The average professional spends 28% of the work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. For the average full-time worker in America, that amounts to a staggering 2.6 hours spent and 120 messages received per day.
Most professionals have resorted to one of two extreme coping mechanisms as a last-ditch attempt to survive the unending onslaught: at one end, there are the inbox-zero devotees who compulsively keep their inboxes clear, and, at the other, there are those who have essentially given up. Emails enter their inbox and remain.
In the face of these two extremes, some have advocated for a more moderate approach: simply, check email less often.
Our team at Zarvana — a company that teaches research-backed time management practices — set out to see if there is a data-supported way to reduce the 2.6 daily hours spent on email without sacrificing effectiveness. What we found surprised even us: we realized we could save more than half of the time we currently spend on email, or one hour and 21 minutes per day.
Here are the five ways we unnecessarily lose this time and how to get it back:
Over-checking email wastes 21 minutes per day. On average, professionals check their email 15 times per day, or every 37 minutes. Do most people expect a response within that time frame? No. In fact, only 11% of customers/clients and 8% of coworkers expect a response in less than an hour. But about 40% of people expect a response in about an hour. If people checked their email hourly rather than every 37 minutes, they could cut six email checks from their day.
What impact would that have? Some research suggests that it can take people up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully recover after an interruption, such as a break to check email. While we don’t doubt the truth in this finding, for the purposes of calculating time savings, we use the much more conservative results of a Loughborough University study, which found that it takes 64 seconds for people to return to work at the same rate they left it.
Trips to the inbox aren’t the only way people “check” email either. Many also read the notifications that emerge in the corner of their computer screens each time an email comes in, losing several seconds each time.
And these interruptions have added costs. Researcher Sophie Leroy from the University of Washington describes what happens: “As I am still thinking about Task A while trying to do Task B, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to process those two tasks at the same time and do a perfect job on both.”
So, between checking email six times more than needed, letting notifications interrupt us, and taking time to get back on track, we lose 21 minutes per day.
The solution is simple, however. Turn off notifications and schedule time (about 5 to 8 minutes) every hour to check email. For some roles in some professions, this is not viable. And it may feel very uncomfortable to those who are accustomed to being on top of everything that comes in and responding within minutes. But most who try it find that their rapid response times have been unnecessary.
Full inboxes waste 27 minutes per day. Many have argued that there is no longer a reason to move emails out of the inbox because the search functionality of the common email applications is powerful enough to make finding one message among hundreds or even thousands easy. They’re right, but only in part. Search is the fastest way to find old emails, but full inboxes cost us time for another reason.
When we check a crowded inbox, we end up re-reading emails over and over again. We can’t help it; if they’re there, we read them. On average, professionals have more than 200 emails in their inbox and receive 120 new ones each day but respond to only 25% of them. Without a conscious clear-out plan, the backlog keeps building. And, if people go to their inboxes 15 times per day and spend just four seconds looking at each email (the time it takes to read the average preview text) and re-reading only 10% of them (an estimate based on the number of messages that fit on average computer screen), they’ll lose 27 minutes each day. For the small portion of people who do no archiving, these savings will be a bit more modest (more like 22 minutes) because they will need to start spending five minutes each day archiving emails in order to clear out their inbox.
In either case, he antidote is the single-touch rule. This means always archiving or deleting emails after reading them the first time. This approach may seem nonsensical for certain messages, like ones that require a delayed response. However, a read email that needs a later response is no longer an email requiring reading; it is a task requiring action. It should be treated as such and moved out of the inbox and onto a to-do list.
Using folders to organize and find emails wastes 14 minutes per day. Because professionals delay replying 37% of the time, finding messages that we’ve already read is a big part of the work of email processing.
Most people deal with this by creating folders for various subjects or people or types of messages and archiving accordingly. On average, people create a new email folder every five days and have 37 on hand. But this approach — clicking on folders to find what you need — is 9% slower than searching with keywords, or 50% slower when compared with searches using common operators (e.g., “from:firstname.lastname@example.org”).
Search is one fix. Another is email/to-do list integrations. These work by either providing users with a unique email address they can forward/send emails to for automatic conversion into tasks, or enabling users to add emails to a slimmed down version of the to-do list app embedded in their email application. Taken together, these methods can save users 14 minutes per day.
