It doesn’t matter where your kid goes to school

By Felix Salmon
August 17, 2011
paper from Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua Angrist, and Parag Pathak, is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere today. (An ungated version is here; see commentary from Mathews, Yglesias, and Salam.)

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“The Elite Illusion”, a new paper from Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua Angrist, and Parag Pathak, is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere today. (An ungated version is here; see commentary from Mathews, Yglesias, and Salam.)

The main lesson of the paper — which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest — is that students at highly-selective schools, like Stuyvesant in New York or Boston Latin, don’t seem to perform any better than students who might well have gone to those schools but didn’t. In other words, the outperformance of such schools on tests is a function of how selective they are; it’s not a function of how good the teaching is.

A couple of points are worth making here. First is the difference between selective public exam schools, on the one hand, and selective private schools, on the other. The latter are much more expensive, both for parents and on a cost-per-student basis. Reihan Salam is also right that when it comes to hiring teachers, public schools have lots of bureaucratic nightmares that private schools can often avoid.

That said, the lesson of this paper is emphatically not that you’d be better off sending your kid to a private school than to a public exam school. You wouldn’t — as the exam results alone indicate. There aren’t a lot of studies of public vs private schools, but the ones which do exist generally show no difference at all in educational outcome, once you control for the socio-economic status of the kids being admitted. Essentially: middle-class kids who grow up with two well-educated parents and lots of books around the house will generally do very well in school no matter where they go.

This new paper shows that there’s not much difference between public schools, either — even though everybody “knows” that the highly-selective exam schools are better than the alternatives, and many parents will only send their kids to a public school if they get in to one of the very selective ones.

That said, Salam — who went to Stuyvesant — does make one good point which undercuts slightly the thrust of the paper:

The 100 most competitive students at Stuyvesant were indeed very competitive, with almost all attending selective schools, etc. The least competitive students fared less well… I was one of them, incidentally, and I clawed my way out with the help of a few people who continue to be my closest friends, all of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.*

He then quotes Jesse Anttila-Hughes, who teases out the implications of the study, which looked at the kids near the cut-off (she’s he’s one of them), not the brightest kids in the school. The study is essentially taking the experience of kids who are in the bottom 10% of Stuyvesant, and comparing them to kids who are in the top 10% elsewhere. If you’ve ever been a kid, you’ll know that massive difference in relative ability will have enormous repercussions when it comes to your educational outcomes.

Anttila-Hughes continues:

A major reason specialized schools exist is not to help marginal kids do better but to allow superstar kids to do extraordinarily well. Stuy is famously referred to as a “haven for nerds” and like many top schools succeeds by virtue of giving driven and talented kids the chance to do what they want and the resources to do so… I strongly suspect that the causal effect of going to the school is hugely nonlinear in ability.

This might be true — but on the other hand, it might not be. Nerds flourish in the most unlikely places (like Far Rockaway High School), and while there’s a high density of nerds at Stuyvesant, we’d need another study to show how they fare there compared to elsewhere.

In general I think that the obsession over the relative merits of different schools is a classic example of the narcissism of small differences. Some kids fit in much better at this school than at that one — and just as many would be better off at that one rather than this one. There’s no easy way of generalizing, no sense in which School A is in general a significantly “better school” than School B. When it comes to educational outcomes, by far the most important factors determining them are external to the school — the kid’s health, wealth, and home surroundings. And most important of all, of course, is the character and personality of the individual person being educated — something which is much more innate than subject to shaping.

So if your kid doesn’t get in to Stuyvesant, it’s no bad thing — in fact, it might well be a good thing, given that your kid would probably in that case have been near the bottom of the Stuyvesant class. And before you shell out on school fees, ask yourself whether the money wouldn’t be better spent on other forms of education — books, computers, travel, theater, and the like. School’s important. But it’s not nearly as important as most middle-class parents think it is.

*Update: Apologies to Reihan Salam: this is a misleading ellipsis. He was one of the bottom half of Stuyvesant students, not one of the least competitive students in the whole school. He emails to say that “unfortunately, I think it would’ve been far harder for me to get from, say, the tenth percentile to a stronger position than from the 50th percentile”.

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