Monday, August 20, 2012

"[A] school populated by very good test takers"

Does Stuyvesant have a "toxic culture"? Tom Allon, who attended the school a while back and is now running for mayor, thinks so. His critique of the school, one he's not at all alone in making, strikes me as borderline bigotry, if not as definitively crossing any line. There's a well-known form of racism that involves stereotyping Asian/Asian-American students as robots, personality-free automatons, capable of obedience but not creativity, etc. Allon veers dangerously close. Specifically, I'm not sure what to make of this:
For generations of New York immigrants, Stuyvesant has been the holy grail, the first rung on the ladder of success and prosperity. But the eagerness to enter its hallowed halls has become so fierce that special tutoring centers have sprung up in the last three decades to rigorously prepare students for its entrance exam. Most of these are in Queens, particularly in the heavily populated Asian section near Main St. in Flushing. To my knowledge, I was the first Stuyvesant teacher to work at one of these in 1986. The Elite Academy hired me to teach 26 Korean third-graders every weekend to prepare for the English section of the exam. Yes, third-graders. Five years before the test. That summer, my Stuyvesant colleague Frank McCourt took over my class. For 30 hours a week, he drilled these driven 9-year-olds in their focused effort to gain admission. Five years later, when they were in the eighth grade, 25 of our 26 students passed the exam. Frank and I used to amuse ourselves by wondering whatever happened to that 26th kid. Stuyvesant has now become a school populated by very good test takers.
I mean, how horrible, a school made up of students who test well!

In all seriousness, my problem with all the critiques of Stuyvesant's admissions process is that they always seem to miss what the stakes are of who gets to attend. It probably if anything hurts your chances to go to a good college if you apply from a place like Stuyvesant, as opposed to if you're someone who tests well enough to get in but applies from just about anywhere else. (Yes, there are lots of APs, at Stuyvesant but with caps on who can take how many, not to mention unwritten - or written? - caps on how many kids from the school various elite colleges will admit). This is less true, of course, if your alternative was an especially violent high school, but if it was just a non-famous one? Not sure.

Stuyvesant is "elite," except not really. The city's actual rich and influential families don't even have their kids take the test for what is, after all, a public school. (Allon notes that the school won't admit you because you come from a famous family. But he doesn't add that if you do, you almost certainly aren't applying in the first place.) Yes, kids who did well on an exam at 13 often-but-not-always do well later on, but correlation, causation... As in, I'm not sure what the school really does for the kids who attend. I'm not sure what role it has in yanking anyone into a different class, say, as can happen for scholarship kids at private schools, who will make whichever connections, take private jets to the Hamptons, things of that nature. Being around a handful of driven kids may help keep some on the straight-and-narrow, but for plenty it does no such thing. For a good number, being at a place where you learn at 15 just how mediocre of a mind you are - even if you'd have been one of the smart kids elsewhere - encourages a why-bother attitude.

The conversation about Stuyvesant implies that getting in is winning this amazing prize, when the prize might be 90% that you now know you test well (or can, with preparation), 10% things that take place in the building itself. Yes, it's a famous name, as high schools go, but past a certain age (20?), no one cares where you went to high school, and putting anything about your high school years on your resume will be held against you. Whereas if you go to a famous college, this might well interest employers 30 years down the line. The stakes of the discussion are quite different, then, depending on whether the place is or is not a ticket to anything particular later in life.

Anyway, back to Allon. While, like I said, I'm not sure the stakes of who gets in are as high as popularly imagined, but I'm certainly more sympathetic to diversity concerns when they're framed as 'not enough blacks and Hispanics' or 'not enough poor kids' than when it's 'OMG sooo many Asians'. Allon suggests the school admit all middle-school valedictorians, in order to increase of-color diversity. Fair enough. But he also wants an essay component on the entrance exam, and not in order to suss out who's how underprivileged. He wants the best writers to get in, which, if we're talking "essays" by 13-year-olds, would basically mean more native-born, UMC kids, the ones whose parents read to them and made them read from utero on. Not kids who've been screwed over by the public-school system. Iffy, all of this.

