The Agenda

A Follow-Up on Specialized High Schools

A few observations:

(1) As Arpit “The Man” Gupta reminds me, Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer have a paper on New York city’s exam high schools, the abstract of which reads as follows:

Publicly funded exam schools educate many of the world’s most talented students. These schools typicallycontain higher achieving peers, more rigorous instruction, and additional resources compared to regularpublic schools. This paper uses a sharp discontinuity in the admissions process at three prominent exam schools in New York City to provide the first causal estimate of the impact of attending an examschool in the United States on longer term academic outcomes. Attending an exam school increases the rigor of high school courses taken and the probability that a student graduates with an advanced high school degree. Surprisingly, however, attending an exam school has little impact on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, college enrollment, or college graduation — casting doubt on their ultimate longterm impact. [Emphasis added]

The section of highlighted does seem worth of note: does attending an exam school incline strong students to “try harder,” i.e., to take a more demanding course load? This could have cross-cutting effects, e.g., it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond, and being a big fish in a small pond might enhance one’s chances in the college admissions process for the savvy student — though of course it will mean being embedded in a social network that isn’t as tightly linked to elite schools. But wait:

There is no impact of Stuyvesant or Bronx Science eligibility on enrollment in a schoolwith a median SAT score of above 1300, and none of the schools have an impact on enrollment in schools with SAT scores above 1200 or 1400. Students eligible for an exam school also appear nomore likely to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program. The relatively small standard errors rules out large positive eects for all college outcomes.

So does this settle the great “feeder school” debate, i.e., does the cost of attending a “feeder school” in terms of stress and competitiveness, etc., outweigh the potential benefit? Dobbie and Fryer are keen to stress that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions:

To the extent that attending an exam school increases social capital in ways that are important for later outcomes that are independent of college enrollment, graduation, or human capital, then there is reason to believe that our conclusions are premature and the true impact of an elite exam school will only be understood with the passage of time.

I’d place heavy emphasis on implications for social capital, which depend in part on socioeconomic diversity. I would guess that students from modest backgrounds strongly benefit from going to school with students from somewhat more privileged backgrounds. Students who attend local public high schools might not be as aware of various scholarship and internship opportunities, or of the universe of selective colleges and universities beyond the most widely known, which to a student from a modest background might seem intimidating without some kind of intimate knowledge via a peer. 

(2) The question of the marginal student reminded me of Richard Sander’s controversial mismatch hypothesis, which he briefly summarized in a 2007 Los Angeles Times op-ed:

 

Data from one selective California law school from 2005 show that students who received large preferences were 10 times as likely to fail the California bar as students who received no preference. After the passage of Proposition 209, which limited the use of racial preferences at California’s public universities, in-state bar passage rates for blacks and Latinos went up relative to out-of-state bar passage rates. To the extent that students of color moved from UC schools to less elite ones (as seems likely), the post-209 experience is consistent with the mismatch theory.

In general, research shows that 50% of black law students end up in the bottom 10th of their class, and that they are more than twice as likely to drop out as white students. Only one in three black students who start law school graduate and pass the bar on their first attempt; most never become lawyers. How much of this might be attributable to the mismatch effect of affirmative action is still a matter of debate, but the problem cries out for attention.

It seems that there are benefits to students that flow from being in the middle or the top of the distribution rather than at the bottom. 

(3) In my last post on the specialized high schools, I wrote the following:

If Stuyvesant had more autonomy, perhaps it could more easily recruit and retain teachers who have a knack for reaching students in the bottom half of the school’s distribution — I was one of them, incidentally, and I clawed my way out with the help of a few people who continue to be my closest friends, all of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.

Felix Salmon quoted the following from my post:

The 100 most competitive students at Stuyvesant were indeed very competitive, with almost all attending selective schools, etc. The least competitive students fared less well… I was one of them, incidentally, and I clawed my way out with the help of a few people who continue to be my closest friends, all of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.

Now that’s what I call a heroic ellipsis. It links together two entirely separate sections of the post. The bottom half of the school’s distribution, where I found myself for most of my second year of high school, does not map onto “the least competitive students.” The bottom half starts at the 50th percentile. Due to grade inflation, which was rampant at Stuyvesant, the bottom half of the distribution started at a relatively high GPA. 

So what exactly did I mean when I say “I clawed my way out with the help …”? Specifically, I had in mind peer effects. I didn’t receive any tutoring from friends. Rather, I was the beneficiary of straightforward peer pressure. Because I socialized with and was identified with students at the top of the distribution, I worked to align my social identity with my actual academic output. After my junior year of high school, I attended a summer program from “gifted students” from across the United States, and I was spurred on by their academic success. I had a more detailed sense of how to successfully align my school work with my interests and inclinations. I’m fairly confident that this would have been far more difficult had I not attended a school like Stuyvesant, but of course this is anecdotal. 

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