New York City - American Education
One of the world’s leading commercial, financial, cultural and educational centers, with more colleges and universities than any other city in the world. From its beginnings as a trading post in the Dutch colony of NEW NETHERLAND, education has been central to the city’s cultural traditions. First settled in 1609, New Amsterdam, as it was called, opened its first school in 1638, when the Dutch Reformed Church appointed Adam Roelantsen as the colony’s first teacher and he opened what is believed to have been the first elementary school in the area—a school to which the prestigious, present-day Collegiate School traces its roots. Seized by the English in 1664, 40 years later New York became the site of the first school for Negroes in the colonies. Although the school closed in 1724, a second, similar school opened in 1760, and the city remained one of the most important educational havens for blacks in the colonies—and, later, in the United States—for the next century.
In 1754, the city became the site of King’s College (now COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY), the fifth college founded in the English colonies and one of the breeding grounds for all-inclusive, urban public education. After the city had recovered from the devastating effects of the Revolutionary War (which forced the closing of King’s College for eight years), a host of church-run schools, some private, some operated as charities, accommodated the city’s wealthy children as well as the swarms of homeless, unemployed children that roamed the city streets. When the state legislature enacted its landmark public school subsidy bill in 1812, the city used its share to subsidize charity schools. The latter were perceived as public institutions, in that they were open to all, although operated by churches and religiously oriented mission groups such as the Quaker Free School Society (renamed the Public School Society in 1826), the Orphan Asylum Society and the Manumission Society, which operated schools for African Americans. By 1860, schooling was more widely available in New York City than in any other major city or, indeed, any other region of the United States. Of the total population of slightly more than 800,000, more than 150,000 were enrolled in public schools and almost 15,000 more were enrolled in Roman Catholic schools—in addition to the uncounted thousands enrolled in charity schools and in the growing number of ethnoreligious schools operated by such varied groups as Swedish Lutherans, German Reformed, African-American Methodists and others.
Higher education began expanding as well. Columbia College grew into a university, absorbing the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1860 and adding a School of Mines in 1863. The University of the City of New York (later NEW YORK UNIVERSITY) was founded in 1831 to provide a utilitarian alternative to the elitist academic programs of Columbia. St. John’s College (later Fordham University) was founded in 1841 and St. Francis Xavier College in 1847, along with the Free Academy, which later became the public College of the City of New York, an undergraduate division of today’s City University of New York. In addition, a myriad of college preparatory schools, some of them adjuncts of the colleges themselves, had sprouted throughout the city—primarily because the city had no free high schools as yet. (The first of these did not open until 1897.) In 1857, for example, the Peter Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art opened as both an academy and a college, even opening its doors to women.
Beyond the traditional colleges of arts and sciences were a myriad of independent professional schools of law, medicine, pharmacy, veterinary medicine and dentistry, most of which would later be absorbed by the city’s largest colleges as the latter expanded into giant universities along the model that Harvard would establish from the 1880s to the early 1900s.
In addition to its formal educational institutions, the city was also becoming a center of informal educative institutions that served the millions of unschooled immigrants arriving at the city’s piers each day. In addition to the New York Society Library, dating back to the colonial era and by 1831 the third largest in the United States, the Astor Library, the Mercantile Library, the Apprentices’ Library, the Printers’ Free Library, the Women’s Library, the New York Catholic Library and the Maimonides Library offered New Yorkers endless opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills free of charge. Moreover, the New York Athenaeum offered a reference library, a reading room, a museum and lectures, as did the Lyceum of Natural History, the Historical Society, the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Academy of Fine arts and the world renowned Barnum’s Museum. To these, the opera houses, theaters and music halls added another type of education, along with the enormous printing industry producing books, pamphlets, tracts, magazines, daily newspapers and specialized periodicals. New York, in short, offered the greatest range and diversity of experience of any city in the United States—a conduit between international and national education and the pedagogical center of the United States.
