Selective high schools’ elite illusion

Why competitive schools may not benefit poor students

children at school looking at a computer
Children at school (photo by Lucélia Ribeiro, Creative Commons sharealike 2.0)

We discovered this past year that the rich and famous poured millions of dollars into the coffers of elite universities in order to get their kids into prestigious institutions that they didn’t deserve. What exactly were they buying? 

It hasn’t taken long for the same questions to arise on the value of selective public high schools. Nowhere has the debate been greater than in New York City where Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed dramatically changing the process of getting into its most elite city high schools, maybe eliminating them entirely along with stand-alone gifted and talented programs.

New research is raising serious questions as to whether such elite schools even help economically disadvantaged students. Such schools might even be detrimental to some students’ academic development.

This might be of some passing interest for us in Wisconsin except that one study includes Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

Elite, exam and selective schools are pretty much the same type of schools. All require some sort of entrance exam, class ranking and/or a high grade point average. Other common requirements are letters of recommendation, attendance, an interview and an essay written by the student.

Chicago has a complicated entrance system which gives points for underserved ethnic groups, poorer schools and geographic distribution. The goal is  to have elite schools accurately reflect the district’s socioeconomic and ethnic diversity. In that respect, Chicago has been fairly successful.

New York’s Stuyvesant High School falls at the other end of the diversity spectrum. Its incoming 2019 freshman class of 900 included only seven black students. All eight NYC elite schools rely heavily on a single standardized test. When Mayor de Blasio tried to change the entrance system, some Asian families quickly sued. 

What the research is telling us

Entrance requirements do not always result in choosing students who are most likely to be successful or benefit from being in an elite school.

Kevin Mahnken in a September 2019 article for LA School Report outlines numerous research studies that confirm that students who barely make the cutoff  to get into an elite school often do worse academically and career-wise than those who missed the cutoff and attended second-tier high schools. The same outcomes are found in other studies that examined students trying to get into elite colleges and universities.

This is also true for Chicago’s elite schools that attempt to have racial and economic diversity. Writes Mahnken, “Two studies… show that students at Chicago’s selective enrollment high schools see no improvement in their test scores. In fact, academic records show that they earned worse grades and GPAs than their peers who were rejected from the schools.”

That might make sense since students in elite schools are in a more competitive environment. But Mahnken goes on to say, “Disturbingly, they were also less likely to enroll at selective colleges than similar kids who weren’t offered admission to an elite high school.”

In 2014, research done for Econometrica coined the term “Elite Illusion” looking at the admission cutoffs at Boston’s and New York City’s over-subscribed exam schools. Researchers concluded that, while the majority of students in elite high schools have good outcomes, “…most of these students would likely have done well without the benefit of an exam school education.” In other words, they came in as high-flying students, and they stayed that way.

No one knows why elite schools do so little to raise academic achievement and why such schools might be even harmful to students who just make the cutoff line regardless of race, sex or economic status.

Some theories suggest that we make too much of the role schools play. We know that the greatest predictor of educational advancement is a  student’s family income and parents’ level of education. Students who are high-flyers in elite schools may just get more attention from their teachers while students who just made the cut-off get ignored. Students who just missed the cut are closer to the high-flying status in second-tier schools, and now they get more attention in their second-tier schools.

There may also be a mindset among  staff members at elite schools that works against these kids. The elite schools weeded out the students who they thought wouldn’t be successful. Now it was up to the students to make their mark, no excuses.

Milwaukee’s elite schools

I remember asking one MPS principal at an elite school how they handled a student who just wasn’t living up to potential, perhaps missing school and not getting homework done. I was shocked at the answer: “We tell them to shape up. We have a long waiting list, and if they can’t cut it, we can replace them with someone else.”

Thankfully that was a number of years ago, and virtually all principals I have talked to within the last couple of years from MPS elite schools talk about getting down to the root problems students might be having with positive interventions wherever possible.

In July 2019, Richard Reeves and Ashley Schobert did an analysis for Brookings  of high schools with entrance requirements for eight major cities including Milwaukee. 

The school system which did the best at reflecting the economic and racial makeup of the city was Chicago. Boston and New York were the worst. Milwaukee and Philadelphia schools were more representative of the demographics of their areas  than most other large city districts in the study. It must be noted that the Reeves and Schobert study relied on U.S. Department of Education data from 2015, and we don’t know when that data was collected.

Reeves and Schobert and MPS list five select criteria high schools. According to MPS, they are Rufus King, Golda Meir, Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Ronald Reagan and Riverside.

All MPS students must take a proctored essay test in eighth grade. Additional points are given for outcomes on report cards, attendance, and reading/English Language Arts and math standardized tests. King and Reagan give an additional point if the students were part of a middle school International Baccalaureate program. Meir includes a point for letters of recommendation, Riverside gives a point if the student lives in the school’s attendance area. All schools give a point for sibling preference, meaning, if one child attends the school, another child from the same family is given additional consideration. Students wishing to attend Milwaukee High School of the Arts must participate in an audition; creative writing students must submit samples of their writings.