Archiving emails into many folders using a mouse wastes 11 minutes per day. The 37 folders stacked up on the left-hand side of most users’ email application affects more than just re-finding time. Roughly 10% of the total time people spend on email is spent filing messages they want to keep, a process that involves two phases: deciding where the emails should go and then moving them to the selected folders. The more choices we have, the longer it takes for us to make a decision.
We know that folders aren’t needed for re-finding emails, so how many do we really need? We have found that most people require only two: one for emails that you we read when they hit the inbox but which also require further action (what we call “Archive”) and one for emails that we might want to read at a later date (what we call “Reading”). Why not have zero folders? We need at least one so we can get emails out of our inboxes.
To calculate the time saved by dropping from 37 to two folders, we use Hick’s Law, a psychological principle that describes the mathematical relationship between the number of choices and decision-making time. It tells us that a 37-choice decision is five times slower than a two-choice decision.
There are also ways to improve the efficiency and accuracy of email filing through the use of automated rules or filters, which help us avoid the risk of dragging and dropping emails into the wrong place, and keyboard shortcuts, which are more than 50% faster than using a mouse. For example, Windows Outlook users can file emails by pressing control + shift + v and then selecting their desired folder from a list (in G Suite, users can just press “v” and then select the desired folder). Outlook users can also create “quick steps” that enable them to move emails to a specific folder with one keyboard sequence, saving even more time.
Reading and processing irrelevant emails costs us 8 minutes per day: According to data from Sanebox, 62% of all email is not important and can be processed in bulk. But even bulk-processing takes time. The average person opens 20% of “permission mailers” (e.g. newsletters) and spends 15-20 seconds reading each of these emails, consuming more than four minutes per day. Even just deleting an email takes an average of 3.2 seconds, adding up to more than three minutes per day, a small but important reason to unsubscribe and block unwanted emails rather than just deleting them.
To break the habit of processing irrelevant emails individually, use a three-part approach: automated filtering for newsletters you actually use, unsubscribing from those you don’t, and blocking spam and other emails that keep coming after you’ve tried to unsubscribe.
Email has become the bane of the 21st century workers’ existence, but by implementing just these five practices, email can once again become a tool for effective work:
- Turn off notifications and instead check your email hourly
- Move every email out of your inbox the first time you read it
- Use the search functionality with search operators to re-find emails
- Set up just two email folders and use shortcuts to archive emails there
- Avoid processing irrelevant or less important emails individually
It’s time to leave our habits and intuition behind and fall in line with what the research shows, so that we can put hours back in our week and finally get our email under control.
By Deborah Offner
Beacon Academy is a private, philanthropically funded “extra year” of school between eighth and ninth grade that prepares motivated, promising urban students for success in independent day and boarding schools. Its mission is comparable to that of other, older preparatory programs for low-income students, such as New York City’s Prep for Prep and Boston’s Steppingstone Foundation; however, Beacon is the only full-time academic program of its kind in the country. Beacon students come from low-income families, many of whom are poor enough to qualify for secondary school application fee waivers. Beacon graduates inhabit at least two spheres of intersectional identity; whether boy or girl, straight or queer, U.S. natives or immigrants, they are at once disadvantaged by their color and their socioeconomic class.
Beacon Academy’s distinct, intentional practice of talking openly with their students about race and class means its graduates become adept at reflecting on their experiences. Beacon also facilitates powerful, transformative conversations between its alumni and the broader independent school community, at its Annual Symposium on Race and Class. The symposium, which takes place every October and is in its 13th year, is attended by teachers, counselors, diversity directors, admission officers, trustees, and donors, as well as deans, assistant heads, and heads of school from throughout New England. Gathering insights from the panel of students that spoke at the symposium over the past couple of years, as well as from conversations with about a dozen low-income students of color over the past three years, I hope to represent some of their perspectives, across their many different independent secondary schools.
Tuition Isn’t the Only Expense
Over the past two decades, many independent schools have transformed their admission numbers, conversations, and climates. Still, while attracting students of color and those from diverse class backgrounds is an explicit goal of most contemporary independent schools, many of us are just beginning to learn what school is like for these students.
