Does Attending a Specialized High School Make a Difference?


No, at least according to Matt Barnum who, in a recent Atlantic article called “Is Attending the ‘Best’ High School Academically Relevant?,”  bases his conclusion on a study done by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. But as a New York City mom of a son in a specialized high school, I see enormous benefits.

In NYC, students are starting to file public applications for next September for various high schools  (Screened, Limited Screened, Unscreened, Ed Opt, Arts/Audition, Zoned and more), while students applying to the handful of elite, specialized high schools have already taken the qualifying SHSAT Exam and are now just waiting for their results and placements.

About 30,000 8th graders take the latter test but there are only around 4,000 seats available in these top-ranked high-schools. This is a very stressful time for teens and their parents as they wait on pins and needles to find out if they’ve been able to earn a seat at the school of their choice.

But the Chicago researchers  suggest that they are stressing out over nothing.

Barnum sums up the Chicago study this way:

Attending a selective-enrollment school led to only a statistically insignificant bump in the ACT of half a point. The selective schools also seemed to have little or no effect on the likelihood of taking Advanced Placement classes, graduating from high school, or enrolling and staying in college.

Researchers  did concede that “selective schools produced a variety of non-academic gains: Students had higher attendance and lower suspension rates, and they trusted their teachers more. Students also reported that their peers’ behavior was much better and that they felt safer in school—this suggests that insofar as selective schools are beneficial, it may be because of higher-achieving peers rather than better-quality instruction.” (Emphasis mine.)

I could not agree more with this. My son is currently a senior. Over the past four years, I have found the curriculum at his specialized high school to be spotty, the teaching quality uneven, and the AP classes limited in availability. (Not all students who want to can take one.) But what has truly been amazing is the peer group: diligent, hard-working, passionate, dedicated, first and second generation American kids who provide a daily example for my son – just like I hope he does for them.

Yes, the school is a pressure-cooker (my son stumbles out of bed in the morning and heads for his computer mumbling, “Achieve, achieve, achieve.”). Yes, it’s competitive – AP classes are doled out based on your previous semester’s scores, so every point in every class counts. Yes, the students have to advocate for themselves through the endless bureaucracy.

But what they may not know is how supportive the kids are of one another. During the stressful college application process with many of my son’s friends applying to the same universities, they reassure each other that they are all such different applicants and that there’s room for everyone. Peer-tutoring, and afterschool clubs like theater, newspaper, debate and more  are completely student-run and organized.

Finally, one of the best things about attending a high-school crammed to the rafters with high-achieving peers is the chance for your teen to discover that – what do you know? – they’re not all that and a bag of chips. That the world is full of kids who are just as smart (smarter, even!) than they are. This newfound humility makes them much more pleasant to live with in the short run and, in the long run, just might make them a more pleasant employee and spouse. (I do realize that some parents are looking for exactly the opposite – a self-esteem boosting school that will grant their child an effortless rise to the top of the class. And, like with all school choices, I respect it, even when I don’t agree with it. In that case, The Atlantic is right: a specialized  high school will definitely not benefit your child.)

A high-performing peer group also teaches teens the value of hard work and not everybody get a trophy competition (which, I realize, is not what every family is looking for). It teaches grit, if you will.

Call it school culture, call it peer pressure, call it keeping up with the Joneses. Either way, this ephemeral and harder-to-measure-via-a-study end result is, for this mother, ultimately more beneficial and important than any score on any test will ever be.

—Alina Adams

Alina Adams is a New York City mom of 3 school-age children. Her website is NYC School Secrets. This post originally appeared on New York School Talk.

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