The city remained in the forefront of American education. It had little choice. Its population exploded to about 7.5 million by 2000, with more than 24%, or nearly 1.9 million, living below the poverty level of about $17,000 for a family of four. The population explosion was largely fired by waves of immigrants from Italy, Russia, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, Puerto Rico and a host of Latin American, Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries, along with migrant, native-born blacks and other racial and ethnic groups from other parts of the United States. As the 20th century came to a close, the city’s population mix had changed radically, with blacks making up about 29%, Hispanics about 25% and Asians 7%, leaving whites in a distinct minority.
To accommodate so complex a population configuration required an equally complex educational system of traditional elementary, middle and secondary schools and colleges, along with specialized academic and vocational schools and special schools for the population of exceptional children—delinquent, physically handicapped, mentally handicapped, etc.—that so huge a population inevitably produces. Unlike schools in smaller communities, many of these institutions had to provide health and welfare services as well as formal education. Moreover, the constant arrival of foreign-born immigrants and unskilled migrants required schools that provided adult education at night and on weekends.
The result was the largest educational system in the United States. The student population in public elementary and secondary schools alone doubled from about 500,000 in 1900 to more than 1 million in 1930 and ranged between 900,000 and 1 million for the rest of the 20th century. White students make up less than 15% of the student population in the city’s 1,200 elementary and secondary public schools. Blacks, both African-American and foreign-born, make up 35%, Hispanics 38% and Asians about 12%. More than 12% of students are enrolled in part-time or fulltime special education, and a startling 28.2% of students live in poverty, compared with a national poverty rate for school-aged children of 15.1%. Although sweeping public school reforms from 2002 to 2004 raised academic proficiency levels of elementary school children more than 14% in reading and 7.5% in math, the improvements nonetheless left only about 52% of students proficient in reading and math, while more than 43% of children were reading below grade level or worse and 50% were performing below grade level or worse in mathematics. Moreover, the racial gap remained distressingly high, with 14% of black children and 16% of Hispanic children scoring at or above proficiency in reading, compared with 46% of white children. Public secondary schools have a graduation rate of only 53.2%. One result of the evidently low quality of public school education has been a chronic flow of wealthy children into private, independent day schools and independent boarding schools and an equally steady flow of children from Roman Catholic families and lower-middle-income non-Catholic families into parochial schools. Enrollment in Roman Catholic schools in the New York Archdiocese was more than 100,000 in 2006.
New York City has the largest concentration of colleges and universities of any city in the world. The College of the City of New York was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy to provide free education to deserving young men. Hunter College was founded in 1870 as a teachers college, then expanded into a fouryear liberal arts institution for deserving young women. Brooklyn College was founded in 1930 and Queens College in 1937 to provide free education in those boroughs and, with City College and Hunter, to form the core of the huge City University of New York that would expand to 20 campuses. It now serves more than 450,000 students at 11 four-year colleges, 6 two-year community colleges, a graduate school, a law school and a school of biomedical education. In addition to the public universities, the city’s private institutions of higher learning include nearly two dozen colleges and universities such as Columbia, NYU, Fordham and St. John’s, along with dozens of specialized schools and institutes, such as the Juilliard School of Music, Parsons School of Design, ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, Jewish Theological Seminary, the School of Visual Arts and others.
Like its colleges and universities, the city’s elementary and secondary schools include, in addition to public elementary and secondary schools, an enormous number of private religious and independent schools and innumerable entrepreneurial schools that provide instruction in dancing, foreign languages, bartending and every other imaginable craft and skill.
Moreover, the formal educational facilities of the city have been supplemented for more than a century by the largest agglomeration of informal educative institutions in the United States: the METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frick Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library, National Museum of the American Indian, American Museum of Natural History, New York Zoological Park, New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Brooklyn Museum, plus Broadway’s multitude of theaters and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, with the Metropolitan Opera Company, the New York Philharmonic and various ballet companies.
