Have your considered the possibility that exam schools don't make a difference for marginal candidates but they are important for non-marginal ones? One of the advantages of a school like Bronx Science, is that you have enough kids to run a more advanced curriculum then you could In an ordinary neighborhood school. Maybe moving from the top of your neighborhood school to the bottom of a magnet school is a wash, but moving from the top of your neighborhood school to the top third of a magnet school is a big upgrade due to curriculum effects.

Expand full comment

Having gone to one of these schools, subjectively it was hugely beneficial. These studies are a useful warning that maybe our intuitions aren't right, but I think the evidence needs to be a lot stronger before we completely dismiss the intuitions of students, parents, and teachers.

My experience was that the exam high school provided me at least three major benefits.

First, it was the only time in my academic career where I actually was challenged and had to work hard. I coasted in middle school and at a very selective--but not quite elite--university I easily coasted as well. Upon first going to high school, I had a really hard time forcing myself to do homework and it took a year or two to fully get with the program. When I entered the work force, I was able to be productive right away having learned this lesson.

Socially, it's the only time in my life where I was always a mediocre performer compared to the people around me, and I think that went along way to teaching me some humility (maybe not enough given the claim I'm making here...) that has served me well in life.

And finally, my particular school forced me to many, many presentations. I was shy and had a really difficult time with this. I was made completely miserable by it, actually. But now I am successful at a job that requires me to periodically speak to hundreds of people and present to executives. I guess I would have gotten to the same place eventually, but the practice of hundreds of presentations surely sped the process along. Maybe this would have happened at an ordinary high school, but I doubt it.

Anyway, I think it might both be the case that (a) these are real and valuable benefits conferred upon me by the exam high school and (b) they would not show up in studies like this, unless perhaps it's a thirty year study tracking full career and family outcomes.

Expand full comment

The misguided exam school debate

Matthew Yglesias

4 hr ago



Selective public high schools have few Black and Hispanic students — there's also no evidence these schools are any good

Read →

Write a comment…

2 new replies

Roryjust now

Once again... another subject that I love. The only benefit to gifted or exam schools is acceleration.

Raising 9 kids (5 mine, 4 step-kids)... don't judge me, and having lived all over due to the military, I have experienced multiple school systems.

Gifted programs come in two flavors... enrichment and acceleration.

Enrichment... basically you take the same course in the same amount of time (i.e. Algebra I in year), but they dig deeper (think Honors Algebra 1)... or as I like to put it... they just give you more homework.

At the end of the year, the gifted student is really no further along than anyone else, learned the same things at the same time.

Acceleration... basically you take the same course, but sped up. Think Algebra I in a semester instead of a year. These are actually useful.

An example: So last year, my 8th grader had ran out of Math courses at her Middle School. She had finished Algebra 1 in 7th grade, and they didn't have a Geometry or Algebra II teacher at the Middle School for her in 8th Grade.

Instead, they had her and two other boys sit in the Library during a period, and she took Honors Algebra on the South Carolina State Virtual Website or thing.

The course was meant to last the whole school year, but here is the thing... it was mastery based, so you could progress through it at your own pace.

My daughter finished it by Christmas, and asked me if she could take Geometry as well. I said, hell yeah... go girl power... women is Stem... so I called up the school district.

Dude... they were so resistive. Apparently no one had taken two courses in a semester. They tried to warn me that it could affect her class standing if she didnt get 100%, all sorts of other excuses.

Finally because I'm a pitbull, I got them to agree to let her enroll, but I had to get the Assistant District Superintendent to approve it.

It was a mistake... she failed miserably.

Kidding... of course she kicked ass. She had it finished by April with a 99%.

The point is, the system is set up to put the brakes on kids.

The whole experience has sold me on the value of self-paced learning those who are motivated.

Since this is best given virtually, along with mentors/proctors, anyone who had the motivation would benefit from it.

Instead of a test score to get into a school, make these self-paced courses widely available. That way if a kid didn't score some arbitrary test score, but was highly motivated, they could still choose to take the self-paced course.

One possible benefit of exam schools is availability of classes. I've had multiple kids run out of math classes to take their senior year of High School. Dual enrollment programs fix this, but it depends on access to a local college, and then there is schedule and transportation issues.

Oh yeah, if you are wondering how I found time to write this with so many kids, I have no idea. Luckily all but three are grown.

Have a great day nerds.

Expand full comment

"attending a highly selective university is generally not beneficial except for students from disadvantaged backgrounds"

It's really hard to believe this. In my field (programming/CS), top companies tend to recruit at the top schools. Presumably this makes getting a job at a top company easier if you went to a top school. Also, people reading resumes are impressed by top schools. I assume other fields do similar things. These seem like they would produce obvious advantages to going to top schools.

You might be able to tell a story where it doesn't matter for the marginal admits who regression discontinuity usually studies. For a marginal admit, they'll be more job fairs, but the internal competition will be stiffer - and so maybe all the benefit of the recruiting will be captured by your stronger classmates. And you might stand out more at a less selective school.