“When friends ask me to go out [for lunch], it’s terrifying because that can cost $10–$15,” one student says. “For them, it’s just a little bit of money. And they say, ‘What’s the big deal? Just ask your parents.’ But for me, spending that much will mean I can’t do my laundry or buy the pens and notebooks I need for school. This makes it hard for me to make friends, because I can’t do the things they like to do.”
Many schools now recognize that tuition is far from the only expense for independent school students and families; some schools award additional money to scholarship students, often in direct proportion to their financial-aid award, or maintain separate funds to finance school trips, team jackets, class rings, and other incidental expenses of membership in the school community. A formal institutional practice like this ensures that students in need do not have to ask.
A Closer Look at Curriculum
While many schools have expanded their courses to represent more diverse populations and perspectives, numerous students report feeling excluded, or at least overlooked, by the curriculum. Teenagers learn best when they can relate to the people and stories presented by their teachers and texts. Further, they need to feel “seen” or reflected in the classroom conversation, at least some of the time.
“When we study the history of immigration to the United States, it’s interesting, but a little weird because for me, immigration is not just something historical. My mom immigrated here when I was 2, leaving me with my grandparents in [our home country] until she had enough money to come back and get me, when I was 5. So, personally, I immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago.”
One Latino student talked about what it meant to her when her English class read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, the story of a Mexican-American girl growing up in inner-city Chicago. “This was a story about a girl like me, living in a family like mine. We hadn’t read anything like that before. It was amazing!”
Some students report what sounds like sociologist Robert Merton’s 1948 “self-fulfilling prophecy” regarding white educators’ perceived expectations of them. “[I felt that] expectations in the classroom were set low for me…because of the color of my skin. And because I was a student-athlete, people assumed I was just at my school to play sports and coast academically. This was really hard for me. Sometimes when you are not expected to do as well, you fly under the radar. And, at some points, I did.”
An 11th-grade Beacon alumnus who says he loves his current school, in fact has “never been happier,” describes how it was hard, at first, to feel “different” because his race and class distinguish him from the majority of his classmates. “It took me a while to realize that being different isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean you are lower … and I think [my being there] is helping other kids to realize that, too.”
The same student mentions a painful experience of “difference” with which he “came to terms” through a combination of conversation and reflection. “At one point, I heard a rumor that this [white] friend of mine was racist. I couldn’t really understand because, I mean, he was really good friends with me, so it just didn’t make sense.”
He goes on to explain that in talking with a mutual classmate who had attended the same independent middle school as his friend, he came to understand that, “there is a difference between ignorance and racism. I think my friend is just ignorant. People can’t help the way they grew up, what they were exposed to … They had some kids of color at their old school, but making jokes about race was just something people did.”
Starting the Conversation
Many students tell their stories behind closed doors, to other students or teachers with comparable identities or backgrounds. Others tend not to voice their concerns at all. Many students decide, whether consciously or not, to perform now and process later, if at all. Kids often keep the really important stuff to themselves, unless we ask them about it. “A lot of things happen to me at school that I bury,” one student said.
“Even if it’s not on our faces, because we’ve been taught to be resilient, to be strong, we may be struggling,” another said.
Independent school diversity directors and consultants emphasize that in addition to creating safe spaces for one-to-one conversations with students, teachers and other adults on campus must initiate and model the change they want to see by engaging in difficult conversations about race and class among themselves. For many of us, this prospect is far more daunting than that of talking openly with our students. Many schools suggest a faculty summer reading that raises these issues as a useful starting point for reflection and conversation.
Beacon alumni frequently observe that their parents are far less comfortable in their independent schools than they are. “This is the first parent-teacher conference my mom is attending, ever. She is scared because she doesn’t speak English that well, and she was only able to go to school through eighth grade.”
“My mom has an email, but she doesn’t know how to work it really. I fill out my own health forms, financial aid forms … If I ask you, please send me the emails you send to my mom, so I can take care of it. It’s not that she’s a bad mom, she just can’t do it because she doesn’t understand it. My friends’ parents do everything for them, but a lot of students like me, they [have to be] independent.”
To make the school environment more parent-accessible, the director of community and multicultural affairs and director of parent relations at one Boston day school facilitate an information and affinity group for parents who are “new to independent schools.” The same school is starting an affinity group for students who are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, in recognition of the salience and challenges of their particular experiences and identities.
