Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 2 “Is Stuyvesant a good school?”

Every November around 25,000 8th graders take the SHSAT, the one and only thing that is used to determine which 5,000 students will attend one of the 8 specialized high schools. Why?

This is part 2 of a series of blog posts I am writing about the controversial New York City specialized high school admissions process. Each post will pose one or more questions. These are questions I hope the reader will think about. I will analyze the questions from every angle I can think of and sometimes, though not always, I will say what I think the answers to those questions are. There could be times where the questions are ones of fact so my answer will be definitive but most of the time my answer is just my opinion based on what I see as the relevant facts related to it.

The big question for this post is “Is Stuyvesant a good school?” At a first glance this may seem like a crazy question. It’s like asking “Was Mozart a good composer?,” right? Everyone knows that Stuyvesant is not just a good school, but a great one. In the US News & World Report ratings, Stuyvesant is ranked number 1 (tied with one other school) in the country in the category ‘Math and Reading Proficiency Rank.’ There are other metrics by which Stuyvesant is highly ranked. It is the most difficult school to get into since only the highest scorers on the SHSAT are admitted. There are advanced electives offered like existentialism, forensics, and quantum mechanics. The average SAT score is nearly 1500. It is also a very beautiful building that has an Olympic sized swimming pool. Nearly 20% of the graduating class goes on to either one of the Ivy League schools or MIT, Stanford, or the University of Chicago. The school newspaper rivals most college newspapers. Four alumni have won Nobel prizes. Is Stuyvesant a good school? Does a bear SHSAT in the woods?

But do those things I listed really mean the school is great or even good? If having a big pool makes a school good, why not just install one in every school at whatever cost? And if offering courses in existentialism, forensics, and quantum mechanics makes a school good, why not just offer them in all high schools? And the SAT scores and the Ivy league acceptances? Surely 8th grade SHSAT scores will correlate with 11th grade SAT scores and since Ivy league colleges use SAT scores as an admissions criteria, it will result in a lot of Ivy league acceptances.

Of course a school can be good without any of those accolades on its Wikipedia page and even if it, like most schools, does not have a Wikipedia page. So if a school doesn’t need the accolades to be good, could a school be bad even with them?

If you were to ask the kids and families vying for spots at Stuyvesant, “Why do you want to go to Stuyvesant?” they might say “Because it is the best.” But if you play the ‘why’ game with them and ask “Why is it the best?” they might say that it helps you get into an Ivy League school or that it has some unique electives. Some might say “Because you learn a lot there” to which you could then ask “Why will you learn a lot there?” and there’s no way they will say it’s because there’s a big pool on the 2nd floor. Maybe they will say “Because they have good teachers there.” But is it true?

Three years ago, the graduation speaker was Neil deGrasse Tyson. Besides being a famous scientist and television personality, he was also there as the parent of a graduating senior. In the beginning of a speech he said something that was meant to be complementary of the graduating class. He told a story about how a high school teacher introduced him to one of his star pupils and the teacher was very proud. deGrasse Tyson said that the teacher had nothing to be proud of since the teacher had nothing to do with that student’s success. He summed it up with “Students who get straight A’s do so not because of good teachers. They do so in spite of bad teachers.” This was definitely a slap in the face to the fifty or sixty teachers sitting in the audience who taught his child for the past four years. This line actually got him an applause break though I think the students saw it more as a compliment to themselves than bashing their teachers.

One annoying thing that comes along with being a teacher at a screened school is the the “anyone can teach THOSE kids” theory. When someone says this, it means they must have a different definition of ‘teach’ than I do. If ‘teach’ means to get kids to sit quietly and answer math problems and then pass the New York Regents tests then, yes, anyone can teach THOSE kids. But if you see teaching as determining where your students are right now and how far you can get them to go and then implementing your plan and motivating students to do more than they thought they were capable of, well that’s not so easy anymore.

If deGrasse Tyson was saying that Stuyvesant does not have a talented and hardworking faculty, he is wrong. The faculty at Stuyvesant is very strong. And it’s not just a coincidence. The fact is that there is a lot of competition when a teaching position opens up at Stuyvesant so they get to choose from a big pool of applicants. Then, once you are teaching at Stuyvesant, you generally stay there for a long time. There is a teacher on staff who recently moved from Brooklyn to some place about two hours away and rather than transfer to a school closer to his new home, he does the massive commute each day. Most of the teachers at Stuyvesant have taught at and been successful at other schools before coming to Stuyvesant.

So because in addition to all the stats I mentioned earlier we can add to it my belief that the faculty is great, then I believe the answer to what seemed like a really obvious question but maybe isn’t so obvious anymore “Is Stuyvesant a good school?” is ‘yes.’

deGrasse Tyson is correct, though, that if you found an unscreened school that had about 200 faculty members who were much weaker teachers than the ones at Stuyvesant and you were to swap the two staffs, some of the metrics that give Stuyvesant its reputation would not change. The students would likely still average around 1500 on the SAT. One in 5 students would still likely get into those top 11 colleges. But what great teachers do doesn’t show up on easy stat sheets like this, and this has been something I have been arguing for years when people sometimes assume that a school with low test scores must be overrun with bad teachers.

