Charters & Choice

Exam Schools: The Ups and Downs of Selective Public High Schools

Exam Schools: The Ups and Downs of Selective Public High Schools

The plight of low-performing students dominates our education news and policies. Yet America's high flyers demand innovative, rigorous schooling as well, particularly if the country is to sharpen its economic and scientific edge. Motivated, high-ability youngsters can be served in myriad ways by public education, including schools that specialize in them. In a new book from Princeton University Press, Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools, co-authors Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett identify 165 such high schools across America.

In this Fordham LIVE! conversation, they and others will examine some of the issues that selective-admission public high schools pose. Who attends them? How are their students selected? Are such schools the future of gifted education or do they unfairly advantage a select few at the expense of most students? Just how different are they, anyway?

Authors Finn and Hockett will be joined by a pair of educators instrumental in the creation of two of the "exam schools" profiled in the book: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University and a key player in the establishment of D.C.'s selective School Without Walls, and Geoffrey Jones, founding principal of Alexandria's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

A huge part of my educational worldview is “sector agnosticism,” my disinterest in who runs schools as long as those schools are high performing. My new book is built around this philosophy; it argues for a new urban school system that assesses each school based on its performance and then applies strategies to schools based on their performance not on their operators.

Private schools should be part of the urban school system of the future.

Unlike so many others studying urban education, I believe that private schools should be part of this urban school system of the future. Per my axiom above, I don’t much care if an urban school is run by a private or religious organization if it gets great results for underserved kids and adheres to basic democratic, pluralistic principles.

But in the past when the state attempts to fold private schools into the mix via scholarship or tax-credit programs, public accountability is always the major stumbling block. Will participating private schools test students and report results? Will they test just the scholarship kids or all of their students? What test will they use? Will low-performance disqualify a private school from...

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett promised a school-choice juggernaut in the Keystone State when he campaigned for office two years ago. Not only has no crusade has ever come to pass, Corbett and the GOP-led state assembly let a modest charter school reform bill languish in the House recently without a vote. This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform. But, again, they failed.

This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform.

What’s worse, the bill the House killed had already been weakened through compromise. The effort to create an independent state board to authorize charters was removed to accommodate complaints for local school boards, which—with the exception of virtual schools—remain the sole charter authorizers in Pennsylvania. What was left was a commission to recommend a smarter funding strategy for charters, a provision to award high-performing charter schools with a ten-year  contract (up from five), an application of the state’s Ethics Act to charters, and a move to allow charter networks to oversee multiple schools with one board, among other things....

Anyone who cares about Catholic education ought to watch what’s happening in Philadelphia, not just because the archbishop there has turned twenty-one of his schools over to a private foundation, but because that foundation is applying business principles to schools that sorely need them.

Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

For starters, the Faith in the Future Foundation two weeks ago chose a longtime education and charter-school guru named Samuel Casey Carter to shepherd its new network of Catholic high schools to viability. Carter has a resume you don’t generally find in a school administrator, and he knows how to measure a school’s effectiveness in ways that would be lost on the typical bishop.

But, if they succeed, Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

One would be hard-pressed to find a diocese presently undertaking an analysis of the market conditions affecting its schools and its finances, but that’s precisely what Carter spent his first few days on the job developing. In a recent interview, he laid out a plan that would examine 1.)...

July brought us the annual U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract (flush with data on educational attainment, staffing, finances, etc.); October washed in the latest federal school-enrollment data. Once again, private-school enrollment suffers: Battered by a harsh economic climate, private-school enrollment has eroded precipitously in recent years. Since its high-water mark in 1965, enrollment in these schools has dropped by 2.2 million; since 2005, enrollment is down 12 percent. Now just 11 percent of students attend private or parochial schools. While Census data cannot show the reasons for these declines, the causes seem to be tripartite. Catholic-school enrollment has steadily decreased over the past few decades; in New York City, Catholic enrollment fell by over 14,500 over the past five years alone. This at the same time as the charter-school market share has steadily increased (particularly drawing students away from urban Catholic schools). And finally, enrollment in early-childhood education has largely shifted from a private- to public-school phenomenon. In 1965, the vast majority of nursery-school enrollments were private; by 2011, that percentage had dropped by over 34 points. (This while public-preschool enrollment jumped from 24 percent to nearly 59 percent.) And the trends...