Taking the Long View
Beacon graduates and those from comparable backgrounds struggle in at least proportionate numbers to privileged white students with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, family strain, and navigating the complexities of peer relationships and adolescent identity development. In addition, these students, without exception, face the psychosocial stressors of prejudice and discrimination. For many, this gets harder as they navigate elite, white-majority secondary schools. Beacon starts by providing its alumni with practical advice and problem-solving assistance. How do you approach the financial-aid office when your family can’t close the gap between your aid award and tuition? What do you do when all your classmates look at you every time slavery is mentioned during history? But Beacon never hesitates to delve into the personal. How are you feeling? What is hard?
Beacon Academy has learned over time that for its students, high school admission is but a single step in a long-term process. Beacon has seen its students tackle common challenges across a wide range of independent school environments, including stereotyping or prejudice from peers or teachers, tension between their identities as privileged students and poor teenagers of color, or the feeling that every time they speak, they represent a whole category of people. In response, Beacon has gradually broadened its own horizons and ambitions. Initially conceived as a launching pad into independent schools, Beacon now expects to follow and support its graduates, to whatever degree necessary, all the way through high school and college. In doing so, Beacon has established the kind of productive partnerships with New England schools that facilitate both institutions’ thoughtful care of their students and communities. Through both its public forums and the voices of its graduates, many of whom become leaders on their campuses, Beacon Academy continues to ask the difficult questions—of all of us.
How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?
Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.
I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.
In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).
The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.
One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?
STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK
Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.
I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.
Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.
Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.
In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.
Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.
One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.
Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.
PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING
We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.
Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.
I lost my first student to suicide not long ago. The student was no longer in my class at the time, nor even at the school, but I was flooded with the expected surge of feelings: overwhelming sadness, periodic despair, compulsive frame-by-frame replays of our every interaction. I felt the loss deeply. It was unspeakably tragic—for the student’s friends and family, for me, and for the world I’d hoped the student would help shape.
I was haunted, too—I still am—by the fear of a similar tragedy among my raw-nerved and anxious students. And the recent spike in teenage suicides in my area has underscored this fear sharply.
Based on my observations, the lives of the high school students I teach are hemmed in everywhere by social pressures and expectations: high-stakes testing, the looming shadow of college admissions, the fiercely competitive school system, the painful process of figuring out who you are, and the ubiquitous desire for peer acceptance. Add to this the unseen pressures—fractured or fragmented home lives, emotional or physical violence and abuse, struggles with substance use, legal problems, and the wide range of issues borne by the many immigrant communities across the country—and it makes for a period of unsustainable emotional distress. In recent weeks the constant pressure has meant dealing with student depression almost daily, and helping support those who I feel might be toeing the line of self-harm.
There are plenty of resources for dealing with student mental health issues, of course—though most of them are geared either toward college kids or, more tragically, toward elementary and middle school-aged children. The sources that do offer strategies tailored for high school students tend to be either excessively academic or so general as to be useless. Reviewing my notes from my joint credential and master’s program, I find inconsistency and a frustrating lack of clarity. The strategies include things like teaching positive management strategies and promoting emotional competency, or educating staff on mental health issues and encourage social supports.
As a practicing teacher, I don’t find that very helpful. And in my day-to-day work life, I see two common—and mostly inadequate—mental health strategies deployed to help high schoolers who look like they might be struggling: First, take some time, and second, get caught up. Even if the advice is phrased differently, it’s usually a variation on the same theme. Students are advised to take the adolescent equivalent of a personal day, and then complete their work accordingly. I’m not pointing fingers. I’ve done it myself.
In my case, frustration drove me to seek some better answers. In a series of recent conversations with the mental health professionals I trust, with colleagues who have a long history of putting students’ mental well-being first—and of course with students—I’ve assembled a list of strategies for classroom teachers to implement that might help not just treat the symptoms but also address the underlying issues.
5 STRATEGIES FOR PROMOTING HIGH SCHOOLERS’ MENTAL WELL-BEING
1. Ask “How are you doing?”—and mean it. For the past six years, I’ve stood at the door and welcomed my high school students in with a handshake and a variant of that question. If I sense any problems, I might ask “Really?” or “You sure?” I think it’s reassuring to students to know that an adult in their life cares about their well-being, and the research strongly supports that position.