For most of the millions of immigrants, migrants and native-born Americans who have lived in or passed through New York during the 19th and 20th centuries, the city’s educational and educative institutions have provided springboards to personal improvement and, for most, an escape from the poverty and joblessness that has always pervaded the slums of New York and other major cities of the world. Indeed, the city’s public school system pioneered the establishment of so-called MAGNET SCHOOLS to attract the most gifted and talented youngsters and provide them with free, specialized training to allow them to exploit their talents. Thus, Stuyvesant High School offers a broad liberal arts education for the academically gifted, while the Bronx High School of Science and La Guardia High School (formerly the High School of Music and Art) offer curricula that concentrate heavily on specific areas, although all students are exposed to a minimum number of courses in English, history and other core subjects from the standard high school curriculum.
If the system has failed any of its myriad ethnic and racial groups, the biggest failure has been in the black and Hispanic communities, where schools remain not only substandard but also resistant to improvement—despite huge, costly, periodic efforts to reform them. Schools in the poorest black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York (as in comparable neighborhoods in every other major American city) suffer from the highest rates of failure, retardation, absenteeism and drop-outs. In the mid-1990s the city’s public schools once again launched a program of reform by opening 37 small, experimental schools, each with a curriculum centered on a separate theme, varying from pure academics to vocational studies. Behind the experiment was the desire to see whether small classes in small institutions can alter the rate of failure that minority students now experience in the city’s full-sized high schools, some of which have as many as 5,000 students.
Those efforts continue apace, as 36 small, specialized middle and high schools—100 to 300 students each—have opened in 2006. Most schools in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York remain overcrowded, however: High schools built for 1,500 or 2,000 students cram as many as 5,000 students into hallways, maintenance areas and storage rooms as well as classrooms. Like most major cities, New York is unable to coax adequate funds for education from a state legislature dominated by rural communities that refuse to share resources with major cities. Nonetheless, city school officials are attempting to double the number of children attending prekindergarten, expand high school job-skills training for the least academically inclined and offer more advanced classes for the academically gifted. New York City doubled the number of its charter schools to 100 from 2000 to 2006, expanding SPECIAL EDUCATION and adding more programs for non–English-speaking students. To reduce student failure, the city has a mandatory, 371/2 minutes-a-day, Monday-through- Thursday, after-school tutoring program for more than 25% of New York City students. The city also holds Saturday classes and summer schools for struggling students, and it is gradually trying to break up its largest schools into smaller, SCHOOLS-WITHIN-SCHOOL that would avoid costly school construction projects by dividing existing facilities into manageable units. Like the freestanding small schools mentioned above, the schools-within-a-school are often specialized. Examples include the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism High School; the East-West School of International Studies, which specializes in teaching Asian languages; and the Dream Yard Preparatory School, which uses visual arts and theater techniques to teach mathematics and other academic subjects.
Although continuing reforms have improved academic performance, the high percentage of failing black and Hispanic students remains an all-but-intractable problem. Unlike New York’s ethnic ghettoes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, today’s ghettoes appear unable to spew most of their second- or third-generation offspring into the general American population to assimilate. Indeed, far from disappearing as earlier ghettoes did, today’s New York’s ghettoes are swelling with new immigrants. Regardless of their experiences at school, children who return home each afternoon to families and friends who do not read, write or speak English fluently never have an opportunity to use English in their daily lives.
The record of such schools ranks among the worst of any schools in the United States. Indeed, New York City public schools had a drop-out rate of more than 40% as they ended the 1990s. Part of the problem was the result of the unwieldy size of the system, with an administrative apparatus that absorbed more than 30% of school spending and left less than 45% for instruction of a school population of which 70% were largely poor minority students. U.S. public schools as a whole earmark more than 55% of their budgets for instruction. Moreover, the huge administrative bureaucracy was riddled with corrupt purchasing practices, nepotism and custodians earning $100,000 annually (compared to teacher salaries averaging $50,000). Periodic criminal investigations produce few indictments or changes in the powerful administrative bureaucracy and, therefore, few reforms in education. (See also NEW YORK [state]; African-American education; Hispanic Americans.)