Here are two interesting sets of numbers for Brooklyn Tech, one of the New York City high schools where entrance has been determined by competitive examination. First, by race: the population is 61% Asian, 24% white, and 15% Black and Latino, when Black and Latino students comprise a majority of the system. But also, 63% of the student population is economically disadvantaged, and the most disadvantaged racial group is the Asians. (New York Times)
Brooklyn Tech is full of immigrants and immigrants' children, from all over the world. Many of those immigrant families are quite poor in dollar terms. A majority of Brooklyn Tech's Asian students speak a language other than English at home. They do not see themselves as "privileged"; they see entrance to an elite high school as their ticket out of poverty, and it has indeed worked that way for thousands.
Arguments about these schools have a way of devolving into fights about race and racism, but the debate also raises fundamental questions about education. For example, what is education for?
A certain sort of educational system sees its mission as winnowing: such a school separates out the few who will rise to the top from the rest, and sends the losers toward menial jobs. A different model is that the schools are supposed to lift up everybody. Obviously modern public school systems have tried to do both, but emphasizing one approach makes a big difference. In the US, schools make much use of gifted and talented programs, pulling the best students out for advanced instruction. But globally many systems do not do this; instead they get the advanced students to tutor their slower peers, with the goal of raising up everyone. In the US, studies have regularly shown that slow students do better in classrooms that also include much better students, poor students do better in classrooms that include richer students, and Black students do better in classrooms that are not all Black. On the other hand, studies also show that students in gifted and talented programs end up going to higher-tier colleges and making more money. Who should sacrifice for whom?
You can see this argument in its starkest form when the subject is math. Some elite mathematicians are already doing cutting edge work by the time they are 18, so making them sit in classes with non-mathematical kids might be a big waste of their time. At a somewhat lower level, it is very difficult to get into a college engineering or science program if you did not have Calculus in high school, but most high school students have no interest in that level of math, and despite what certain educational theorists like to say, I do not believe all students could do it even if they tried. And why should they try? I am a quasi scientist and sometimes use statistics in my job, but I haven't used calculus since I finished my high school class. Some people say we should cultivate mathematicians and scientists the same way we cultivate young athletes, using talent scouts to spot them young and then pulling them into special programs with other elite prospects. That would probably be the best way to create more Nobel Prize winners; but is that our goal?
I see the fight over elite public high schools as a fight over what all schools are for. Those who defend these schools see education as providing pathways for the ambitious to achieve excellence; "realize your dreams" might be their slogan. They also tend to think that the economic future of the nation depends heavily on the achievements of elite engineers and managers. Those who resist elite schools think that the main mission of education should be equality, or maybe justice. They resist the whole notion of separating or winnowing, and think we should all rise or fall together.