Student responses, even if they don’t answer honestly, can reveal volumes about their actual mental and emotional status. In my class, as students complete the warm-up, I go to my roster and note which students seemed upset or otherwise off.
Over the course of an average month, I think it’s a good goal to seek out one substantial check-in with every student, no matter how they seem to be doing. The teacher will have made a meaningful one-on-one contact, and the student will know that the teacher has their well-being at heart. Furthermore, it’s easy and cheap in terms of time invested, but can yield important insights.
2. Set office hours. This is a policy I’ve borrowed from some of the best teachers I’ve worked with: Set formal office hours and use them to meet with students about more than just academic concerns. For example, I’ll try and meet with each of my students once per semester at some point outside of class time and use the conversation to learn more about who they are, what their academic goals are, and whatever other concerns they have. More often than not, these conversations move into more meaningful territory—most of my students just want or need someone to talk to. The primary objection is that this costs a great deal of time, and I agree. It’s time intensive, but I think it’s worth it.
3. Remember your Maslow. It seems trite to point this out, but in the midst of all the testing and the grading, we need to remind ourselves that mental health trumps academic performance every time. Students who don’t feel grounded or safe or healthy cannot do their best work. Instead of constructing a classroom environment that operates at 100 percent difficulty all the time, consider alternate models that allow students to feel supported and competent first—and then consciously and explicitly ratchet up the difficulty and complexity as appropriate. I try to practice a type of curricular minimalism: lots of guided and independent low-stakes practice, culminating in a manageable set of summative exercises.
4. Consider what matters. I have often spoken with both past and current colleagues about makeup work. Many are of the belief that if a student misses an assignment, they should be—and often must be—responsible for timely completion upon their return. Others tend to recommend a gardener’s approach, pruning the material to its most vital branch. More specifically, when a student is out, it’s important for teachers to consider what work, what skills, and what benchmarks are actually important for outcomes.
When a colleague suggested to me that not all assignments matter, and those that do matter don’t all matter the same, I balked—but there’s plenty of wisdom in the idea. When a student falls behind, consider dropping assignments or editing down the work and, most importantly, explain to the student why that exception is being made. They will appreciate the clarity and the empathy, and most respond by working with greater discipline toward more manageable outcomes in the future.
5. Use the professionals. The best attempts of teachers pale in comparison to the support, resources, and guidance of professionals. I cannot advocate enough for teachers and all school staff to get to know your on-site school psychologists or mental health counselors (if you are so lucky), or to find those very important names and numbers immediately. Every mental health professional I’ve met in education has impressed me with their sensitivity, care, and ability to identify underlying issues well beyond my knowledge, and they explain the connection between a student’s case history and my observations in a way that is both useful and crystal clear. Although teachers tend to try to be self-sufficient and eschew asking for help from those outside the classroom, we aren’t mental health professionals—and this sort of assistance is necessary.
And don’t forget to talk to someone yourself. This last strategy emphasizes self-care. I’ve seen teachers look just as punch-drunk as students, sometimes suffering from the same anxiousness and depression. It’s important that teachers make an effort to talk to someone else—especially since the old truism that each classroom is its own kingdom is generally still true. A teacher who is burdened with the trials and tribulations of their hundred-plus students—and their own struggles to boot—won’t have the headspace to be a humane, observant, and effective shepherd.
Whether it’s in small doses with a spouse or significant other, structured sessions with a therapist, or even informational conversations with colleagues, getting those feelings and thoughts out of your head will make you more capable of responding to the needs of others.
Only a tiny number of black students were offered admission to the highly selective public high schools in New York City on Monday, raising the pressure on officials to confront the decades-old challenge of integrating New York’s elite public schools.
At Stuyvesant High School, out of 895 slots in the freshman class, only seven were offered to black students. And the number of black students is shrinking: There were 10 black students admitted into Stuyvesant last year, and 13 the year before.
Another highly selective specialized school, the Bronx High School of Science, made 12 offers to black students this year, down from 25 last year.
