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How Gotham’s Elite High Schools Escaped the Leveller’s Ax
Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech are everything the public school system has mistakenly tried to eradicate.
Spring 1999

New York City brags to the world about its excellences—its peerless business expertise, its world-class restaurants, its unparalleled sophistication, its renowned monuments—but about one rare treasure, a set of elite, overachieving public high schools, it remains largely silent. The Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Technical High School have nurtured nine Nobel laureates, hundreds of Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, award-winning biologists and astrophysicists, astronauts, inventors, and captains of commerce. The Ivy Leagues clamor for their graduates, virtually all of whom attend college. Their daily attendance rate runs at 95 percent and higher. These schools are everything the rest of the public education system is not: its reverse image, they are the positive to its negative.

Why, then, hasn't success-crazed New York trumpeted these schools with as much fanfare as it expends on the Yankees or the New York Stock Exchange? Simple: they embody one of the most odious concepts in contemporary education—elitism. Because they have preserved, by a lucky historical fluke, a century-old admissions system based solely on merit, they are a horrible embarrassment to New York's educational and public- sector establishment, wedded as it is to the philosophy of the lowest common denominator.

Left to its own devices, that establishment would long since have subjected the three exam schools to the same levelling forces by which it has ground down the rest of the education system. Instead, it is forced to erode them more slowly, by mindless bureaucratic regulation and the irritating friction of teachers' union rules. The recent history of the exam schools—the bitter battles fought to preserve their excellence—perfectly mirrors the decline of educational elitism in New York, to the great detriment of its entire civic culture.

During the nineteenth century, elite high schools, many modeled on the colonial-era Boston Latin School, sprang up across the nation. As part of this movement, within the first three decades of the twentieth century, New York created Stuyvesant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene, Townsend Harris Hall on the campus of the City College of New York, and Bronx Science in the northwest Bronx—all to provide unlimited educational opportunity to any New York pupil qualified to take advantage of it, including the most talented children of the city's multitudinous new immigrants.

These new schools were intensely disciplined and highly selective, with admission based on a written exam of math and reading skills. Townsend Harris, the most elite of all, and the only one not focused on math and science, condensed four years of high school into three, after which its students automatically gained admission to City College. The workload was huge. Author and journalist Dan Seligman, a 1941 Townsend Harris grad, recalls having to get up at midnight to work on his homework till 4 AM. "Adding to my despair," he has written, "was an observation that some of the adjacent geniuses seemed to be racing through their homework during the lunch hour." The workload at the schools today is not much lighter. At Stuyvesant, the saying goes that you can choose any two of the following three items: grades, friends, or sleep.

The curriculum was inflexible: students at the science schools took math and science every year. Psychoanalyst Yale Kramer, a 1947 graduate of Brooklyn Tech, says of the rigid requirements, "You went to Brooklyn Tech and didn't ask questions." The intense focus quickly paid off—one of the boys in Bronx Science's first graduating class in 1941, Roy Glauber, went directly to work on the Manhattan Project, without an intervening spell at college. Within its first 12 years, Bronx Science would graduate four of its five Nobel prizewinners; by 1993, it had produced 50 percent more Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners than any other school in the country.

Then, as now, the students made the schools. Specialized facilities were nice, where they existed, but not essential; Stuyvesant achieved wonders in a wreck of a building for decades before it moved to its sumptuous new $150 million Battery Park City facility in 1992. But the students were a constant, and they created an environment of high competition and high achievement, spurring one another on with their intellectual enthusiasms and adolescent one-upmanship. Explaining Stuyvesant's present exalted status as an achievement hothouse, principal Jinx Cozzi-Perullo refuses to take credit: "This is not a model we create," she contends. "The kids come in with a need to excel."

This concentration of talent has always unsettled more than a few outsize egos. "I was used to thinking of myself as superior," recalls Seligman with amusement, "but at Townsend Harris, I was just average." That remains the effect of the schools today. Says Milton Kopelman, principal of Bronx Science from 1977 to 1990: "Students come in as big shots, only to realize that they're not the smartest kids in the world. It has a humbling effect."

