A major downside to opening up boutique schools with special programs and higher expectations is that some children will inevitably be left behind. What becomes of them?

Victor Harbison, a Chicago teacher, grapples with this question on a post on Nicholas Kristoff’s New York Times blog today. Selective schools offer opportunities for top students, Harbison writes, but they also cause less motivated or skilled students to be concentrated in non-selective schools, making it harder for those schools to succeed. He writes:

When educational leaders decided to create magnet schools, they didn’t just get it wrong, they got it backwards. They pulled out the best and brightest from our communities and sent them away. The students who are part of the “great middle” now find themselves in an environment where the peers who have the greatest influence in their school are the least positive role models.

Schools adapted, and quickly. We tightened security, installed metal detectors, and adopted ideas like zero-tolerance. And neighborhood schools, without restrictive admission policies based on test scores, quickly spiraled downward …

Imagine if pulling out the “bottom ten” had been the policy for the past 30 years. Neighborhood schools could have purred along like the go-go 90’s under Clinton and the students with the greatest needs, facing the greatest challenges, would have had millions of dollars in resources devoted to their education in brand new state-of-the-art buildings (with Ivy League-educated, amazing teachers, no doubt). …

I look forward to the arguments defending magnet schools. They are legion and many are spot on. That is, if you can live with the idea of condemning the vast majority of students in your community to sub-standard schools.

There’s an extensive discussion of this phenomenon, which critics call “creaming,” going on elsewhere on our site. Read more here, here, and here.