Should schools group students by ability/performance?

Yesterday, I emailed my mom and cousins this interesting article, titled “Diversity Debate Convulses Elite High School,” about Hunter College High School in Manhattan:

As has happened at other prestigious city high schools that use only a test for admission, the black and Hispanic population at Hunter has fallen in recent years…. This past year, it was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic; the balance was 47 percent Asian and 41 percent white, with the other 8 percent of students identifying themselves as multiracial. The public school system as a whole is 70 percent black and Hispanic.

My cousin — who has worked for decades with New York City high schoolers, most from poorer backgrounds, at the by-students-for-students newspaper he founded — wrote a long, thoughtful response to the article. He began, “I’m opposed to these elite tax-payer funded enclaves, in principle. In practice, I suspect they cannot even be defended on educational grounds.” I haven’t asked his permission to post, so I won’t post his email. But here’s my reply:

I’m much more in favor of separating students according to motivation, curiosity and ability, so I’m curious to understand better your opposition.

Should Down Syndrome children be mainstreamed? Should dyslexic students be denied special attention to their special needs? If you answered “no” to either of these, then is it not hypocritical to ignore the special needs of students at the other tail of the Bell Curve of ability/interest/motivation/curiosity?

When teachers lavish disproportionate effort and attention on average students or, even worse, the poorest performers (thanks to No Child Left Behind and its pass/fail test scoring), millions of naturally bright, motivated, curious kids grow bored and — at best — yawn their way through school and — at worst — become delinquents or drop out. I survived school, but I spent my freshman year of high school reading John Dewey and Ted Sizer because I was frustrated as heck at many of the stultifying teaching practices I was suffering under (like having to copy twenty dictionary definitions by hand every week, even though I already knew nineteen of the words). And this was in a top public school which separated students into three levels.

I’m curious whether your opposition to separating students out is due to:

  1. The invalidity/unfairness of the methods by which students are being assessed for segregation;

  2. The unfairness of unequal environments to which students are exposed prior to assessment;

  3. The unfairness of segregating students by accident of genetic lottery (I’ve recently read several books that argue quite persuasively that genetic endowment is totally overblown as a success factor in many endeavors, but it’s clearly true that some students are more attentive, more motivated, quicker to grasp concepts, etc. and at least some of this is probably genetic);

  4. The belief that all students benefit from being in heterogeneous school environments;

  5. The belief that even top students do not benefit from segregation by achievement;

  6. The fear that taking the better students out of ordinary schools will harm those schools;

  7. Concern that special schools breed elitism and prevent students at elite schools from understanding the needs and backgrounds of non-elites.

And/or do you also have other concerns?

I’m greatly bothered by the unequal opportunities given to children (as well as the poor teaching). But should a child with a 160 IQ really be forced to sit in the same classroom as another kid with, say, an 80 IQ? Which is more relevant: that the students are equal in chronological age or that one student is intellectually twice as old as the other?

I’m not sure these elite schools breed more elitist students. When you’re surrounded by brilliant people, you tend to feel less brilliant. Wouldn’t such students be more inclined to feel exceptional if surrounded by ordinary students?

American culture exerts tremendous pressure on top students to perform less well. In many predominantly black communities, I’ve read, good students are attacked — sometimes physically — by their classmates and other kids in the neighborhood for “acting white.” And even in the mostly white town I grew up in with its excellent schools, kids were often put down as “nerds” or “geeks” or “dweebs” or “dorks” simply because they worked hard in school. The jocks sat atop the pecking order. Were this China, where top students are looked up to, rather than spat upon, I would look more favorably on the everyone-in-one-classroom approach.

Your question about whether elite schools boost student performance relative to what those students would have achieved elsewhere is very interesting, and I’m not aware of any controlled studies on this topic. While I’m inclined to agree that the educational boost such schools provide is overblown because they begin with very capable students, I doubt the students gain nothing from being with similarly motivated and capable students. And, if they truly don’t benefit from it, it’s likely the fault of the school. The International Baccalaureate program, for example, provides high school students with an exceptional, challenging education. But many high school students simply aren’t capable of (and/or motivated to) working and thinking and writing at the level required to thrive in an IB program, which requires hard work and creativity. College admissions offices prefer IB graduates, and IB graduates outperform their non-IB classmates in college. But you can’t run a successful IB program in high school that includes every high school student. So, if schools like Hunter are failing to provide a superior education, that’s an indictment of Hunter, not the idea of segregating students by ability/effort per se.

As to the importance of understanding people from other backgrounds, I thoroughly agree. But I think this is an argument for scoring admission tests by race and economic status. Instead of letting in anyone scoring 150 or higher, let in the top 3% of low-income Whites, the top 3% of middle-income Whites, the top 3% of high-income Whites, the top 3% of low-income Asians, etc. This is more likely to identify the truly gifted, as opposed to those who have benefited most from exceptional upbringings. This is, to some extent, the system China uses for university admissions. The cut-off scores for admission to various universities vary according to where you live. Students from regions with poorer school systems get in with lower scores than students from regions with better schools.

Finally, I believe our schools, on the whole, stink. Except in the wealthiest communities (where many teachers earn six figures), we underfund them. And the teaching profession has done embarrassingly little to determine what constitutes quality teaching and to help teachers become more effective teachers. I suspect part of the fear of elite schools is that better teachers will gravitate to the better schools with their easier-to-teach students. That’s a legitimate concern. But the most capable teachers generally work in the wealthier school districts. And, I suspect, the prospect of teaching better students at these elite schools attracts better teachers who might not otherwise work in the city’s schools at all.

I also sent this:

You argue that “schools like this also rob all the other schools in the city of quirky, high achieving role models and leaders” while also arguing that “I suspect [such schools] cannot even be defended on educational grounds.”

These seem contradictory positions. If the presence of quirky, high-achieving role models benefits average and below-average students, then why wouldn’t quirky, high-achieving role models benefit one another?

Several former classmates/friends from my economics PhD days research student, teacher and school performance, taking into account the ability of families to move and/or send their children to private/parochial/charter schools (; I haven’t read their papers, but I recall them talking about the huge importance of “peer effects.”

I haven’t read the literature, but there is evidence for peer effects:

If peer effects are real, we face a moral/political choice: Do we group by ability/performance, thus benefiting the better students, or throw everyone together, harming the better students and benefiting the poorer students?

Posted by James on Friday, August 06, 2010