Education Opinion

Why Do We Have Elite Schools?

By Starr Sackstein — October 04, 2018 5 min read
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Guest post by Douglas W. Green, EdD @DrDougGreen Blog: https://DrDougGreen.Com

In New York City there has been a lot of conversation about how students are admitted to the eight elite public high schools.

As it stands, the results of a single test given on one day are used to determine who gets in. As students take the tests they give their preferences for which schools they wish to attend and when the test results roll in the top performing students are assigned to the school of their choice.

Thus far, thanks to the Mayor Bill de Blasio, the conversation has focused on who gets into these schools rather than are they a good idea in the first place. No matter how you choose kids for these schools, you are creating winners and losers and maintaining a culture of haves and have-nots.

Due to a thriving business of Saturday and after hours test prep schools, the students who make the cut are mostly those whose parents can afford this additional practice. Even though the public schools are populated mostly by black and Hispanic kids, the elite schools are populated mostly by Asian students (65%) and white students (25%) while blacks and Hispanics get the remaining 10% of the slots.

Mayor de Blasio has proposed that the top students from every middle school have access to the Elite schools. Since most of the middle schools are populated by black and Hispanic kids, this would give a big boost to those two populations in the elite schools. Needless to say, the Asian and white parents are not happy about this plan as they could no longer simply pay for extra test prep improve their odds.

Unintended Consequences

If the mayor gets his way, I suspect that Asian and white kids who would otherwise make the cut would opt for private schools in greater numbers rather than attend other public schools. It’s also possible that teachers at the elite schools would not lower their standards as more black and Hispanic kids enter their classes. This could lead to a higher failure and dropout rates as it has in some colleges for black and Hispanic students.

Should the real question here be why does the city have elite schools in the first place?

If you are a parent with money and power, you are likely to want your children to go to schools with other high-achieving students who are also more likely to be well-behaved. When you skim these kids off the top, the non-elite schools are left with a higher proportion of low-achieving students who are more likely to bring behavior problems to the classroom.

Is it ethical to do this in the first place?

If you want to give all students an equal chance at success, why would you put some in schools where success is almost certain and others in schools where success is less likely? The elite schools also attract the top teachers who for the most part start in non-elite schools and work their way up. This means that the non-elite schools get most of the rookie teachers along with those that don’t distinguish themselves enough to move up the teacher food chain.

Not Equal By Design

So we have a system that is designed in such a way as to be not equal or fair. In addition to better teachers, elite schools are more likely to have all of the supplies they need and to be better maintained. They also have better parent support, which no doubt includes more funding from the PTA, the district, and other organizations. This system is not likely to change as the parents who like it this way have the political power to keep it this way.

Even in school districts without elite schools, you will find elite schools within the schools. My daughter went to a school upstate in a city with one public high school. While there was no test to get in, there were different versions of courses that students took depending on their academic performance. She took mostly AP and International Baccalaureate courses with students like herself while the lower academic performers and the students with behavior issues took the so-called “Regents” courses, which the students referred to as “ghetto” classes.

The Heart of the Problem and the Reasons to Change

One reason even districts without elite schools track students is the way most instruction is rolled out. The model that features teachers doing most of the talking and everyone moving at the same pace is still common. If every student could move at his or her own pace, you wouldn’t need to extract the high achievers into advanced classes. This can be done, usually with the help of technology.

Fast learners could be used as peer tutors, which would help them learn better at the same time. There should be less frustration as you wouldn’t be asking slower students to challenge content they aren’t ready for. The high achievers would also serve as role models in terms of learning and behavior. You still wouldn’t have equal results and you should expect the achievement gaps expand once you get out of the way of the fast learners.

In a place like New York City, there should be an added benefit of less commuting time. If all schools had some elite students, there would be less incentive for teachers to move from school to school. If possible, I would like to see some financial incentive for teachers who stay at the schools serving more poor kids.

If indeed New York City does change the way students are admitted to elite schools, they are playing a zero sum game and the kids at the non-elite schools will continue to receive an inferior education. Perhaps someday they can follow my plan as they see innovative smaller districts roll it out. In the meantime, they will no doubt continue with their own version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


Harris, Elizabeth A., and Hu, Winnie. Asian Groups See Bias in Plan to Diversify New York’s Elite Schools, The New York Times, June 5, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2o9KMev.

Goldstein, Dana. Rethinking What Gifted Education Means and Who It Should Serve, The New York Times, September 15, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2xlr5EJ.

MacDonald, Heather. California Passed an Anti-Affirmative Action Law and Colleges Ignored It, The New York Post, September 1, 2018, https://nyp.st/2MM2Udb.

New York Post Editorial Board. What de Blasio Didn’t Want You to Know: High School Admissions Tests Work, The New York Post, August 6, 2018, https://nyp.st/2obmTDi.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.