Reihan Salam is a traitor to his alma mater:
Whenever critics have griped about the way Stuyvesant does business, my inclination has long been to say, essentially, “Screw you.” Going to Stuyvesant is one of the best things to have ever happened to me. I met two of my lifelong best friends there, and being surrounded by thousands of the city’s scrappiest strivers, most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants from New York’s outer boroughs, taught me more than I ever learned from any teacher. The same goes for most of the alums with whom I’ve kept in touch over the years.
Yet recently, as Mayor Bill de Blasio, state lawmakers in Albany, and the United Federation of Teachers have called for scrapping Stuyvesant’s current admissions formula, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that Stuyvesant should close its doors. The same goes for elite public high schools like it across the country.
As a Bronx Science alum with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about people (wrongly) thinking I went to the second-best high school in the city, I say: them’s fighting words. How did Salam come to this conclusion?
Well, Stuyvesant has a student population that doesn’t look very much like New York. New York’s public schools are 70% African-American or Latino, but Stuyvesant’s student body has only 3% representation of those groups. But it’s not majority-white – far from it. Stuyvesant, in keeping with a longstanding tradition of catering to intellectually-gifted immigrant strivers, is over 70% Asian.
This is a longstanding political problem – but that’s not the reason Salam has jumped ship. Instead, he argues that Stuy’s pedagogical model just isn’t very good:
Pedro Noguera, also a professor at the Steinhardt School . . . raised an obvious but largely neglected point, namely that Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools aren’t actually that great: “I would not tell a top African-American student to go to one of those schools.” Rather, Noguera explained, he’d encourage such a student to attend a school that offered a more supportive environment and a higher quality of education. He told Capital that the specialized high schools offer “a total sink-or-swim environment,” which he would not hold up as a model.
Noguera is exactly right. The politicians and the education experts who are so fixated on the racial balance at Stuyvesant neglect the fact that Stuyvesant is not built to support and nurture students who need care and attention to excel academically and socially. It is a school that allows ambitious students who know how to navigate their way around a maddening, complex bureaucracy to connect with other students with the same skill sets. Being in a fiercely competitive environment spurs a small number of sleep-deprived students to stretch themselves to the limit, to compete for admission to elite universities. The truth is that while Stuyvesant certainly does send many hyperaggressive students to the Stanfords and MITs and Princetons, students who find themselves in the bottom half of the class often languish without the support they’d get at other schools.
Giving some number of black and Latino students a boost in the admissions process won’t suddenly vault them into the top of the class or erase their need for a supportive environment. It is all too easy to imagine that the locus of segregation would simply shift. Stuyvesant High School as a whole might look more like New York City. But would the top quarter of the class look like it, or would it still be dominated by the kind of students who don’t need a supportive environment to max out their GPAs? Like Noguera, I strongly suspect that the kind of very good black and Latino students who might be admitted to Stuyvesant if grades and attendance were taken into account would be better off elsewhere—and I think the same is probably true of many Asian and white students as well, if not most.
I agree with this – but I’m not sure why that’s a reason to close Stuyvesant, unless Salam believes that a “total sink-or-swim environment” isn’t a good model for any gifted students.
In my experience, only a fraction of gifted students truly benefit from such an environment. But that fraction can benefit to a great extent. As I’ve written about in this space before, the formative experience of my youth was participating in competitive high school debate, which I did at a very high level. I learned more from debate than I did from any class, and I learned so much precisely because it was a ruthlessly competitive activity, pitting me against my peers around the country in contests with unambiguous winners and losers.
Is that the only beneficial pedagogical experience? Certainly not. Is it the best way for most students to learn? I strongly suspect not as well. But it’s invaluable for certain kinds of kids – and not just for debate nerds. It’s a valuable experience for gifted athletes, musicians, math whizzes, etc. But, unavoidably, a ruthlessly competitive environment will produce losers as well as winners.
That’s an argument for a diversity of institutions, for there not being a single “crown jewel” in the system that everyone acknowledges is the “best” school to be from. And guess what? New York has a lot of other excellent schools that don’t select the way Stuyvesant does – as Salam acknowledges:
I have a theory about declining white representation at Stuyvesant. I seriously doubt that it’s because New York City is no longer home to white eighth-graders from affluent families who have expansive vocabularies and solid critical thinking skills and who are more than capable of scoring well on the entrance exam. I’ve met more than my share of such young people. My gut tells me that Stuyvesant has grown steadily less attractive to white families with the kind of social and cultural capital that helps people get ahead in America. These families are seeking out other options, and so have savvy families of all ethnic backgrounds. Over the past three decades, New York’s wealth boom has contributed to soaring endowments at the city’s elite independent schools, virtually all of which are keen to attract talented black and Latino students and which obviously cater to academically gifted white students as well.