For their first half-century, these New York schools epitomized American meritocracy. Gene Lichtenstein, a 1948 Bronx Science graduate, told the New York Times Magazine in 1978: "It seems naive today, but Science was perceived then by parents and teachers as the embodiment of the American Dream, meritocracy at work. . . . For those accepted, the future could be open and unlimited, despite income and family origins. It was all dependent on performance." The key phrase here is: "It seems naive today. . . ." Between 1948 and 1978, the world around Bronx Science and the other exam schools changed utterly. In 1948, young Lichtenstein did not have to apologize for the view that a selection system based purely on ability was a supreme social advance over class, race, or religious privilege. When that meritocratic system proved to select some groups in higher numbers than others, however, its former proponents, including Lichtenstein and many other members of the country's elites, grew uneasy.

In a possible early harbinger of official discomfort with intellectual elitism, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared his intention in 1941 to shut down Townsend Harris Hall. La Guardia cited budgetary pressures and the need for space to house a new City College business school, now Baruch College. Parents and teachers waged a fierce legal fight to preserve the school. Among their allies was the New York Times, which had not yet decided that merit was a code word for bias. The Times's arguments recall a remarkably different world. The paper lauded the school's "rigid entrance requirements" for creating a "homogeneous group of able students." The "most widely admitted defect in our school system," the Times pronounced, "is that the highly gifted are frequently held back by the dullards. Townsend Harris is the one high school where this obstacle is not permitted to arise." Such arguments, however, did not carry the day, and in 1942, the Board of Higher Education closed the school. (In 1984, alumni resurrected Townsend Harris on the Queens College campus with a looser admissions policy, but it remains an excellent school.)

It wasn't until the 1960s—a time when the ideal of equality of opportunity gave way to demands for equality of results—that a sustained assault on educational meritocracy began in earnest. The first sally came during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville disturbances, in which black activists demanded "community control" over schools, sparking the bitterest teachers' strike in the city's history. Among the activists' many demands was the conversion of the three science schools to community schools, open to all. That demand failed, but it had an impact. The schools agreed to expand a newly created affirmative- action program, called Discovery, for students who scored below the cut-off point on the entrance exam, despite worries among some faculty that the modest program was bringing in too many unprepared students.

Less than three years later, in January 1971, a direct challenge rocked the exam schools. The superintendent of Community School Board Three on Manhattan's West Side, Alfredo Mathew, charged that the admissions test at the Bronx High School of Science, then the most academically selective school in the country, was "culturally biased"—a dubious allegation—and worked to "screen out" black and Puerto Rican students. Mathew's board demanded that the schools chancellor abolish the admissions test and admit students solely on the basis of recommendations; it threatened a lawsuit if he didn't.

Though the principal of Bronx Science, Alexander Taffel, properly defended the entrance tests as both culturally neutral and essential to the school's mission, schools chancellor Harvey B. Scribner was far less certain of the school's good faith and freedom from bias. To the horror of Bronx Science supporters everywhere, two days after Mathew's demand, Scribner appointed a commission to study the admissions tests at all the selective schools, explaining darkly: "I have discovered enough to raise serious questions." Showing that he was a man of the times who had moved beyond an easy naïveté about merit, he announced that "any test of academic achievement tends to be culturally biased."

Scribner's apparent acquiescence in the attack produced a wave of fear among the schools' supporters. When admissions notices for that year were delayed, rumors flew that Scribner was manipulating the process in order to produce a more acceptable racial mix of students. Bronx Science's faculty, parents, alumni, and friends formed a council to save the school from destruction. They got the attention of two Bronx state legislators, Senator John Calandra and Assemblyman Burton Hecht. Hecht and Calandra accused the schools chancellor of "the most insidious attack thus far upon the finest educational school in New York City." Scribner's attempt to "destroy these schools must be stopped immediately," they proclaimed.