These numbers come despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to diversify the specialized high schools, which have long been seen as a ticket for low-income and immigrant students to enter the nation’s best colleges and embark on successful careers.
But Mr. de Blasio’s proposal to scrap the entrance exam for the schools and overhaul the admissions process has proved so divisive that the state’s most prominent politicians, from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have mostly avoided taking a definitive position — even as black and Hispanic students are grappling with increasingly steep odds of admission into the city’s eight most selective public schools.
Students gain entry into the specialized schools by acing a single high-stakes exam that tests their mastery of math and English. Some students spend months or even years preparing for the exam. Stuyvesant, the most selective of the schools, has the highest cutoff score for admission, and now has the lowest percentage of black and Hispanic students of any of New York City’s roughly 600 public high schools.
Lawmakers considering Mr. de Blasio’s proposal have faced a backlash from the specialized schools’ alumni organizations and from Asian-American groups who believe discarding the test would water down the schools’ rigorous academics and discriminate against the mostly low-income Asian students who make up the majority of the schools’ student bodies. (At Stuyvesant, 74 percent of current students are Asian-American.) The push to get rid of the test, which requires approval from the State Legislature, appears all but dead.
Attempts to diversify the schools without touching the test have failed. Neither the expansion of free test prep for minority students nor a new plan to offer the specialized high school exam during the school day made a dent in the admissions numbers.
The mayor and other supporters of the effort to overhaul the admissions system cited the statistics released Monday as the clearest evidence yet that the system is broken.
“These numbers are even more proof that dramatic reform is necessary to open the doors of opportunity at specialized high schools,” Mr. de Blasio said.
But at the same time, a slew of prominent Democrats in Albany and downstate, ranging from the city’s public advocate to the Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate, either declined to comment or issued statements that indicated the latest numbers are unlikely to change their positions.
Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo, pointed to the governor’s previous comments on the proposal, saying, “It’s a legitimate issue that there are two sides to, and that should be looked at in the wider discussion of education in New York.”
The president of Stuyvesant’s alumni organization did not reply to requests for comment. Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Technical High School alumni foundation, said the numbers did not highlight a flaw in the admissions system, but rather the general lack of high-quality education for black and Hispanic students.
Jumaane Williams, the city’s newly elected public advocate and a graduate of Brooklyn Tech, said his opposition to completely scrapping the test remains unchanged. “The numbers are abysmal, we knew that,” said Mr. Williams, who is black. “The question is what do we do about it, how do we do it without needlessly pitting communities against each other?”
John Liu, the state senator from Queens who chairs the Senate’s New York City education committee, said any proposal should consider the needs of the Asian-American community. “A desegregation plan can only be effective if the problem is viewed as a whole, and one that is not formulated to the total exclusion of Asian-Americans,” he said.
The question of how to racially integrate the city’s elite high schools underscores how hard it is to tackle educational inequality and discrimination. It is a struggle playing out in real time as the future of affirmative action is being challenged at Harvard University and as last week’s college admissions scandal revealed the extreme ways in which wealthy and well-connected families try to game admissions.
Though black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of New York City’s public school system as a whole, just over 10 percent of students admitted into the city’s eight specialized high schools were black or Hispanic, according to statistics released Monday by the city. That percentage is flat compared to last year.
Of the nearly 4,800 students admitted into the specialized schools, 190 are black — compared to 207 black students admitted last year out of just over 5,000 offers. About 5,500 black students took the admissions exam this year out of a total of about 27,500 applicants. Of the five specialized schools that were added under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, only one, the Brooklyn Latin School, has a larger percentage of black applicants who were offered seats: 57 out of 540.
Stuyvesant made 33 offers to Hispanic students, up slightly from 27 seats last year. Asian-American students received 587 offers, and white students were offered 194 seats. Asian-American and white students make up about 15 percent each of the total public school system. The percentage of black students at Stuyvesant has been declining for two decades.
The number of Hispanic students who gained admission to Bronx Science also dropped from 65 last year to 43 today.
The numbers are a stark reminder that the exam tends to produce specialized schools with classes that do not reflect the school system as a whole.
The specialized school admissions process has been protected by state law since 1971, but last summer, Mr. de Blasio asked for Albany’s approval to scrap the exam and replace it with a system that admits the top performers from every city middle school.
