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.