What’s Going On With New York’s Elite Public High Schools?

A fight over admissions is making all too clear the value of securing a seat at one of the city’s finest schools.

A front view of Stuyvesant High School's entrance
Stuyvesant High School in New York, in June (Mary Altaffer / AP)

New York City’s specialized high schools are a model of opportunity. They have stellar academic records, and, being public, they are free to attend. Their alumni tend to go on to elite colleges and prestigious careers. Together, the schools serve close to 18,000 students each year, and at eight of the nine schools, admission is determined based on how middle schoolers do on a standardized test.

That test—called the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT—has been the sole admissions criterion for eight of the nine specialized high schools for a couple of decades (and even earlier for some, as mandated by a 1971 law). (The ninth, LaGuardia, is a visual and performing arts school that grants admission based on auditions or portfolio reviews, but not the test.) And earlier this month, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, put forward a radical proposal: Get rid of the test.

The problem, as he and many others see it, is one of equity: There are very few black and Latino students in the specialized schools. The three highest-status schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—have black and Latino student populations of 4, 9, and 13 percent, respectively, far below the 70 percent in public schools citywide. What would replace the SHSAT? A system that would admit the top 7 percent of students at every public middle school in the city, which by the mayor’s reckoning would make the collective student body at the specialized high schools roughly 45 percent black and Latino.

Some aren’t pleased with the idea. Their view is that it would kill off a straightforward assessment of merit that applies across schools—the test is an objective measure, they say, and can’t be gamed the way interviews or grades can be, which can reward kids who are richer and/or white.

More specifically, de Blasio’s proposal has upset many Asian parents in particular and a great number of (though certainly not all) alumni and current students. Asian parents’ opposition to scrapping the test probably has something to do with the fact that, as data provided to us by the city’s Department of Education shows, 30 percent of Asian applicants in 2018 received offers to a specialized school, accounting for more than half of all offers. (And Asians are the minority group with the highest poverty rate in the city.) And there are plenty of elite public high schools across the country, but none are test-only, and none have the reputation nationally or internationally that New York’s specialized high schools do; many of the opponents of getting rid of the test believe—probably not incorrectly—that these schools’ reputation is in part a function of the formidable test.

The disagreement over admission to these elite schools is perhaps best interpreted as a consequence of a system that has over a million students, and not enough—as well as not widely distributed enough—resources for the brightest ones. What sets up the conflict in the first place is that there aren’t enough great schools and there are too few seats at the best schools—and students (and their parents) correctly sense that getting into a specialized school can make all the difference in life.

In the United States, if a child’s parents are poor, he or she is generally likely to grow up to be poor, or a little less so. But, as we’ve found in our research among Stuyvesant graduates, New York’s specialized schools obliterate that correlation. For a book we’re working on called The Peer Effect, we’ve done more than 70 interviews (and counting) with adult alumni who graduated from Stuyvesant between 1946 and 2013. (Part of our interest in the school stems from the fact that we both graduated from it in the ’80s.) Many of the people we’ve interviewed grew up poor, and/or were black, Latino, or Asian. Some of the graduates we interviewed from earlier years were from poor or working-class Jewish families. We also interviewed a lot of former students who were brought up in white, middle-class families.

Nearly all of these kids went to college, often selective ones, and most went on to do well professionally. The poorer students became middle or upper-middle class, and the middle-class students often did better than their parents. And they were happy—most (though not all) felt that Stuyvesant had had a big effect on their lives. For instance, Elizabeth Reid Yee, a white 1985 graduate who grew up poor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, fully credits Stuyvesant with keeping her from a life of poverty. We heard many stories like this. In short, these specialized schools are transformative, and parents and kids know it.

What makes these schools so good? The general consensus is the academic rigor. But what’s come out clearly in our interviews with Stuyvesant graduates is something arguably more important: a peer-driven expectation of achievement. What Stuyvesant does is take 3,000 pretty bright kids and put them in a building together. Then magical things happen. They push each other, they strive to be like each other, they learn from each other. Abraham Baumel, a former principal at the school, laid out the dynamic nicely: “The fact is, if the teacher is not delivering at a place like Stuyvesant, the kids will find the answers from one another, from books, and from other classes. They will find a way to learn the material, and the teacher thinks he is responsible for that marvelous achievement.”

There are a lot of kids who enter Stuyvesant with what sociologists refer to as social capital, and those without it acquire it from the ones who have it—something that often happens at private schools, but can happen at public schools, too. Students develop a sense of how the world really works, and they begin to learn to navigate it.

This peer effect is critically important for understanding how Stuyvesant alums turned out, and has a simple lesson for all schools: If there is a critical mass of achievement-oriented kids (and it doesn’t have to even be the majority at a school), it’s going to have a positive impact on the rest of the student body. There’s a student-driven culture of achievement at Stuyvesant—one that is independent of parents, teachers, and administrators—that raises everyone’s game. Carlos Moya, a Puerto Rican 1993 graduate who grew up working-class in Hell’s Kitchen and is now a computer programmer, told us that it wasn’t socially acceptable to be a screw-up: “You don’t want to be that guy.”

This culture of achievement contributes to the schools’ sterling reputation. A few black Stuyvesant alumni have told us in interviews that even though they went to elite colleges, when people learn they went to Stuyvesant, it gives them immediate gravitas, and they felt that the suspicions that maybe the reason they got so far in life was because of affirmative action suddenly disappear.