Though the city has acknowledged that it could implement that system at five of the eight schools — not including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech, whose admission system is controlled by state law — Mr. de Blasio has argued that such action would create a confusing two-tiered system that would fail to diversify the schools with the fewest black and Hispanic students.
A recent report found that offers to Asian-American students, who now make up about 60 percent of the specialized schools, would drop by about half under the mayor’s plan, while offers to black students would increase fivefold if that plan is approved.
Critics of Mr. de Blasio’s plan have expressed frustration that he did not offer the Asian-American community any concessions, such as a new specialized high school, for all the seats they would lose under the proposal.
The city is relying on a less sweeping part of its plan to help force a measure of integration as soon as this fall: the expansion of Discovery, a summer program that prepares students who just miss the cutoff score for admission into a specialized school.
Though the city has not yet released data about this year’s Discovery class, officials said they believe the plan to set aside 20 percent of seats for Discovery students at each specialized school over the next two years will roughly double the number of black and Hispanic students in those schools.
But with so few black and Hispanic students in the schools, the bigger issue is the future of the test. Over the last few months, city officials have taken their plan to abandon it on the road, trying to sell it in local town hall meetings. They have faced furious parents from the Upper East Side to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who have at turns accused the city of trying to destroy the schools and of focusing too much on a tiny number of schools at the expense of the larger system.
In Albany, the issue has taken a back seat to more popular progressive legislation, including voting reform and abortion rights.
Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly have not signaled any willingness to champion an issue that appears to be a political loser; Assembly majority speaker Carl Heastie recently said his conference had not even raised the matter in talks.
And this past weekend, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez did not take a position on the admissions proposal when she spoke about the specialized high schools at an event in her Queens district.
Instead, she argued for broad school improvement, noting that her father traveled across three boroughs from the Bronx to Brooklyn Technical High School.
“My question is, why isn’t every public school in New York City a Brooklyn Tech-caliber school?” she asked, to applause from the audience. “Every one should be.”
Consider this schedule: At 8 a.m. you arrive at work. Immediately you are busy with a quick problem needing to be solved. You sit and get to it, but only for about three minutes. You break your focus to stop and receive instruction for the next half hour, before getting to work on another task. There may be a bit of discussion, but you are on task and dedicated.
Just before 9 a.m., you stop again, move to a new office, and start a new task. Your previous hour was spent on accounting, applying math to a problem, then training in more advanced math, then more application. This next hour will be focused on writing. Again, you spend several minutes on a short orienting task, then listen to a lecture, then engage in practice and knowledge transfer. Just before the hour ends, you switch offices again and repeat the entire process, except now the focus is studying your company’s history.
It’s now 11 a.m. You break for a half-hour lunch, then go to your company’s lab for an hour. You repeat the workflow process from this morning, but now you also must perform an experiment. As this hour ends, you again change rooms, change focus, change task, change environment, change peers.
Each of these hourlong periods leaves you with work to do outside the office: four or five math problems, 20 pages of reading, a paragraph to write, 10 new vocabulary words to memorize. Your workday technically ends at 3 p.m., but most days you have some kind of event after work.
You want to stay healthy, but you spend most days sitting the entire time. You walk fewer than 3,000 steps a day on average, so after work you may take up a sport—not a game, usually, but more practice and drill.
We are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st-century capabilities and capacities.
You do all of this every day, Monday through Friday. On weekends you often have work that wasn’t finished during the week. The managers who oversee your various hourly commitments don’t really communicate with each other. Each treats their task as the number-one priority of your life—not merely for that hour, but for the day. Overlapping activity is ignored.
This absurd work schedule is high school. Though the business world would hardly expect adult employees to function in such an environment, this is the daily schedule for young people in America until they graduate (for many, this starts in middle school, so from around age 12 to 18).
The system’s scheduling fails on every possible level. If the goal is productivity, the fractured nature of the tasks undermines efficient product. So much time is spent in transition that very little is accomplished before there is a demand to move on. If the goal is maximum content conveyed, then the system works marginally well, in that students are pretty much bombarded with detail throughout their school day. However, that breadth of content comes at the cost of depth of understanding. The fractured nature of the work, the short amount of time provided, and the speed of change all undermine learning beyond the superficial. It’s shocking, really, that students learn as much as they do.
