One of the reasons I shut down my Facebook page was a ridiculous argument among my peers about the fact that Stuyvesant High School admits almost no black or Latino students. Many of my fellow graduates believed that the admissions test was a perfect and obvious metric of merit that could not be bettered. They also believed that Stuyvesant saved their lives; there was no way they would have turned out as well as they did had they gone elsewhere.
Me, I dunno. I had a lot of friends from George Washington High School; they went on to become Boeing executives, Marine officers, professors of psychology and sanitation workers. I would not have gone to G.W.; I would have likely gone to Manhattan Center or Murry Bergtraum. Would I have turned out differently? I doubt it. Things were violent then: take this story from 1986, featuring a Bergtraum student who was shot dead on Halloween, one of four in the city. One of the other three, however, went to Stuyvesant.
In other words, I am not convinced that my high school did much for me in particular. I had a few good teachers (thank you, Mrs. Ferrara!) but one incredibly awful guidance counselor, who tried to steer me to midlevel universities, you know, places a “street kid” [his words] could handle. Kind of a wash, although I made many good friends when I was there; it was great to catch up with some of them at the 2008 reunion.
Given that, you should not be surprised that I believed that it was a bad thing that Stuyvesant was down to nine black students and it would be a good thing to alter the admission criterion. (There was, in fact, a contradiction in my position. None of them pointed it out, however. I will explain on request.)
My fellow graduates got really mad at me for believing that Stuyvesant should change its admissions criteria, even if it meant that we would not have gotten in. It got kind of ugly, in a mildly ridiculous way. It was not the reason that I shut down the Facebook page; it wasn’t even the silliest or ugliest argument there. But it was the last one.
And now New York Magazine is on the case! In a great article about helping to make New York City affordable again, the magazine included a portion about improving the public schools. In it, they suggested: “We could abolish the specialized high schools — like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech — and distribute those talented kids back into the general population (studies show selective schools have little effect on achievement).”
Is that true? They provided no links. I immediately thought that there would be an easy way to test the hypothesis: look at students right around the test cutoff. With that idea in mind, I started to see if I could get a fellow academic interested in doing that study ... and whaddaya know! It turned out that Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer have done the work.
This paper uses data from three prominent exam high schools in New York City to estimate the impact of attending a school with high-achieving peers on college enrollment and graduation. Our identification strategy exploits sharp discontinuities in the admissions process. Applicants just eligible for an exam school have peers that score 0.17 to 0.36 standard deviations higher on eighth grade state tests and that are 6.4 to 9.5 percentage points less likely to be black or Hispanic. However, exposure to these higher-achieving and more homogeneous peers has little impact on college enrollment, college graduation, or college quality.
But there’s more! Page 2: “The impact of exam school eligibility on college enrollment or graduation is, if anything, negative. Students just eligible for Brooklyn Tech are 2.3 percentage points (approximately 3.0 percent) less likely to graduate from a four-year college. Students eligible for Bronx Science and Stuyvesant are neither more or less likely to graduate — the 95 percent confidence interval rules out impacts larger than 2.8 percentage points (approximately 3.4 percent) for Bronx Science and 2.5 percentage points (approximately 3.0 percent) for Stuyvesant. The results are nearly identical when examining college enrollment, enrollment in more selective institutions, or enrollment in a post-baccalaureate program.”
Now, there are two lacunae in their study. First, as they admit, they are looking at the marginal admit: there may be big effects on high-flying test scorers. (They try to adjust for this, it is not convincing, and I am a sympathetic reader!) Second, they do not break out effects by race: it is quite plausible to me that marginal black students might benefit more from the change in peer effects than marginal white or Asian students. (My wife never ceases to tell me that I would have made a terrible black man, by which she means that a black teenager with my idiot bravado winds up in quite a bit more trouble and with rather less salubrious teenage friends.)
If either of those hypotheses are true, then we should keep Stuyvesant and the like around. (New York has expanded the number of elite schools from three to six, and I should admit that I like the ideas behind two of the new specialized schools: Brooklyn Latin and American Studies.)
But we should also then change the admission criteria.
And if neither is true, well, pfffft.