In the current debate over representation at specialized schools, it’s often forgotten that three decades ago, there were sizable numbers of black and Latino students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—in the 1989-90 school year, black and Latino students made up about 10 percent, 22 percent, and 51 percent, respectively, of these schools’ attendees.* Once upon a time, these schools looked more like what de Blasio says he wants.

The Racial and Ethnic Composition of Specialized New York Public High Schools, by School Year


What changed? One of the reasons there are so few black and Latino students in these schools today is because of a change that took place in the early 1990s that limited the opportunities available to high-achieving black and Latino students. New York’s elementary and middle schools are highly segregated, and until roughly three decades ago, nearly every middle school in New York City had an honors program. Kids in these programs got a great education. While black and Latino students in segregated schools may have missed out on certain educational and cultural benefits of learning alongside more white and Asian peers, these honors classes had the benefit of putting all the smart kids together so they could push each other. Many of them tested well and then ended up at a specialized high school.

But by the mid-’80s, tracking—separating students into different classes by academic ability—had fallen out of favor nationally, especially when it came to isolating students of lower ability. In the early ’90s, New York City largely did away with its tracks, including those honors programs. (There are still some honors classes offered here and there, but not nearly to the extent that they once were.) As a result, the top students at many of today’s segregated schools aren’t getting the kinds of opportunities that could launch them into a specialized high school.

Now, instead of tracking within schools, there is effectively tracking between schools, with parents vying to get their children into “good” elementary and middle schools and keep them out of the bad ones. Getting into these schools used to be a simple matter of which school’s zone a student lived in, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with the goal of prioritizing “school choice,” led a push to change the system so that, starting in 2004, parents could apply to schools from anywhere in the city. As a result, 40 percent of all New York City kindergarteners today go to schools other than the one they’re zoned for. This leaves “unwanted” schools under-enrolled and struggling.

Around the same time that formal tracking programs were phased out, students coincidentally began preparing for the SHSAT like never before. Hardly anyone we interviewed who went to Stuyvesant before the late 1980s did a test-prep program; by the early 1990s, few people didn’t do one. (The expense of test prep is one of the reasons de Blasio says he wants to discard the SHSAT.) Additionally, the numbers of black and Latino students at these schools dropped, reflecting a large influx of Asian immigrants and their children to the city in the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile—and this is another underappreciated fact in the conversation de Blasio has sparked—the ranks of white students have thinned dramatically. One of the reasons white kids went to Stuyvesant, up through the 1990s, was that so many of the local, zoned high schools were seen as low quality, and considered dangerous for nerdy white kids. In The Fortress of Solitude, a novel by Jonathan Lethem set in pre-gentrification 1970s Brooklyn, one white kid says to the other, “Just pass the test. Your life depends on it. If you don’t get into Stuyvesant, or at least Bronx Science, you’re dead … Brooklyn Tech’s a last resort. Sarah J. Hale or John Jay”—two neighborhood schools—“those places are practically like prison.”

The white population at Stuyvesant hovered around 40 percent from the late 1980s until the early 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Around 2003, when Bloomberg became mayor, the number of white kids at these schools dropped as the number of schools that screen for academic criteria like grades or exams, or require an audition or interview, more than doubled.** This selectivity increased the pool of schools that were considered “good,” which diverted many white students away from the specialized schools and into these newly prestigious schools.

Whatever the merits of de Blasio’s proposal, it would have a limited effect on the system-wide problem of school inequity he’s interested in fixing, as specialized high schools only account for about 6 percent of seats in the city’s public high schools. (It may, however, have a larger impact on diversifying the city’s middle schools, in that it could incentivize parents to choose “worse” schools for their kids, where those kids might have a better shot at finishing at the top of their class and thus gain entry to a specialized high school.)

What, then, would make a difference in high schools more broadly? There are other schools in the city—about a third of public high-school programs, in fact—that screen incoming students and that also don’t reflect the city’s wider demographic. These “screened” schools—which are basically lesser-known, but still competitive, magnet schools—generally have more black and Latino students than the specialized schools, but they still tend to be predominantly white and Asian.

Overhauling these screened schools would have a bigger impact than doing away with the SHSAT. As Stuyvesant demonstrates, having a student body that is racially and economically diverse can mean that everyone wins: Poor and minority kids do better academically, and top-performing white kids do just as well, while getting the enrichment of being around a wider variety of peers. In other words, what needs fixing is the system more broadly.

Indeed, dozens of school systems around the country are considering students’ household income when assigning them to schools. To get rid of the SHSAT, de Blasio would have to win a change in state law, but he could easily reform screened schools on a large scale in a way that wouldn’t require such a change—just the resolve to stand up to the richer, typically white parents of kids in popular screened schools. Perhaps his proposal represents a recognition that it’s easier to fight state lawmakers and immigrant Asian parents than to fight rich white parents.

*Because of errors in the data kept by the National Council of Education Statistics, this article originally stated that black and Latino students made up 16 percent and 67 percent of the student bodies at Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, respectively, in the 1989-1990 school year. This article, including its charts, has been updated to reflect corrected data from the NCES. A separate error in the chart for Bronx Science, in which the wrong percentage of Asian students was given for the 1989-90 school year, has also been corrected.

**Because of errors in the data kept by the National Council of Education Statistics, this article originally stated that the white population at Stuyvesant peaked in the 1989-1990 school year at 63 percent, and that the number of white students shrunk significantly in the early to mid-’90s. This article, including its charts, has been updated to account for those errors in the data set.

We regret the errors.