It's certainly ironic that Allon expresses nostalgia for a time when Stuyvesant was a place for the 'good' immigrants, the ones who weren't from school-obsessed families. Back in the good old days, the strivers who attended - Jews, not Asians - were totally stereotyped as... not robots, exactly, but too studious, insufficiently well-rounded, you get the idea, you've read about how 'well-rounded' as a concept basically emerged in order to make it so Harvard or whatever wasn't made up entirely of Jewish kids. Pardon my French, but plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


PG said...

100% agreed on Allon's veering toward anti-Asian racism, and the absurdity of his nostalgia for the good ol' days of immigrant strivers, who of course were totally surprised when education got their kids ahead in America.

However, I always assumed there must be something good about going to a good high school beyond what it did for your college admissions. I probably benefited in the admissions game from going to a mediocre public school while having high test scores, but I definitely feel like I missed out on a lot educationally compared to my friends who attended those public schools that show up on the US News Top 100 list. They all seem to have been taught by people with PhDs and/or Rhodes Scholars who encouraged them to be intellectually adventurous, plus they were around like-minded classmates who -- even if they were lazy about doing homework for classes they didn't care about -- often were writing their own computer software or original dramatic scripts. They had the opportunity to take Latin! They weren't the first kid in their school's history to take even the *easy* AP Calculus exam!

Since I was meeting these friends at college and grad school, they evidently didn't get some boost in the admissions game that I lacked, but I still envy them their educational experiences.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

So I wasn't imagining the iffiness bigotry-wise.

I think what you're describing re: the benefits of attending that kind of high school is consistent with my 90%-10% theory. It's not irrelevant to go to one, but not that important, either.

There are plusses and minuses to being surrounded by smart kids, plusses and minuses to being taught by PhDs. Re: the teachers, I believe they got placed in the school by seniority when I was there, and so tended to be especially old, not especially any other quality. I don't remember any Rhodes Scholars, just the odd math PhD too eccentric to teach at a college. And while there were the occasional teachers who decided to teach 11th-grade English like it was an advanced graduate seminar, what you need in 11th grade, unless you're the one kid in the class who doesn't need this, is 11th-grade English. There's a point at which overshooting the mark isn't high expectations in a good way, and ends up just being demoralizing.

Basically, though, I think there's a danger in taking kids out of big-fish-in-small-pond situations too young, giving lots of bright people a sense of mediocrity that can, well, stick. (Again, AP courses were restricted by GPA, I think, so not everyone had all options.) I guess some of that is cancelled out by the greater opportunities, and obviously the friendships. But it also makes it so that there isn't the same sense of urgency to get out of high school.

But back to the point - if the stakes are that it's a bit better during those four years to be at Stuyvesant than elsewhere, that's quite different from the way it's usually presented, namely that attending the school will change your life. If it's not that big of a deal to go to Stuyvesant, if it's more about correlation than causation, the school's demographics are indicative of various things (namely who goes to crappy junior high schools, whose parents force them to study, who's too fancy to go to any urban public school no matter how elite), but simply changing the admissions process to change who attends wouldn't do a heck of a lot. What we expect from affirmative action, or from valedictorians-only moves, is to see a difference in who gets ahead, or who reaches a position of power. But if Stuyvesant isn't really getting people ahead, and if it doesn't meaningfully give anyone any kind of power, if it isn't yanking people out of one situation and into another but merely a place where people on that trajectory anyway are housed for four years, what does it matter who attends? Why should this be a pressing social-justice concern?

PG said...

Re: your last para, I suppose I'm positing the possibility that Stuyvesant simultaneously could "change your life" without "really getting people ahead." I think that can be true even among elite schools, that it can change your life to go to Oxford instead of Harvard -- yet that difference doesn't really affect your ability to bank on the prestige of your education for the rest of your life because the prestige levels are basically the same. I think it really changed me to attend Virginia instead of Chicago because they're such profoundly different kinds of institutions, yet it probably hasn't made all that much difference in the rat race.

Why should this be a pressing social-justice concern?

Yeah, this I can't find a good argument against. I'm not sure affirmative action has much place in ensuring that we all get an equitable shot at a great life of the mind, as much as it ought to be used to ensure that we all get an equitable shot at the more tangible goals of power and the money, money and the power.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

We're in agreement, then.