must take. The manipulation would involve reducing the minimum admission score for blacks and raising the score for whites until the quotas are achieved.

We need to face the fact that this is a proposal not to "reform" Boston Latin but to destroy it. This proposal substitutes standards of race and ethnicity for standards of academic achievement. It is racist on its face. It arbitrarily limits the representation of whites, Hispanics, and Asians, even if students from these groups should demonstrate superior qualifications for admission. The proposal shows a contempt for blacks. It would set an admission standard for them that is well below the score required of other ethnic groups.

If racial and ethnic quotas are substituted for rigorous and equitable entrance examinations, the outcome will be inevitable--either the integrity of the present curriculum will be maintained (and many students admitted on the basis of lower achievement scores will fail), or the curriculum will be watered down, either by court order or school mandate, to the level of the least qualified students. In either case, all that will remain is one more ordinary public high school.

Contrary to the contemporary claim that Boston Latin was established for the privileged, it always has been and still is open to gifted and ambitious students without regard to their social or economic background. Boston Latin grew and flourished during a time when our society had no doubts about the necessity of excellence in education. It is easy for the excellent to be excellent when society is on their side. But it is the special glory of Boston Latin to have stuck by its principles and its standards during the past two decades, when educational excellence has been under severe attack from all sides.

Sometimes excellence has been attacked by established groups for selfish purposes. The movement in higher education to abolish grades coincided with the arrival of large numbers of minority students in the colleges and universities. This idea was not much supported, however, by the minorities. Its support came almost entirely from affluent whites, and I am not being cynical in suggesting that, subconsciously at least, white students were worried about competing with all those ambitious new students and wished to abolish the measurements by which the competition could be judged. The arrival of previously excluded minorities in the academy or the workplace threatened the least competent and laziest whites with downward mobility.

It is a scandal of our society that we do not organize most of our institutions around excellence. If we did, we would expect that a far higher percentage of the partners in Wall Street law firms would be women, and that approximately 11 percent of our surgeons would be black. It is not uncommon, however, to hear calls for the maintenance of high standards misrepresented as racist and sexist. But it should be obvious that any objection to high standards for minorities and women must itself rest on a patently racist or sexist belief that these people are in fact inferior to everyone else, and would be unable to compete successfully if performance were the only criteria at every appropriate stage of development.

Boston Latin's headmaster, Michael Contompasis, has stated the case for his school with admirable clarity: Boston Latin can guarantee equality of opportunity but not equality of results. This view has been eloquently and succinctly endorsed by the distinguished Boston Latin alumnus Theodore H. White:

"It was the best kind of school. It gave everyone the same chance, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Protestant, black, then flung them out ruthlessly when they didn't make it. This was a magnet school, drawing the best from all over the city, before magnet schools were invented."

Boston Latin is an illustration of the principle that it is fitting and proper to find the best qualified and most committed high-school students through rigorous examinations, and to offer them a highly demanding curriculum.

The proposal to water down Boston Latin would harm blacks as a whole. It is a fact that blacks as a group do worse than the average on competitive examinations such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the examination used for admission to Boston Latin. But unless we accept the intolerably racist principle that their lower performance is due to genetic inferiority--and the time has passed when anyone of even moderate intelligence believes this to be the case--it must be explained by inadequate education in the lower grades. That is, the performance of blacks on standardized examinations is the best proof we have that they are neglected by the educational system. The standardized examination offered to all ethnic groups provides the most accurate measure of the neglect which some groups suffer. Destroy the exam and the proof of neglect disappears.

Lowering standards of admission to Boston Latin is another action that would deprive blacks of solid evidence in support of their demand for primary- and middle-school education that is fully the equal of that offered to any other group in our society. We will know that this reasonable and imperative goal has been reached in Boston when the proper percentage of blacks can pass the entrance examination at Boston Latin without any special programs to assist them. Until that goal is reached, Boston University and other higher-education institutions in the city stand ready to assist the schools with tutors, summer courses, and any other support that will help the Boston schools provide students in the lower grades with the education that is their right.

We must make every effort to increase the retention rate for students at Boston Latin, and especially among those minority students whose educational background is deficient. But an increase in retention must not be dishonestly arranged by a decrease in standards: the integrity of achievement represented by a Boston Latin diploma must be preserved.

Vol. 04, Issue 39, Page 22

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