My alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, has been a lightning rod in New York City politics for as long as I can remember. 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.
Stuyvesant is one of New York City’s “specialized high schools.” To gain admission, you must first take an entrance exam. Every year, thousands of kids take the test—last year it was 27,817—to try their luck at getting into one of the city’s eight specialized high schools. What separates Stuyvesant from the rest of the specialized high schools is simply that it has the highest cutoff. It admits the highest-scoring 950 or so students, not all of whom attend. This wouldn’t be such a problem for de Blasio and his allies if it weren’t for one awkward and uncomfortable fact, which is that Stuyvesant’s admissions formula has not yielded a student body that looks like New York—not even close. Of the 952 admissions offers Stuyvesant made in 2014, 71 percent went to students of Asian origin, while only 2.9 percent went to black and Latino students, despite the fact that 70 percent of the eighth-graders currently enrolled in New York City schools are black and Latino. The shortage of black and Latino students is not new. They have been relatively rare ever since the school was established in 1904. As the city’s demographics have changed, the absence of black and Latino students has grown all the more politically problematic.
You might wonder how New York City, the citadel of urban liberalism, has allowed this racial imbalance to persist for so long. The reason is that Stuyvesant’s straightforward, exam-based admissions process is enshrined in a state law, the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971. There have been efforts to overhaul the law, to have it take into account grades and attendance and other measures that would all but guarantee that slackers like my eighth-grade self would never set foot in Stuyvesant again, but they’ve never had quite the momentum they do now. What I find irritating about the debate over Stuyvesant is the premise that if only the school admitted more black and Latino students, all would be well. This reflects a profound misunderstanding of how Stuyvesant works.
Recently, Capital New York surveyed a panel of local education experts on how they’d go about changing Stuyvesant’s admissions formula, and most of them recommended admitting the top performers on the test at public middle schools across the city, ensuring that each school sends kids to Stuyvesant. Given the fact that many of New York’s middle schools are highly segregated, this would all but guarantee that more black and Latino students would be admitted to Stuyvesant and the other specialized high schools. It would also mean, however, that many capable students who’d be admitted under the current formula would be denied admission and that the concentration of talent that is Stuyvesant’s great strength would be greatly undermined.
One expert, Robert Tobias, a professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School, recommended making the admissions process more like what you’d find at an elite college, complete with teacher recommendations and a portfolio of the student’s work, a proposal that would likely prove an extraordinarily expensive administrative nightmare.
The most penetrating contribution came from Pedro Noguera, also a professor at the Steinhardt School, who 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.