The two legislators introduced a bill to enshrine in law the admissions test. Lining up against the bill were, predictably, the Board of Education, the State Regents, Mayor Lindsay's administration, and, now, the New York Times, which had recently shed its elitist principles. In an about-face from its stand in the Townsend Harris controversy, the newly egalitarian Times accused the Assembly of "petrifying" the high schools and announced that nothing should be "sacrosanct" about the exam schools. Whereas the Townsend Harris-era Times had lauded selective admissions, the 1970s Times, speaking through education reporter Fred Hechinger, trivialized selectivity in admissions as an easy way for schools and colleges to look good. Turning the usual argument against admissions tests on its head, Hechinger claimed that they were too good at predicting success, thus giving schools and colleges a too easily educable group of students.

The Times's scorn had little effect on the state legislators, however. After passionate debate in the Assembly, both legislative houses passed the bill, in May 1971. Though the Hecht-Calandra bill seemed to have given the exam schools lasting protection against New York's strengthening levelling tendencies, their students took nothing for granted. Matthew Bram, a 1974 Stuyvesant grad and now a software developer in New York, recalls that throughout his four years at Stuyvesant, the "concept loomed over us—the city will yank the school out. We were terrified." For Bram, losing Stuyvesant would have meant going to Brandeis High School on Manhattan's Upper West Side, known variously as "the Drugstore" and "the Gauntlet," he recalls. "I would've dropped out of high school rather than go," he says.

Bram remembers disparaging comments about Stuyvesant as the "free prep school for Jews" and a "privileged little ivory tower." He rejects the charge of privilege. The typical neighborhood high school had far better facilities than Stuyvesant's decaying building on East 15th Street, he recalls. "Chalk and blackboards were our only facility," Bram maintains. "The only thing Stuyvesant offered us was a wall to protect us from the rest of what the city offered in high school." Within that wall, students flourished. "We were only there to learn; it was a joy," Bram says. "We would stop each other in the halls to argue about astrophysics and existentialism."

After having been foiled by the Hecht-Calandra bill of 1971, New York's official animus against anything smacking of "elitism" grew stronger and more implacable, largely for reasons of racial politics. Gotham was far from unique in this respect: in 1975, a federal judge imposed racial quotas on the legendarily demanding Boston Latin School, causing standards—in the opinion of some faculty—eventually to loosen, and in 1983 another federal judge, after finding San Francisco's Lowell High School too Asian, saddled it with a Rube Goldberg set of race-based ceilings on admissions. New York fortunately managed to stay out of the clutches of the courts, but in 1986 its Board of Ed turned against a set of eight mildly selective and very popular high schools. These so-called educational-option schools chose 25 percent of their students from eighth-graders reading above grade level, 50 percent from those of average ability, and 25 percent from children reading below grade level—not exactly an exclusive formula. But to the Board of Ed and other loud levellers in the city, 25 percent of above-average students was far too many. The schools' fatal error? They were succeeding. Explained Margaret Nuzum, head of the Educational Priorities Panel, an influential watchdog group, the option schools have "an aura of being selective. . . . There is a sense that this is a better school to be in."

Weighing in on the controversy, then-Manhattan borough president David Dinkins succinctly expressed the levellers' philosophy in a letter to the New York Times. Those who say, " `Don't change our schools, make the others better,' " he wrote, "fail to see that the two systems are inextricably linked; each exists, in part, because of the other." This fatal zero-sum logic has been utterly destructive for cities, including New York. If a school or business excels, it raises the sum total of a culture's assets. Zero-summers, however, see accomplishment as a sign of unfair advantage that necessarily rests upon the exploitation or oppression of others. In this view, the only just society is one of uniform mediocrity, for as soon as someone excels, someone else by definition has been harmed. Zero-summing in education means that the only way to improve the low-achieving schools is to pull down the high-achievers, an agenda inimical to the middle class.