But this would still imply that top students should go to selective schools. It would just be a limitation of the research, that they can only look at people who barely made it in to top schools because those are the only people with an adequate non-top-school comparison group.

Expand full comment

Matt, would have you had the same experience if you didn't go to Harvard, but was instead just the smart kid at Florida state?

Expand full comment

I'm not a super woke person, maybe call me half-woke? But I also don't get mad about it usually... when friends complain about the leftist woke mob, the most you'll usually get from me is an eye-roll and a "I know some of it's dumb, but it also doesn't really matter, does it?"

That said, the Gabriela Lopez interview made me insane and I'm furious that you linked to it, Matt. She's completely gone.

Expand full comment

I'm largely in agreement with our host here, so I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent.

Let's stipulate that even contra the statistical evidence, super-selective public high schools like Lowell and Stuyvesant (and Philadelphia Central, Ann Arbor Community, Boston Latin etc) are a net benefit to their students.


Stuyvesant has a _3%_ admissions rate. Even granting the frankly dubious premise that any random student in the New York public school system who was interested in the task could not manage the coursework at Stuy given adequate support, it defies belief that _only_ those 3% are capable of doing so. In fact, given that Stuy will happily offer spots to previously-excluded freshmen when a kid from the incoming class moves or decides at the last minute to go to a different school, we can safely conclude that nobody in the school administration believes that either: quite obviously there is a wide tranche of students who by any measure are qualified for the program but who had to be excluded for the simple reason that there wasn't space for them.

This is the logic of an exclusive restaurant: there are only 20 tables available per night, no more and no less, and the cachet of being one of the very few to be there is just as much of the appeal as the food and wine. But that's an insane approach to take to primary education. The model here shouldn't be the French Laundry, it should be McDonalds: we know what works and what people want, so just sign up as many franchisees as possible.

A single-digit admissions rate at a public school isn't a sign of success, it's a screaming indicator of dismal failure: if there are ten times as many kids who desire and are capable of doing the Stuyvesant curriculum than there are spaces at Stuyvesant, the solution is to _build more Stuyvesants_ or turn existing schools _into_ Stuyvesants. The textbooks exist, the lesson plans exist, there is absolutely no magic here: just give them to more teachers.

Expand full comment

I was a "gifted" student in public schools. A problem I faced was boredom, arising mainly from the need to educate the less rapidly-learning majority. I had a few "accelerated" classes (especially math) where the quality of teacher, the content of the subject, and my own competencies meshed, and these were transformative for me and a number of my friends. I don't think this can be dismissed as "maybe programs for AG kids might help underprivileged children of special abilities," since I wasn't underprivileged. My story represents a tiny minority of the school population, but the lesson might be important, since on average the very best students make outsized contributions to society.

Expand full comment

"The same Barrow, Sartain, and de la Torre study cited above showed that...they subjectively enjoyed their high school experience more."

I've said this before, but SUBJECTIVE ENJOYMENT MATTERS. For high-school students, high school is *their actual life*, happening at a formative moment in their life, and nobody's clamoring to give them other options. Teenagers are people. People like interesting classes and peers that share their interests. We should care about this regardless of whether it improves test scores. It's not that complicated.

...And also, if the students did enjoy their experience more, maybe your first suspicion should be that they're correctly detecting something about its positive life impact that the measures in your study are missing...not that you, wise economist, must know better than them?

Expand full comment

The problem with most of the studies is that they're really only obliquely focusing on the actual benefit of selective high schools, GT programs, etc., which is that they advance attainment of *knowledge* in time, sparing kids from wasting time in classes where they are learning nothing.

For the same reason, a GT program or selective high school should not really take much more resources to run than a regular high school, because the primary value add is concentrating enough students in one building to be able to offer advanced classes.

I went to Northern Virginia's tech magnet and it gave me a lot of benefits that would never show up under these measures. In particular, because I was there I was able to take, after calculus, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and numerical analysis. That's two years of coursework I was able to do before college, freeing me up to take more advanced courses sooner (and thus at a minimum saving me tuition money!) None of these classes would ever show up in any math aptitude test like the SAT or even the SAT 2 (which only goes up to Algebra 2 / Trig, which I had already taken before high school). The classes weren't designed to increase my math aptitude, which at that point was as realized as it was going to get. They were designed to teach me actual useful information, much of which I use daily in my career.

The only reason I was able to take these courses was because of the existence of a selective high school. When I took it, I think the differential equations class only had one section, and they actually had a professor from a neighboring college to come in to teach it. That's twenty-odd individuals who would have had to either bus themselves individually to the local college or not take math that semester, in the absence of a magnet school.

I don't think there's any good reason to not provide this service when there is a clear benefit and it doesn't really cost more money.

Expand full comment

I’m a high school math teacher and my district only has one high school, so while this is interesting to read about, it doesn’t directly apply to any questions we face.

