Imagine a high school where every course is challenging, all students choose (and are academically strong enough) to be there, discipline problems are few, teachers are knowledgeable and attentive, pretty much everyone earns a diploma, and virtually all graduates go on to good colleges.
How much would you pay to send your son or daughter to such a school? If it's an elite private institution, you might easily fork over the price of an Ivy League degree before your child even sets foot on a university campus.
But this vision isn't a snapshot of a $40,000-a-year prep school. It's the profile of 165 free public secondary schools in the United States, many of them in big cities known for sky-high dropout rates, low test scores, metal detectors at the schoolhouse door, and rapid turnover among teachers.
What distinguishes this small subset of America's 20,000 public high schools is that they are academically selective. Students compete for admission by demonstrating they are qualified (and eager) to do the work.
Sometimes called "exam schools," because test scores are typically part of their selection process and a handful of them rely solely on such scores, they tailor their curricula and teaching to high-performing, high-potential kids who...