More consequential still has been the rise of smaller public high schools, which offer well-defined curriculums that are a better fit for the large majority of students, gifted or otherwise, who need a bit of hand-holding. If you were a college-educated native-born parent living in New York who knows your way around the local high schools, is it obvious that you’d want your child to go to Stuyvesant instead of an excellent school with a mellow, hippie-ish vibe, or one that offers intensive instruction in Mandarin? Would it be obvious if it entailed a grueling commute, like the hour-and-a-half one-way commutes that were routine for friends of mine traveling from the far reaches of Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx? It might have been obvious from the 1970s to the 1990s, when middle-class flight devastated the city’s local high schools, and when getting your nerdy kid into a specialized high school was the only way to ensure that she wouldn’t get beaten up every day at lunch. Fortunately, New York City has come a long way since then.
Right: there are more and more alternatives, both within the public school system and outside of it, and therefore Stuyvesant is less and less the “best” school in the system, and more and more the exemplar of a particular model. Why does that make it obsolete? If it’s obvious that, for many bright and talented students, the sink-or-swim environment of Stuyvesant would be less-than constructive, isn’t it similarly obvious that “an excellent school with a mellow, hippie-ish vibe” might not be ideal for the kind of student who might thrive at Stuyvesant?
Of course, there’s also this:
There is another reason why in-the-know parents appear to be turning away from Stuyvesant. These days, it doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of keeping its students on the ethical straight-and-narrow. In 2012, dozens of Stuyvesant students were caught cheating on a statewide Regents exam, the results of which were utterly inconsequential for the students involved. These were bright kids with bright futures, and they thought nothing of texting the questions on the (totally meaningless) Regents exam to their fellow students. The reporting that followed the scandal, from Vivian Yee of the New York Times and others, made it clear that this particular cheating incident was part of a larger pattern. The students involved in the scandal had grown so accustomed to cheating that it was second nature. And why wouldn’t it be? When you get enough bright young people together and you tell them that academic achievement is everything but that you’re going to load them with enough homework to last several lifetimes, it’s inevitable that corners will be cut.
I am genuinely surprised that Salam’s response to the cheating scandal is to say: the problem is ruthless competition rather than lack of consequences for cheating. Where else in American public life would he apply that wisdom? Stuyvesant has been a ruthlessly competitive place for a long time. Has it also been a hive of corruption? And is he convinced that there is no corruption in the less-nerdy redoubts of the American meritocracy?
There is an enormous difference between saying “we don’t care about your social graces or your family background – all we care about is your academic achievement” and “we don’t care about whether you earned it or stole it – all we care about is your score.” Salam surely knows the difference. Does he see no value in an institution based on the former? Does he really think it will inevitably devolve into the latter, that there’s no way to build an institution that is both highly competitive and ethical?
The core argument against specialized schools is integrationist: that public education is supposed to build a citizenry bound by common experience of equality of treatment. Note that this is very different from what Salam articulates as the goal of integration: “Traditionally, desegregation efforts have been designed to get students from deprived backgrounds to rub shoulders with students from more affluent and stable families, in the hopes of fostering meaningful interracial friendships and spreading the norms that contribute to success later in life.” This is both historically and practically incorrect. Desegregation was fundamentally about assuring equality of treatment. Schools that disproportionately drew wealthier students, brighter students, students from the dominant class, ethnic or racial background, were overwhelmingly likely to get more resources and attention from the system. Schools that had the opposite character, whether because of legislated segregation or simply as a consequence of patterns of residential segregation, would be relatively neglected. And on top of that, the experience of segregation would teach all parties that segregation was natural, normal, a matter of desert – which, in turn, undermines democratic norms.
This is not a trivial objection to selective public schools – it has real teeth. Unfortunately, it’s also true that large, socially-integrated institutions can quickly become internally segregated – kids are extremely good at seeking out their own “kind” and ostracizing outsiders. And it’s also true that large, socially-integrated institutions will, perforce, have an institutional character that is amorphous, one that is not optimally suited to bringing out the best in many of their students – including, quite possibly, the kinds of students who would thrive at Stuyvesant.
There’s an inevitable tension between promoting the democratic experience of equal treatment for all, and promoting the kind of diversity between institutions that makes both for institutional strength and the opportunity for different kinds of students to find a more optimal environment. That tension cannot finally be resolved; we just have to live with it, sometimes leaning more one way, sometimes more the other.
But as long as we have institutional diversity, why shouldn’t the nerds get a school of their own?