Should “exam schools” exist?

Boston Latin School. Stuyvesant High School. Two of the very finest public schools in the nation.

Should they exist?

50 years ago I would have been taken aback by the very question. Of course they should exist! Who would doubt it? They are, after all, two finest public schools in the nation.

Now, however, plenty of people in Boston and New York are questioning the existence of these elitist public schools. For this post I will rely heavily on one document, a post by Gary Rubinstein, along with replies to it.

Somebody neutral should summarize the main points on both sides. I’m not neutral, though I could be considered ambivalent. Yes, by all objective measures these two schools provide better educations than their competition. But provide them to whom, that is the question. If we avoid emotionally charged terms like “elitist” we immediately notice large racial disparities between BLS (Boston Latin School) and the rest of BPS (Boston Public Schools). Similarly in the case of Stuyvesant and the rest of the enormous New York City public school system. The “no” side of the argument uses this undeniable fact to argue against the existence of exam schools. The “yes” side says that the admitted racial disparities are no reason to deny a top education to those who qualify.

Here’s what Rubinstein says:

IF there is a way to identify the top performing students, it would benefit them, the school system they are in, and the community as a whole, to have such a school. 

There are many ways to respond to this statement, should you choose to do so. In particular, you could say that there is no such way, you could say that “top performing” is not the correct criterion, you could say that it would not benefit the school system and the community even if it is possible.

There is no doubt that the current data encourage racists, though white supremacists are made uncomfortable by the fact that Stuyvesant is 74% Asian and 19% White. (“That’s all right,” they reply. “Asians are the model minority.”) BLS is only 29% Asian but 45% White. You can ponder various explanations for the Boston-NYC difference, but the main point here is the numbers I didn’t list: both schools have woefully few Black and Latinx students.

So yes, I agree that that’s a problem. But I absolutely disagree with the proposed solution of closing the exam schools (mostly those two, but often the other ones as well). Of course I’m biased, having graduated from an elite high school myself (yes, private rather than public, but that’s not the real issue even though it’s a politically important one). And of course we faced a version of this issue in the 21 years when I taught at Weston High School and the 4 years when I taught at B.U. Academy; both are elitist schools—one public and one private—and both are more heavily White and Asian than the general population is. Weston, of course, is not an exam school, but the demographics of suburbia make it almost the equivalent of one, despite the METCO program. But both schools directly benefit their own students and indirectly benefit the wider community. Fixing the problem of racial disparities is clearly a crucial goal, but abolishing these schools is not the solution.

Read Rubinstein’s piece and the responses to it for a much more in-depth analysis of both sides of the issue.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Teaching & Learning, Weston