Likewise, if instead of swapping the faculty of Stuyvesant with the weaker faculty of that other school, what if you instead just swapped the students? Well in that case that other school would become the school with the better reputation and the higher SAT scores and the number of top 11 college acceptances. The new students at Stuyvesant would definitely benefit from all the amenities of our building and from being taught by the great Stuyvesant faculty. But the new Stuyvesant would no longer top the charts on those various metrics.

So what I’m getting at, very carefully, is that the primary thing that makes Stuyvesant High School the number one school in terms of math and reading proficiency according the US News & World Report is the students. The students individually and the students as a collective group who push each other to achieve in an unofficial competition that is part of the group dynamic of a school.

Stuyvesant has 3,200 students. Are these the only 3,200 students that could attend Stuyvesant and still be the Stuyvesant that has such high metrics? Of course not. There are other ways to fill the seats at Stuyvesant. But as you weigh the the tradeoffs of the different alternative methods, you should first really think about what the goals are. Ideally you find a plan that makes everyone get a better education.

This a very difficult series of posts to write and I have been meaning to do it for many years. You can challenge me in the comments or on Twitter, I’m expecting that. I have not made any big conclusions yet, remember, I’ve tried to mainly ask and answer questions. Maybe you think you know where I am going with this, but the truth is that I don’t know exactly where I’m going with it. Writing these posts has been, so far, a good exercise in really trying to think about this issue.

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14 Responses to Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 2 “Is Stuyvesant a good school?”

  1. Edward Antoine says:

    “The students individually and the students as a collective group who push each other to achieve in an unofficial competition that is part of the group dynamic of a school.”

    As an outsider this has been my impression of Stuyvesant for a while. Parents often ask my advice about NYC schools in general and Stuyvesant in particular. I generally tell them, “If your child is academically competitive, they will be fine – and potentially thrive – there.”

    I don’t however think that academic competitiveness is the same as academic excellence.

  2. NYC public school parent says:

    Once again, a very interesting and thoughtful post. Thank you.

    One thing that confuses me about this post — are you suggesting that Stuyvesant might be a “better” school than Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech because it has a much higher SHSAT cut off for admissions? I don’t see much evidence for that. It might be better for the teachers, but I don’t see any evidence that it makes any difference for the students. Are they better off because they are concentrated in a school that exclusively has students with the highest SHSAT scores instead of being in a school with very capable and motivated students who have a much wider range of SHSAT scores?

    It would be interesting to do a comparison study of all of the students whose SHSAT scores were above the Stuyvesant cut off but who preferred Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech or one of the smaller specialized high schools or a good non-specialized high school. If it turns out that their academic performance is comparable to Stuyvesant students with similar SHSAT scores, doesn’t that change the nature of the question you asked?

    “Are these the only 3,200 students that could attend Stuyvesant and still be the Stuyvesant that has such high metrics? Of course not. There are other ways to fill the seats at Stuyvesant. But as you weigh the the tradeoffs of the different alternative methods, you should first really think about what the goals are.”

    One of my main objections to the discussion of the SHSAT is that sometimes it seems there is an underlying assumption that there are “trade offs” for students if Stuyvesant was not exclusively for only the highest scoring students who took the SHSAT, but was instead exclusively for academically strong and motivated students. But I can never quite figure out what those trade offs are supposed to be.

  3. ed antoine says:

    I’m not sure how this post fits into the stated intent for the series: “…the controversial New York City specialized high school admissions process.”

    Whether or not Stuyvesant is a good, great or adequate school is not central to that debate. Most people assume it is at least very good, although some will debate how much of this rests on the students vs the instructors.

    My take from this post:
    1) All the public metrics that label Stuyvesant as great are a result of the students selected for admission.
    2) Despite that, Stuyvesant is actually great because of the strength of the faculty, which results from so many accomplished teachers wanting to teach there.

    In the context of the premise of this series and its first post, are either of these reasons Stuyvesant should or shouldn’t exist, or the existing selection process maintained?

    • garyrubinstein says:

      It’s important since if Stuyvesant has good teachers then a different group of students would benefit from going there. I think the faculty is good, Mike Z disagrees. He retired from Stuy after almost 30 years about 5 years ago I think so his opinion is relevant to the discussion.

  4. Mike Zamansky says:

    Gary, I think you’re wrong about the overall strength of the Stuy faculty. Historically, I’d say that Stuy is below average in terms of teachers. Yes there are some stars but there have been plenty of duds over the years. Many student teachers who go straight to Stuy never really learn to teach but get by on youth, personality, charisma, and energy. They might be liked but many aren’t as good as they seem. Some supervisors have been historically bad at hiring teachers as well.

    On top of this, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the kids are doing well because of you. I’ve seen many teachers at Stuy stagnate because there was no drive to improve in a real sense. A Stuy teacher has to really look inside and work to get better.

    By and large, the faculty at Stuy is interchangeable with other schools in terms of quality but overall historically I’d rank them a bit below average.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      They seemed good to me when I walked around as a dean but it is definitely important since if you’re right and Stuy teachers are below average and the only thing good about the school is the students then changing the admissions policy potentially becomes a lose-lose. The students who would be in Stuy in the old policy don’t get the benefit from learning together and pushing one another to excel and the new students get below average teachers.