Ultimately, the Board of Education purged the educational-option schools of any possible taint of "elitism" by narrowing the top and bottom bands of students and requiring half of all admittees to be selected at random. Thereafter, it would be nearly impossible for a school, other than the exam schools, to select for academic talent. From now on, students who had never bothered to do their homework would have the greatest chance of admission to some of the city's most popular schools, since far fewer low-achieving than high-achieving students apply to them. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley astutely identified the implicit message of the Board's latest levelling action: in a predominantly minority school system, lower standards are "fairer" standards. "We assume that the only way to make schools genuinely democratic," Yardley wrote in disgust, "is to make them genuinely inferior."

Since 1986, the Board has stayed its lowest-common-denominator course. When the federal Education Department's Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation of the city's grade-school gifted and talented programs last year, it got no protest from city education bureaucrats, who have been chipping away at the gifted programs for years. The Board of Ed's head of high schools explained the Board's philosophy to New York magazine last year. If schools are to improve, said Margaret Harrington, "you don't talk about your best and brightest, you talk about your bottom. . . . As you raise your bottom, everyone goes up. . . . We believe that all children should have access to every program and that every school should educate all children." Judith Tarlo, director of high-school support services, is more blunt: "We are about access and sharing the wealth"—not primarily academic excellence.

Now, decades of research by the anti-tracking lobby have failed to prove Harrington's claim that focusing on the bottom makes everyone go up, and simple logic suggests otherwise. Moreover, it is absurd to maintain that by high school every child can benefit from, say, the advanced college physics offered by the science high schools. Following this determined egalitarianism to its logical conclusion would turn New York into another Detroit or Philadelphia, from which the middle class of all races has largely bailed out.

Despite the Board's militant anti-elitism, some at the city's selective science schools feel blissfully sheltered by the Hecht-Calandra bill. "You can take us to court, you can yell and scream—given the bill, you can't do anything!" gleefully rasps Stan Teitel, the chairman of Stuyvesant's physics and chemistry department. Teitel is one of the school's most unapologetic meritocrats. "I don't care if your mommy or daddy knows the superintendent of the borough," he exclaims. "I don't want to know anything else—no portfolios, not any of the other crap—all I want to know is what's upstairs. If you've got it, I will work with it."

But Teitel's confidence regarding Stuyvesant's protected status may be misplaced. Board of Ed bureaucrat Margaret Harrington's credo that "every school should educate all children" is a direct challenge, whether intentional or not, to the three science exam schools. Yes, the Hecht-Calandra law is a major roadblock to the Board's interference, but that does not mean the bureaucracy has given up. "We're always thinking about [the admissions policy]," says the Board's Judith Tarlo.

The Board's school-funding formulas reflect its determination to treat excellence and failure alike—at best. The state distributes its education money to city school administrations based on attendance rates, but in turn New York City distributes those dollars to individual schools based on their enrollment—and these two numbers can differ dramatically. Schools with high attendance figures—all of the selective schools and some others—bring extra money into the system that they don't get back. "If a school generates a lot of revenue because of increased attendance," explains Neil Harwayne, the Board's director of finance, "it still gets the same amount of money [as a school with huge truancy problems]. Otherwise, you would have greater funding in desirable school districts." Nothing wrong with that, you might say; but in fact the selective schools get a lot less funding than other schools, since they rarely qualify for the federal special-education money and remediation money that pours into failing schools, along with dollars for dropout prevention, anti-teen pregnancy, and anti-gang programs. The selective schools used to receive additional funding based on the high number of courses their students take each day, but the Board eliminated that "elitist" formula over a decade ago.

It is a gauge of how deep the hostility runs in New York toward pure meritocracy that even some administrators within the selective schools are ambivalent about them. Steven Shapiro, chairman of the Stuyvesant English department, puts his head back and thinks long and hard before replying to the question of whether he would create Stuyvesant again. "I really don't know," he says slowly. "My heart lies with the poor kids of the city; you can't skim all the kids off. I don't like skimming at all." Shapiro concedes that some kids can accomplish "great things when you put them in a place where they have great mentoring" (though it is not the "mentoring" but the concentration of bright kids that makes the exam schools work), but his support seems anguished.