Needless to say, the more complicated the entrance requirements, the more likely it is that children from households with less income and education are also less likely to meet the entrance criteria. A high percentage of MPS employees also have their children in these select criteria schools. That isn’t because they are cheating; rather they better understand how the system works.

Parents who are ‘in the know’

This is even true on the elementary level. How many parents know that, if you want to get your child into a top Montessori program, you need to apply when your child is just two years old? If you want to self-select your child for a gifted and talented program, you really need to apply in the second grade?

MPS Superintendent Posley admits that a higher percentage of students from MPS employee families attend the most MPS prestigious schools. However, he points out that the school system has simplified the entrance system, at least on the high school level, to ensure more students can gain entrance to elite high schools. That includes using existing student achievement data and having the same application deadline for all high schools.

Milwaukee’s elite high schools have a student body that is more white and higher income than the rest of the school system. This is shown in the district’s own data and Reeves and Schobert’s analysis. Reeves and Schobert show that, while 83% of the district’s high school students are economically disadvantaged, that drops to 65% in its elite schools. According to the district’s state report cards for Milwaukee’s two selective International Baccalaureate high schools, Rufus King has a percentage of economic disadvantaged students of 50.2%; Ronald Reagan is at 60.6%.

We must remember that there is a huge range of incomes when we refer to students as economically disadvantaged. At one end we have the working poor, who may own an automobile, meet the monthly rent and put food on the table. At the other end are the truly destitute, who own no transportation, are often evicted, whose children have little more than the clothes on their backs and have little more to eat than what is provided at school. It is the destitute who are least likely to attend elite schools.

Family income and parents’ educational background may be, once again, a greater determiner of getting into an elite school than anything else. If one is looking for elite schools using these criteria, one only has to look to higher income suburbs. Only a few miles from Rufus King, Whitefish Bay High School has only a tiny number of  economically disadvantaged students at 2.1%. Ethnic minority students can attend richer suburban schools using the open enrollment process, but they must provide their own transportation, something the poorest of the poor cannot afford to do.

Nor does every suburban high school rise to economic elite status. Cudahy has 59.2% and West Allis Central has 62.7% students who are economically disadvantaged, higher than Rufus King.

The rich and powerful can buy their way into elite universities; they do the same with economically elite high schools by having the economic means to buy an expensive home in a richer suburban district.

Reeves and Schobert conclude “Milwaukee schools – select criteria schools included – produce some of the most significant racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in the U.S.”

The real role Milwaukee’s elite high schools may play is keeping a segment of the working and middle class of all races in the school system. Without these schools segregating themselves off from the poorest of the poor, these parents would flee to the suburban schools like so many before them.

How can we do better?

New York City is finding it is nearly impossible to get rid of elite high schools. But if we can’t get rid of elite schools, let us at least stop expanding their numbers and instead improve all other high schools. Reeves and Schobert suggest how we can reform the system:

All eighth graders should take the elite school entrance exam, not just those who want to go to those schools. That way the district can identify the students, not waiting for parents to self-identify their children. Why does a district even need a proprietary test at all?  Its elite schools state that these unique tests give them more usable information, but most districts already have a wealth of information from other tests. These unique tests do a better job of screening out parents and students who lack an understanding of how the system works and are least likely to jump through the required hoops.

MPS no longer requires a proprietary test and a proctored essay taken on a non-school day. Now MPS requires all students to write an essay in the school they are currently attending. The district uses existing test data instead of an additional exam. The school system can identify the students most likely to do well in an elite school without parents jumping through additional hoops, but some hoops still exist and students still must apply to these elite schools. MPS does not directly invite students to attend an elite high school.

Improving nonselective schools

Other districts around the country have chosen top students from each elementary and middle school rather than selecting students system-wide. That would limit students coming from a handful of elementary and middle schools in order to achieve the most diverse student body.  That would also make some of the less prestigious lower grade schools more desirable to attend.  

Reeves and Schobert also recommend that more effort should be given to increase the quality of education in nonselective high schools. That would include adding a whole range of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and providing extra learning opportunities for less advantaged students.

MPS Riverside High School already offers a wealth of AP classes as an elite school. MPS is increasing offering these classes in other schools, but more could be done. In general, the district understands there is a gap between what is offered in its elite high schools and the rest of the district. Posley points to recent school board actions to improve academic equity especially in the arts and music throughout the MPS system.

Do students who barely make it into an elite MPS high school actually do worse than their peers who just missed the cut? Posley states that the district does not track student achievement at that level of detail, but he believes that a deeper dive into achievement might be worthwhile given the recent research.

For the most part, we have zeroed in on Milwaukee Public Schools, but an even larger gap exists even between Milwaukee’s elite high schools and high schools in higher income suburban school districts.

Concludes Reeves and Schobert, “…the goal is to get more children from less advantaged backgrounds above the admissions bar, rather than changing the bar itself. As such, they are likely to have relatively modest effects given the stark disparities by race, income level, and geography in these cities.”

The key word here is “modest.” Milwaukee sticks out because it is Wisconsin’s largest district with the greatest number of students in need. Students who are being shortchanged exist throughout the state, from one district to another, often within the same district.

To solve these disparities will require more than modest actions.