      • NYC public school parent says:

        I still feel as if there is something wrong with your assumptions.

        “…changing the admissions policy potentially becomes a lose-lose. The students who would be in Stuy in the old policy don’t get the benefit from learning together and pushing one another to excel…”

        What “benefit” is it that they are “losing”?

        Your statement assumes that attending a school of highly motivated, academically capable students would not provide the students in that group who received very high SHSAT scores “the benefit from learning together and pushing one another to excel”. Your comment seems to imply that students with the highest SHSAT scores would be negatively affected if they were in classes with highly motivated and capable students who had lower SHSAT scores. But is that true? Do students with high SHSAT scores suffer negatively when they are in classes with highly motivated students who received a lower SHSAT score?

        I would like to see a study that shows that students at Stuyvesant – especially those who score at or just above the cut off — are experiencing some real academic benefit (not bragging rights) by attending Stuyvesant that they do not get if they attend Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, or some of the other specialized high schools. There are some students with the same high SHSAT scores that Stuyvesant students have at all specialized high schools — the big difference is that their high schools also include students whose SHSAT scores are much lower. Should their parents in the future be advised that they are missing out on a benefit from learning together and pushing one another to excel that can only be attained at Stuyvesant?

        As I said above, this is my big problem with the SHSAT. It has led to this kind of (in my view) harmful thinking that the SHSAT must exist so as not to harm the Stuyvesant students who happen to have scored high enough on the SHSAT (and chose Stuy first). They seem to be arguing that there is a big benefit to students to be in a school that excludes motivated and academically capable students who have lower SHSAT scores because not excluding them would cause them to lose this very important benefit that only comes by excluding all students with a lower SHSAT.

        And this harmful thinking carries over to all the specialized high schools, regardless of the cut off. All 20,000+ students who score below the cut off are assumed to all be equally undesirable and thrown into a single pot of “couldn’t hack it at this high school”. This needs to be studied more closely, but it clear from the limited data that students who score somewhat below the cut off are not much different than those who score somewhat above. And in fact, females in general academically outperform their SHSAT score.

        The expansion of the Discovery program is a start to addressing some of this. And if some students with lower SHSAT scores need tutoring in some classes — well that makes them pretty similar to some students who scored well above the cut off who also need tutoring in some classes.

  5. Cheryl Thurston Armstrong says:

    Excellent piece. You have said some things I’ve believed for a long time. Well done, Gary. I always read your pieces and enjoy them.

  6. Laura D. Barbieri says:

    Interesting question, which you’ve boiled down to, “Does Stuyvesant have good teachers?” or “Do its teachers make it a great school?” I say, “Yes.” I attended many years ago though. I’m class of ’77. I remember two specifically, meaning, they are worth mentioning; my classmates could name many others. For me, Mrs. Heggarty, for English. She taught a Shakespeare class. She also taught “the Bible as Literature.” Both excellent. Also, Mr. Borenstein, for Math – geometry, a class where I struggled, but ultimately prevailed over, by semester’s end. Again, an excellent teacher. He also coached the “public speaking” club, a wonderful after school experience. So, our teachers were mentors as well as classroom professionals. There were many more: Arnie Bellish, who was the advisor for Stuyvesant’s student government. Even Gaspar Fabricante, our Principal, who put up with a rebellious study body that was continually protesting something or other. These people were important to me and to my life. I loved Stuyvesant. I know many of us feel the same way.

  7. jd2718 says:

    Teaching advanced material to motivated students who have had academic success is easier, far easier, than teaching basic material to students who have less motivation and academic difficulty.

    Last Spring, as I guided a group through the construction of the naturals, I could count on students to refine our proofs, even when I did not have time to. Whereas when I taught at a regular high school, I had to carefully craft every example in every lesson, to ensure, for example, while introducing a new topic, that no fractions occurred at any step (because I would immediately lose a chunk of the class, and soon after the rest due to the understandable disruption).

    Teaching calculus to someone ready for it can be done, maybe not that well, but can be done, by a droning voice on a video. Teaching two step equations to someone with skill gaps requires a math teacher.

  8. Ted says:

    I watched Silicon Valley of PBS American Experience series. One can’t underestimate the synergy of putting smart and talented people together. The story of William Shockley, Fairchild semiconductor, Robert Noyce and the semiconductor chip is fascinating in the conditions that it emerged from.
    In this sense a vote for Stuy, or even more elite and select programs to cultivate the most gifted and talented students.

  9. Ted says:

    If you have a public school high school, that by whatever reason ends up being a vehicle to teach the top tier Asian population of about 2,000 students, then in terms of equity, roughly, they need to set up more schools to teach the top tier 4,000 blacks and 6,000 top tier Latinos, where they have a nice facilities, and a competitive teaching corps.

  10. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: Is Stuyvesant High School–One of the Most Selective in the Nation–a “Good School”? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  11. Pingback: Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 3 “Does success on the SHSAT correlate with success at a specialized NYC high school?” | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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