The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed.

It must be replaced.

Given urban districts’ unblemished record of failure over generations, you’d think these statements would be widely accepted and represent the core of the education-reform strategy. But somehow, just about everyone working in this area assumes that the traditional school district is essential and immortal—that because of its age and standing, it must be the focus of reform. Few recognize the anachronism of a model created by historical circumstances—mass immigration, industrialization, and Progressive Era-idealism—rather than today’s social realities and educational priorities.

Where I Teach
Chartering provides a blueprint for the urban school system of the future.
Photo by Todd Ehlers.

I am convinced that the district is not part of the solution. It is the problem. Persistent low performance is the natural consequence of this institution that our predecessors placed at the heart of urban public schooling. No city will ever realize a renaissance in K-12 education...

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) represent the surest way to bring vouchers into the twenty-first century (and help immunize choice programs from Blaine Amendment-based court challenges), argues author Matt Ladner in this informative Friedman Foundation paper. First piloted in Arizona (at a scale much smaller than what Ladner proposes here), ESAs give parents the option to withdraw their children from public or charter schools, deposit the majority of their allotted public dollars into a designated account, and apply that money directly to any number of other academic options—including private schools, online courses, early college options, or even a future college education. With such a funding structure, the study contends, parents will be free to choose K-12 options based on quality and cost, thereby spurring innovation, improving quality, and breaking America of its “education stagnation” and gross achievement gaps. Ladner also explains the legislative safeguards that must be in place for an ESA system to be effective (HSAs and food stamps offer helpful guidance). There is much merit for such a proposed finance system—especially as digital and blended learning models take form. But Ladner’s paper has one overt flaw:...

When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our backs on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?

Hopscotch
The debate over education reform has become so polarized that people are painted neatly into boxes and told that they are either "in" or they are "out."
Photo by Jan Tik.

Of course, the top charter-management organizations (CMOs) got this level of attention the old fashioned way: They earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers put in long...

One of the central tenets of the charter-school idea is that these institutions should be open to all comers, regardless of an applicant’s home address. Ending “zip-code education,” after all, is a major motivation behind the school-choice movement. It’s a big deal, then, that a District of Columbia task force is looking into allowing charter schools to offer preferential treatment to applicants from their immediate neighborhoods. To be sure, a handful of other cities have already allowed such preferences—Denver, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. In those cases, the neighborhood preferences were either sought by the schools—so that they could serve a needy local population—or school districts, as conditions of handing over public school buildings. That approach makes us a bit squeamish, but can be justified if the goal is to ensure that disadvantaged kids in a given locale have access to a great education. What’s impossible to justify, however, are preferences (or outright boundaries) that might keep poor kids out of charter schools. That’s precisely what could happen in D.C. if charters in certain gentrifying parts of the city, like Capitol Hill’s Ward Six, are allowed to use these preferences. The charter movement shouldn’t be doctrinaire. But it shouldn’t...

An oft-overlooked sector in American K-12 education has also been its most rapidly growing: homeschooling. There are currently more than two million home-school students in the U.S., marking a growth rate of between 7 and 12 percent per annum since the 1970s. This book-cum-literature review profiles this expanding sector, tracking its prevalence, demographics, history, rationale, instructional methods, and impact—drawing data and conclusions from an impressive seventeen pages of references. Many points are unsurprising, though the breadth of data provides a uniquely robust representation of this group: Homeschoolers tend to be white (93 percent), conservative (93 percent), and squarely in the middle class (with wealthier families opting for private schools and poorer families lacking the economic flexibility needed to keep a parent out of the workforce). The vast majority are Christian (92 percent)—the rise in homeschooling parallels the rise in Christian fundamentalism in the states—though Muslims mark the fastest growing sub-set of homeschoolers over the past few years. The average home-schooled family has two to three children; the parents are about 20 percent more likely to have a college degree than non-home-school parents; and the children score higher on...

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