Teachers are just as constrained by the system as students. Every hour, 20 new people enter our classroom. We must present lessons that are repetitive and consistent, but also varied and engaging—high school students are human beings, after all. (Maybe.) Every week or two or three, we have a major piece of work from each student that demands extra attention. We do this six times a day—up to 180 people each day. We have an hour to prepare for the next day. Our day is often interrupted by one of the endless meetings we must attend. Any assessment or planning we couldn’t finish during the day follows us home.
Imagine if businesses ran on this kind of system. Imagine if proposed changes were met with indifference or hostility.
The biggest issue students and teachers face is time. In some schools, a teacher may have 80 or 90 students, but in my experience, the average is significantly higher—120 or more. It is simply impossible to monitor, to assess, to provide feedback, to really know each student. The march of faces and personalities is relentless, just as the march of demands and tasks is relentless for the student. Teachers have no time to teach and measure, to get to know their students, students also lack the time to learn and demonstrate, to get to know the subject.
The problem as I see it is that we are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st-century capabilities and capacities. The primary force behind a high school curriculum is the structure of the university: compartmentalized fields of knowledge further broken down into highly specialized and narrow branches.
At the university level, one spends most of the time studying a specific subject, though with a possible two-year exploration period at the start. The governing forces are choice and specialization. By the time college students reach their senior years, nearly all their classes concern their chosen majors, with a heavy emphasis both on practical application to a specific future and individual ambition. English majors study literature and engineering majors study engineering, both with an eye to a future when their specialized knowledge has deep professional application (ideally).
Why should each student attend every class every day all year long?
However, the principles of the university structure are hauled down to the high school level without the governing purposes of real-world application that motivate the college curriculum. High school is still broken into various departments—history, literature, math, sciences, arts, etc.—but without much of the specialization that defines how those departments fit in the adult world and none of the choice that motivates its actors.
The result is a mess; individualized departments attempting to simultaneously provide a broad overview of every major field and a narrow foundation for future specialized study at the university level. And, structurally, we attempt to do this all at once. A little of everything every day for four years.
Why should each student attend every class every day all year long? The skills each student is building are not unique to any one subject. Writing, for example, is not merely an English subject. It’s necessary in all classes. Ditto reading. Ditto math. The two core subjects of school, language and mathematics, are embedded in every other discipline. In fact, mastering the core skills is what defines the content and structure of a primary education. It’s only in high school that these skill sets suddenly become subjects, while the other content breaks free into separate classes. Given limited time and an industrialized setting, the result is a scattershot, piecemeal, almost frenzied wreck. It also misses an essential component for deep mastery: extended, focused attention.
The solution, to me anyway, seems almost too easy. Students should have two long classes each day for six to eight weeks. They should come to school in the morning and intensely study a single subject—ancient history, a few Shakespeare plays, cell biology, a specific math concept, and so on. In the afternoon, another subject for a few more hours. When the term ends, they move on to another subject.
While this solution does not address the problem of choice, it would allow teachers to work with each student on an individual basis more frequently.
In my subject, English, the literature could be approached the way it’s meant to be—focused, with time and attention—rather than broken up into tiny fragments over months, competing with all the other demands. Students could write for two hours, in class, and then share their essay, and then revise, all in one or two days. They could spend three hours reading a few chapters of a book while I, the teacher, would have the time and energy to meet individually with each student.
The students would be undistracted by the pressure of all those other classes, all those other teachers, all those other subjects every day.
As the teacher, I could see every student’s work, monitor each student simply by moving through the room, address each student who was struggling, and see—in a way nearly impossible in a 55-minute block—who and what was succeeding or failing.
A teacher who had a small group of students for six weeks for four or five hours a day would have the time to get to know them. The students would be undistracted by the pressure of all those other classes, all those other teachers, all those other subjects every day. School is structured for efficiency: the maximum number of students before the lowest number of experts each year. This would not change with a shifted schedule because teachers would see the same number of students each year, just in six- or eight-week blocks.
A student with one or two classes a day would be able to focus on a single task for an extended period of time. Excellence would not be fractured. Work would be manageable and focused. And if the actual working world is any guide, deep and effective learning would take place.