Nor do the selective schools' administrators generally support the creation of more such schools. Though sheer historical accident has given New York three selective science high schools, rather than four or two or five, the principals seem to have concluded, like Goldilocks, that three is just the right number. "It's a difficult question whether to carve out more schools," says Bronx Science principal Stanley Blumenstein. "If you dilute the pool too much by taking kids who are not truly gifted, you change the makeup of every classroom and hurt education as a whole." Then why not dismantle the existing schools? Well, their students are different. "For kids at the upper end, their needs are not met by general schools."

Blumenstein is making a classic "anti-creaming" argument. Every school needs academically excited children to motivate the others, the argument goes, so the smartest shouldn't be skimmed off and put in separate schools. But surely it is the teacher's responsibility, not the students', to inspire the laggards. If an academically motivated student would reach his fullest potential in an environment of his peers, it is educational exploitation to deny him that environment in the hope that he will kindle the interest of academically uninspired students.

Certainly, thousands of New York families—and ex-New York families—subscribe to that sentiment. Every year, approximately 21,000 students take the entrance exam for approximately 2,500 entering seats in the science schools. The desperation on their parents' faces as they await their children after the exam is a New York legend. The science schools represent tiny islands of achievement in a vast sea of mediocrity or worse. But because the demand for a decent education is so great, the schools have started attracting more and more students without any particular interest in science, thus watering down their mission.

Demand not only at the exam schools but at every school with a reputation for excellence is overwhelming. Other high-achieving schools, such as Townsend Harris in Queens and Midwood High School in Brooklyn, receive applications in numbers many magnitudes higher than they have seats. Many parents don't wait around long enough to see if their children will get a coveted place. According to Manhattan city councilman Gifford Miller, young parents in his district regularly leave the city, fearful of the mediocrity that awaits their children in high school. These striving families take their tax dollars as well as their children with them, shrinking the city's middle class.

But the Board of Ed is remarkably blasé about losing children to the suburbs. "It's not that easy to leave the city by the time your kids are high-school age," asserts Dorothy Kuritzkes, executive assistant to Margaret Harrington. True—but nothing prevents them from leaving earlier. Kuritzkes agrees that high-achieving students can motivate one another but does not see it as the public schools' mission to make that happen: "The private schools can do that," she says breezily.

The only unequivocal group of meritocrats left in the selective schools are the students themselves. When asked about protests against the schools waged annually by Acorn, a left-wing community-organizing group, the students are almost uniformly dismissive. "I can't understand how you could make a test fair to certain races," scoffs Vivian Chau, a Stuyvesant senior and vice president of Arista, the school's honors and public-service society. "The Acorn protest was so silly, because our school has a majority minority population—in most books, being an Asian is a minority." Stuyvesant senior Danielle Stewart recalls that students were yelling at Acorn, "Go back to your own schools!" "It was so annoying," she says, "because we were taking the AP [Advanced Placement] tests. I was, like, how dare you come into our school? Even the black kids were, like, `I got in; what's your problem?' "

But though the science schools have largely withstood the levelling onslaughts against them, they are succumbing to other pathologies in the school system—above all, to crippling teachers' union rules. The union's powerful grip on secondary education has only strengthened in recent years. "The union protects bad teachers, not good ones," sighs Steven Shapiro. Exam-school parents almost universally complain about poor teacher quality, about which most have grown fatalistic. "Some of the teachers were so bad, we were amazed that they have any job," says Tory Brand, mother of a Stuyvesant junior. "I thought Stuyvesant would have had the power to weed them out. Once I got over that, it helped a lot."

The litany of parents' and students' complaints will be familiar to anyone with even the faintest knowledge of the public schools: teachers who fall asleep during class, teachers who don't show or always come late, teachers who spend the period talking about their family, teachers who never cover the material. "In some classes, I had to teach myself everything," recalls Stuyvesant senior Danielle Stewart, who has a 97 average. Principals and department chairs know who the burned-out, incompetent teachers are just as much as parents and students do. When I asked to sit in on the class of a Stuyvesant history teacher whom parents view as a madwoman, Shapiro shot back: "That's not a good idea; that's not somewhere you should go." The students, of course, have no choice.

