High Achievers

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?


Admission to what was until recently "America's best high school" (as named by U.S. News & World Report) is again under assault from multiple directions. Seven teachers at Fairfax County's acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology allege that the school's famously rigorous selection process has been eased, such that it's no longer enrolling the ablest and best-prepared pupils.

Recent high-profile complaints against TJ overlook widespread failings in American public education.

A federal civil rights complaint filed by a former Fairfax County School Board member asserts that entry criteria at TJ, as the school is known, in conjunction with the district's clumsy handling of "gifted and talented" education in earlier grades, rig the enrollment against black and Latino kids. At the same time, a law professor is pressing his claim that black students are favored over white students in the admissions process.

Any of these allegations could be true. But both complaints about TJ overlook two widespread failings in American public education that give rise to such grievances while also jeopardizing the nation's long-term economic competitiveness.

First, we've been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters. States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated...

Aggressive marketing campaigns have led to an uptick in Catholic-school enrollment in some cities, a trend Gadfly hopes accelerates; many urban parochial schools have plenty to brag about and their merits stack up well against many of the district (and charter) schools they compete with for students.

A Wall Street Journal essay took teacher unions to task over the weekend for effectively protecting sexual predators through the byzantine procedures required to fire educators guilty of abusing students. Reformers need to be careful not to wield this argument recklessly—but the unions must recognize that the issue at hand is not worker rights: It’s doing the right thing for the students that teachers serve.

At last weekend's AFT convention, Joe Biden declared that teachers are under "full-blown attack" by Republicans. By attack, Mr. Vice President, you mean advocating for compensation that rewards teachers for high performance? Creating school models that empower educators and cut down on bureaucracy that keeps education dollars from reaching classrooms? If so, then here's hoping the GOP goes after principals next.

Giving high-performing blended-learning schools like Rocketship high-profile coverage, as...

What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters? Can the United States strengthen its future intellectual leadership, economic vitality, and scientific prowess without sacrificing equal opportunity? There are no easy answers but, as Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett show, for more than 100,000 students each year, the solution is to enroll in an academically selective public high school. Exam Schools is the first-ever close-up look at this small, sometimes controversial, yet crucial segment of American public education. This groundbreaking book discusses how these schools work—and their critical role in nurturing the country's brightest students.

What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters?

The 165 schools identified by Finn and Hockett are located in thirty states, plus the District of Columbia. While some are world renowned, such as Boston Latin and Bronx Science, others are known only in their own communities. The authors survey the schools on issues ranging from admissions and student diversity to teacher selection. They probe sources of political support, curriculum, instructional styles, educational effectiveness, and institutional autonomy. Some of their findings are surprising: Los Angeles, for example, has no "exam schools" while New York City has dozens. Asian-American


One big idea animates virtually all of today’s earnest education reformers: the conviction that great schools can spur social mobility. Voucher supporters, charter advocates, standards nuts, teacher-effectiveness fanatics—we all fundamentally believe that fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators can help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers. And then Charles Murray comes along and throws cold water all over the idea.

Can fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators actually help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers?

This was my reaction last month when Murray visited the Fordham Institute to talk about his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Among his many interesting and provocative comments about the rise of a “new upper class”—one inhabited by the winners of America’s meritocracy—he made this rather disturbing statement: “The better the meritocracy, the faster social mobility will decline.” Checker Finn, our president and moderator, did a double-take. “Say it again?” So Murray did. “The better the meritocracy, the more efficiently you identify and reward talent, the faster that social mobility will decline over time.”

As it turns out, this...

Drop-out recovery charter schools annually serve about 20 percent of Ohio’s charter students but have never been held accountable for the performance of their students. Ohio’s Senate Bill 316 (SB 316) would change this by requiring the creation and enforcement of standards for these schools. The legislation empowers Ohio’s Board of Education to set accountability standards but also leaves open what these standards will actually be. Yesterday, however, the House education committee amended the bill so that drop-out recovery schools will not be subject to the state’s automatic closure law for charter schools.

As the House considers the bill this week, lawmakers need to balance the demand for high standards for recovery charters with the unique student composition and testing challenges associated with these schools. Further, lawmakers should understand the benefit of drop-out recovery schools to the graduation rates of traditional public high schools.

First, by definition, drop-out recovery charters primarily serve dropouts or students at risk of dropping out. This fact alone requires a different perspective of what “student achievement” means—and the approaches required for student success. Because dropout recovery charters enroll mostly high-poverty and highly underperforming students, an apple-to-apples comparison of dropout recovery charter performance to traditional high...

This week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that guarantees high-achieving students a number of accelerated learning opportunities—such as skipping a grade—while making sure parents and kids know how they can take advantage of such possibilities. The measure was championed by State Representative John Legg, who feared that talented students were going through school unchallenged while principals focused on bringing low achievers to proficiency. While other initiatives, such as Advanced Placement programs and dual-enrollment efforts, provide valuable options to top students, studies have shown acceleration to be particularly effective. Yet many educators resist such policies because of (mostly unfounded) fears of negative social consequences for students. Without being overly prescriptive, the new Florida law requires school districts to, at minimum, offer whole-grade and mid-year promotion for eligible students as well as early graduation options. We’re always queasy when states create mandates around schools’ instructional policies, but this might be a case in which a little nudge from above will prod districts to do right by their high-achieving students.

Fast-Track Academic Path Approved in Florida,” Sean Cavanagh, Education Week Charters & Choice blog, April 30, 2012....

Are Bad Schools Immortal? Groundhog Day Event

Are Bad Schools Immortal?

When it comes to low-performing schools, we seem to be witnessing the same thing over and over—not unlike the classic movie, Groundhog Day.Ground Hog Day

A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute tracked about 2,000 low-performing schools and found that the vast majority of them remained open and remained low-performing after five years. Very few were significantly improved. So, are failing schools fixable?

Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for a lively and provocative debate about that question. Fordham VP Mike Petrilli will moderate, and the discussion will be informed, in part, by Fordham's study, Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors.

The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty...

This post, by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess, was originally published in the Washington Post.

President Obama’s remarks on inequality, stoking populist anger at
“the rich,” suggest that the theme for his reelection bid will be not
hope and change but focus on reducing class disparity with government
help. But this effort isn’t limited to economics; it is playing out in
our nation’s schools as well.

The issue is whether federal education efforts will compromise
opportunities for our highest-achieving students. One might assume that a
president determined to “win the future” would make a priority of ensuring that our ablest kids have the chance to excel.

To Obama, however, as for President George W. Bush, such concerns are
a distraction at best. Last year the Education Department’s civil
rights division announced that it would investigate local school
policies that have a “disparate impact
on poor or minority students — signaling a willingness to go to court
if department officials think that school systems have too few of such
children in gifted programs or Advanced Placement courses. This bit of