It does have parallels to an issue we debate frequently, which is whether or not we should have an advanced math track. The school has gotten rid of tracking in all subjects except for math. We are very racially diverse and have a very large (largest in the nation I’ve heard?) racial achievement gap. The racial sorting that happens between advanced math and standard math (which is college prep and totally fine) is extreme. Many want to get rid of advanced math all together, but there is a powerful voice in the community demanding to keep it. This voice is very privileged and mostly white.

I am interested in evidence based takes on this issue that can help move the conversation in a constructive direction. I’m curious what of these studies Matt and the community think might apply to this specific situation, or if there are others about the benefits or lack thereof of tracking math at a high school.

Expand full comment

The issue with the selective high schools is not academic but behavioral. The incredible hurdle of the testing and the burden of the commute is assurance that when all is done, the kids who make the arbitrary cut are by definition kids whose parents really care about education, and are going to be with other kids whose parents also really care about education.

Even if my smart kid could do well in another type of academic environment, as a parent I would feel there to be a developmental benefit in being in an environment where everyone is on board in really valuing education. I would appreciate that assurance, and I wouldn’t care to much about offering up my kid’s life up to a broader social end. Selfish, yes, but parents will die for their children, so participating this socially imperfect system would just not be a heavy lift for me. And there are lots of people who feel that way in this country. That’s the reality that policymakers must take into account if they want to change the system. They have to build on, not tear down.

The fact that there are many more gifted and talented children out there, especially Black and Latino children, who are being missed and are not being served by the current selective system is just ample reason for establishing many more such institutions, at all levels, selected by more effective means, and that they should be established in black and brown neighborhoods so the students don’t have to commute unreasonable distances. Those institutions will be racially segregated given the size of the city and its residential patterns, but if the smart kids of color thrive in them, what difference does that make?

Many people suggest that grouping high-capability kids doesn’t matter. I disagree with this, and my view comes first from personal experience of being a good student in an egalitarian culture (white, Midwestern) that that did not value education, and how I had to struggle with that even while excelling academically. It informs my perspective that the developmental and cultural aspect is as important as the academic aspect that is focus of the studies. And maybe establishing more G&T programs would help urban educators to concentrate on (and being accountable for) teaching ordinary and difficult students more effectively. If so, that would be a major social benefit. We already know how to teach smart kids.

In New York where I live, professional- and middle-class parents trying to use the public schools have a very narrow path to tread in the system. And it is not because they object to black and brown children in the seats next to their kids. They do object to the behavior of the poor students that would isolate and far outnumber their kids in the average public school. But most of all they object to the complete inability of the City public school system to manage educational and social needs that are so disparate, and to serve those children whose parents who really care about education.

The “common school” idea works when there is some level of homogeneity and community consensus (think of the one-room schoolhouse with the bell, the historical symbol of our American democracy). Suburban schools work on that basis, they force commonality through the real estate market at various income levels and reflecting the various norms of the families. But big cities have always had different types of education for different classes and types of people. The test schools are remnants of what used to exist in all big cities and were innovative in that they provided public support for a type of education previously accessible only to well-off people who could afford exclusionary private schools or tutoring at home. In that sense, they are also part of American democracy. Two schools in a city of 8 million are not a bad thing to preserve.

Expand full comment

Inclined to agree but wonder the degree to which your/their conclusions are driven by experimental design. Regression discontinuity design relies on outcomes for marginal students on each side of the test score cutoff. These schools may be a wash for these students but may potentially be beneficial for higher performing students. Easy to see that being the case, just as it’s easy to see it not being the case

Expand full comment

Some level of sorting seems necessary once you hit around 7th grade, even if it's just sorting kids within the same school. At that age the distribution of math and reading skills is just too wide for a single curriculum to make sense. What does the literature say about within-school tracking (e.g. honors/AP math, history, english, etc...)? That's probably a more common pattern than separate G&T schools.

Expand full comment

Nice post.

Don’t have time to do the research, but I thought a lot of the studies that basically said “Hey parents, don’t sweat the parenting details as much because they don’t have much long term impact on your child.” Stated that peer group effects were more important (except in cases of gross neglect/abuse)?

So parenting doesn’t matter, AND peer group doesn’t matter?

Also I thought there was data showing minorities moving into better neighborhoods after the fall of redlining showed their children were helped a great deal by the new environment? I assumed the main reason was the schools… is it not? Or is it that there is a big difference going from awful school to average school, but just not much going from mediocre to “great”?

Expand full comment

I have known a few teachers at the NYC selective schools, and it's even a joke among them that nobody knows if they are good or bad teachers. The students will do great no matter what in terms of college admissions, grades, etc because they are such a narrowly selected slice of the overall student body.

The selective high schools in NYC won't be going away any time soon. They are massively popular among Asian immigrant families. I lived in Queens for many years, and the tutoring places would pass out flyers on the street with pictures of awkward, smiling Chinese and Bangladeshi American teens and the schools they tested into.

There are also robust alumni networks for these schools that don't want them to change. It's sad, but it's not that rare to encounter somebody in their 40's or 50's that makes sure you know real quick that they went to Hunter or Stuyvesant.

Expand full comment