Administrators face the standard public-school dilemma: they can spend all their time compiling the lengthy record needed to try to lift the tenure protection of one rotten teacher, or they can use their energies to groom more promising new teachers. "It's a difficult position to be in; you do what you can," reflects Stuyvesant's Stan Teitel.

Frustration with the union straitjacket recently led Stuyvesant's principal Cozzi-Perullo to announce her resignation, just four years after she took over the most coveted principal's job in the city. "To change the schools in New York," she says bluntly, "you need the power of only two things: the ability to hire and fire at will, and the money to reduce class size." Her parting should sound an alarm throughout the city, and at least one additional fed-up principal of one of the city's better high schools predicts that he will follow her.

Another threat to the exam schools is the growing influence of progressive pedagogy. The three schools have become schizophrenic—most science and math classes provide a journey back 40 years, where, mirabile dictu, the teacher still teaches; but the humanities are fast junking such traditional practices for the babel of "student-centered learning." In many advanced physics and calculus classes, an almost audible silence surrounds the teacher's words: it is the sound of students thinking very hard. Even where a student presents a lesson, as in a class on molecular genetics that I visited at Stuyvesant, the teacher actively directs the questioning and conveys hard information.

Yet that may be changing. All the schools are trying to reduce lecturing in math and the sciences in favor of "inquiry-based"—that is, student-centered—group learning. Their model: classes like Steven Shapiro's highly popular twentieth-century literature course, "Crisis in Values." One student begins talking; he then calls on the next, who calls on the next, and so on. Except for occasional brief interventions, the teacher stands silent. But however clever Stuyvesant students may be, they lack the knowledge to move a discussion, say, about whether young late-nineteenth-century Britons worked less or more than young Americans today and were less emotionally mature—nominally drawn from D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers—beyond mere ungrounded speculation. Surely a teacher possesses knowledge about literature and its context that he could usefully transmit to students. But such a view violates fundamental progressive beliefs about the "constructed" rather than received nature of knowledge. As one enthusiastic young English teacher at Bronx Science, a recent graduate of Columbia Teachers College, explained: "The students are not here to get it from me; they're so bright, it's a sin not to have them teach each other. I'm here to facilitate, not feed them."

Student-centered learning is not what alumni of the science schools mean when they say that they taught one another. They may have spurred one another on and shared what knowledge they had; they were not literally in charge of the intellectual content of a classroom.

Consistent with progressive dictates, the science schools don't give their students rigorous instruction in grammar—which the kids crave and, according to parents and some teachers, desperately need. Even principals acknowledge the problem: "Kids are coming out of elementary school less prepared in writing," says Stanley Blumenstein, with considerable understatement. "It's the endemic problem of the nineties." But don't count on the schools offering them formal grammar instruction any time soon. "Research in the field of English language arts," Blumenstein insists, "shows that it is more effective to learn grammar in the context of a lesson, in an ad hoc manner." Well, the results speak for themselves—the less grammar is taught, the worse student writing becomes.

Despite their shortcomings, the exam schools continue a tradition of excellence. Rather than merely tolerating their existence, the city should ensure that they live up to their potential by giving them control over their staff—a reform every New York school deserves. And New York should create more schools for high-achieving students. The new state charter-school law foolishly prohibits charter schools from selecting their students, a limitation that reflects, once again, the educational and political establishment's terror of anything that violates egalitarianism.

New York exists, however, to be a stage for the world's greatest musicians, actors, financiers, chefs, and designers—why not also for the greatest students? "Come to New York and win an Intel Science Talent Search scholarship," ads aimed at persuading out- of-staters to move to the city could read. Intellectual elitism was for decades a source of pride in New York; once that ideal became a target of resentment, the city lost one of its most powerful economic and cultural engines.

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