A Parochial Note on New York City’s Specialized High Schools

At The Economist’s Democracy in America blog, S.M. makes the case for redesigning the admissions policies at New York city’s specialized high schools to make them more effective instruments of achieving racial justice. I wasn’t convinced by S.M.’s arguments. I will, however, make a few quick observations:

(1) Early on, S.M. writes:

Ann Romney’s story of suffering through meals of “tunafish and pasta” in a basement apartment during her husband’s business-school years didn’t ring quite as true as Senator Marco Rubio’s account of growing up poor in Cuba before encountering “the American miracle”. 

Senator Rubio was born and raised in the United States, and while he did grow up in modest circumstances, he did so in Florida.

(2) And in the next paragraph, he draws a contrast between America’s two major political parties:

Close as the parties sound on the value of equality of opportunity, they differ markedly on how it should be secured. The Republicans favour economic freedom and sharply limited government as the mechanisms for ensuring opportunity, while the Democrats focus on the social institutions that help individuals develop the tools to achieve their goals.

This is a somewhat peculiar contrast to draw, as S.M.’s characterization of “social institutions” seems to collapse the distinction between the larger set of institutions that might “help individuals develop the tools to achieve their goals” — a set that might include churches, neighborhoods, families, private firms, and voluntary organizations of various kinds — and state institutions. Private firms, for example, are responsible for a great deal of human capital development in the form of on-the-job training and imparting noncognitive skills that have considerable spillover benefits for society at large. 

Many Republicans believe that they favor economic freedom and limited government — given that most Republicans embrace a federal government that is roughly as large as it has been in the six decades since the end of the Korean War, I’m not sure sharply limited is the right way to put it — precisely because they want these social institutions that are not tax-financed arms of the state to flourish. 

There is another interpretation, which is that S.M. does not believe that private firms and churches, etc., “help individuals develop the tools to achieve their goals,” and rather that this function is carried out exclusively by publicly-funded K-12 schools, medical providers, and community colleges and research universities. But that doesn’t seem very plausible. 

(3) And finally, it is worth understanding the evolution of the student body at New York city’s specialized high schools in the larger context of the transformation of New York city’s public high schools over the past two decades. I had the good fortune to attend Stuyvesant High School, and I’ve written about the experience in this space on a few occasions, including last summer. I linked to a smart discussion of how to understand the specialized high schools by an old classmate, Jesse Anttila-Hughes.

In the years since I graduated from Stuyvesant, there has been a marked improvement in the quality of New York city’s K-12 schools, in part because of the proliferation of smaller, more focused secondary schools led by a new generation of educational entrepreneurs. When I was a kid, attending one of the specialized high schools was the surest way to insulate yourself from the varying levels of chaos that prevailed in the so-called zoned schools. Public order has since greatly improved. And for students with an interest in some specialized subject, or with a taste for more personalized instruction, there are options that are in many respects superior to what you’d now find at the specialized high schools.

There are many factors that have driven this broad change, including mayoral control, a somewhat more enlightened and rigorous set of leaders at the Department of Education, and, perhaps most importantly, gentrification. That is, New York city is doing a better job of retaining middle-income and upper-middle-income households with children than it had in earlier decades, and this has created a powerful and vocal constituency for higher-quality educational options.

There has been another development that has gone largely neglected in discussions of the demographic composition of the specialized high schools. The wealth boom in New York, driven in large part by the financial sector, has swelled the endowments of various selective independent schools in New York city, which in turn have a strong desire to identify highly capable students from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g., African Americans and Latinos). 

So what is going on? 

(a) Parents can find public high schools that are of comparable quality to the specialized high schools much closer to home. When the gap between a specialized high school and your next best option was enormous, it is hardly surprising that parents would allow their children to commute as much as three hours both ways to attend a specialized high school. As that gap has grown smaller, however, the inconveniences involved in commuting, and the sentiments that sometimes intervene, are more likely to take precedence. 

(b) Independent schools are actively competing for students from underrepresented backgrounds who can flourish in a competitive academic environment, and they are doing so by offering generous scholarships and amenities that aren’t available at public high schools, including the specialized high schools. The chief “amenity” offered by the specialized high schools is the opportunity to learn alongside bright peers. The selective independent schools can offer that and more, the more being a dense network of social connections that the students who attend specialized high schools (the paradigmatic example of such a student being the immigrant striver) do not have. Given the success of programs like Prep for Prep, which identify high-achieving students of color at a young age to help them attend selective independent schools, including elite boarding schools, it is hardly surprising that New York city’s specialized high schools aren’t always the first choice for talented black and Latino students. The competition for attracting high-achieving Asian and non-Hispanic white students from low-income an middle-income backgrounds is not quite as intense at these independent schools. 

One of the most amusing aspects of the critique of the specialized high schools through the lens of racial justice is that very few observers have pointed out that the share of students from non-Hispanic white backgrounds has plummeted. Consider Stuyvesant, for example, per Fernanda Santos’s memorable story from February:

When the bell rings and the school’s 3,295 students spill out of classrooms into the maze of hallways, escalators and stairs like ants in a farm, blacks stand out because they are so rare. Rudi was one of 64 black students four years ago when she entered Stuyvesant, long considered New York City’s flagship public school. She is now one of 40.

Asians, on the other hand, make up 72.5 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body (they are 13.7 percent of the city’s overall public school population), a staggering increase from 1970, when they were 6 percent of Stuyvesant students, according to state enrollment statistics. Back then, white students made up 79 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment; this year, they are 24 percent, and 14.9 percent systemwide.

What exactly is driving the shrinking share of non-Hispanic white students at Stuyvesant? One assumes that the aforementioned phenomena play a large part: some large number of academically competitive white students are attending independent schools or other high-quality public high schools. Some white parents may have decided that the “pressure-cooker” environment at schools like Stuyvesant is deleterious to the well-being of their children. Others might be deterred by the prevalence of Asian students, who are often perceived as less socially savvy than non-Asian students. Parents who are keen on getting their children admitted to selective colleges and universities might conclude that they would have a better shot elsewhere. Is it implausible that middle-income or upper-middle-income black and Latino parents might feel much the same way? 

In the end, I assume that the admissions regime at the specialized high schools will change, if only at the margins. This will accelerate a transition that is already under way — more and more New York city parents will seek other high school options for their children, thus diffusing the concentration of talent that once existed at the specialized high schools. And this isn’t necessarily be a bad thing. What is true, however, is that the political goal of achieving a desirable demographic mix at Stuyvesant will inevitably alter the school’s character. 

The central problem with New York city’s specialized high schools is that they are explicitly elitist, yet they do not have the autonomy or the large endowments enjoyed by other explicitly elitist institutions, like New York city’s selective independent schools or Ivy League universities. And so they have only a limited ability to withstand sustained political pressure. They do, to be sure, have influential alumni/ae who are keen to preserve the character of these schools, but the cultural differences between their current heavily-Asian student bodies and the alumni/ae base, and the geographical diffusion of the alumni/ae base and its generally left-of-center political orientation, mean that this isn’t likely to prove much of a barrier. 

I should stress that my take is very impressionistic, and based mostly on conversations with friends and colleagues, including a number of educators.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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