Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools

Vertical Tabs

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 students are overrepresented—but so are African-American pupils. Culminating with in-depth profiles of eleven exam schools and thoughtful reflection on policy implications, Finn and Hockett ultimately consider whether the country would be better off with more such schools.

At a time of keen attention to the faltering education system, Exam Schools sheds positive light on a group of schools that could well provide a transformative roadmap for many of America's children.

The book is now available from Princeton University Press and Amazon.

In the Media

October 18, 2012
The U.S. News & World Report
December 27, 2012
The Washington Post

How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education

Vertical Tabs

Education budgets are tight and state and district leaders must make tough decisions about where and how to save. But is the public willing to accept cuts? Which ones? Where? According to the results of this pathbreaking survey, many Americans support dramatic changes to how school districts do business. From cutting central-office staff to reforming retirement benefits, this report outlines how voters think spending should be reduced—and what programs must be protected. What exactly did the authors find?

The public grasps the severity of the situation

Sixty-two percent of respondents described their local district’s current financial situation as very or somewhat difficult, with 77 percent of these individuals reporting that the financial challenges will last for quite a while.

Many support change

Almost half of respondents (48 percent) said that, if their own district were facing a serious budget deficit, the best approach would be “to cut costs by dramatically changing how it does business.”

Reformers have their work cut out for them

While the public is amenable to change, many of education reformers’ pet proposals face skepticism, particularly reducing non-teaching staff and tapping the potential of digital learning.

Not all cuts are equally popular

What policies had the most public support?

  • Shrink the administration. A broad majority (69 percent) supports “reducing the number of district level administrators to the bare minimum” as a good way to save money because “it means cutting bureaucracy without hurting classrooms.”
  • Freeze salaries to save jobs. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) say freezing salaries for one year for all district employees is a good way to save money “because the district can avoid laying off people.”
  • If teachers must be laid off, base it on their effectiveness, not years of service. About three in four (74 percent) say that those with poor performance should be “laid off first and those with excellent performance protected”; only 18 percent would have “newcomers laid off first and veteran teachers protected.”


Download the full report to learn more.

Commentary & Feedback on Draft I of the Next Generation Science Standards

Vertical Tabs

In May, Achieve unveiled and solicited comments on the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, the product of months of work by a team of writers on behalf of twenty-six states. This review by Fordham provides commentary, feedback, and constructive advice that we hope the NGSS authors will consider as they revise the standards before the release of a second draft later this year.

Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?

Vertical Tabs

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts and mathematics represent a sea change in standards-based reform and their implementation is the movement’s next—and greatest—challenge. Yet, while most states have now set forth implementation plans, these tomes seldom address the crucial matter of cost. Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? estimates the implementation cost for each of the forty-five states (and the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Common Core State Standards and shows that costs naturally depend on how states approach implementation. Authors Patrick J. Murphy of the University of San Francisco and Elliot Regenstein of EducationCounsel LLC illustrate this with three models:

  • Business as Usual. This “traditional” (and priciest) approach to standards-implementation involves buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual student assessments on paper, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.
  • Bare Bones. This lowest-cost alternative employs open-source instructional materials, annual computer-administered assessments, and online professional development via webinars and modules.
  • Balanced Implementation. This is a blend of approaches, some of them apt to be effective as well as relatively cost-efficient.


The report examines the tradeoffs associated with each strategy and estimates how much the three approaches would cost each state that has adopted the Common Core. The authors also point out that, since states already invest billions annually in professional development, assessments, textbooks, and other expenses in connection with existing standards, proper forecasting of Common Core costs should “net out” the sums that states would spend anyway for activities that this implementation process will replace.

To learn more, download the report and watch the replay of panel discussion on the topic, Pricing the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost States and Districts? Also, watch the short video below on the study's findings, featuring Fordham Institute Vice President for Research Amber Winkler.

Future Shock: Early Common Core implementation lessons from Ohio

Vertical Tabs

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has long advocated for high quality academic content standards nationally- and in our home state of Ohio. The Buckeye State committed itself to adopting more rigorous academic content standards in 2010: Ohio is one of 45 states and the District of Columbia that has adopted the Common Core standards in math and English language arts, and will implement them by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

With the 2014-15 Common-Core transition looming, we wondered: How are Ohio’s educators preparing themselves for this big change? Who is doing this work and what can other schools and districts learn from the early adopters? What are lessons, hopes, and fears facing those on the frontlines who have to lead Ohio’s embrace of significantly more rigorous academic standards?

To answer these questions and more, we enlisted Ellen Belcher—former editorial page editor of the Dayton Daily News—to interview educators from select school districts, county educational service center, and charter schools. Their stories are the basis of this report. Belcher’s findings are largely encouraging and educators are not shying away from embracing the rigor of the Common Core.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Vertical Tabs

Will the digital-learning movement repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement? How much more successful might today's charter universe look if yesterday's proponents had focused on the policies and practices needed to ensure its quality, freedom, and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

Can we be smarter about taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale—and to educational success? Yes, says this volume, as it addresses such thorny policy issues as quality control, staffing, funding, and governance for the digital sector. In these pages, the authors show how current arrangements need to change—often radically—if instructional technology is to realize its potential.

Table of Contents

Introduction, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild

Chapter One: "Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction," by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Chapter Two: "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions," by Frederick M. Hess

Chapter Three: "The Costs of Online Learning," Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans

Chapter Four: "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era," by Paul T. Hill

Chapter Five: "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," by John E. Chubb

About the Authors

In the Media

February 21, 2013
K‑12 Blueprint
January 24, 2014
Education Week
August 12, 2014
American Thinker

Review of Draft Texas Mathematics Standards 2012

Vertical Tabs

In April 2012, Texas adopted new math standards. Fordham reviewed the draft standards and found them to be a modest improvement. But not by much, and they remain inferior to the Common Core math standards.

This review, by W. Stephen Wilson, supplements our 2010 report, The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010, which reviewed the math standards that were in place in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as the final draft of the Common Core State math standards. At the time, the Texas standards earned a mediocre C, in part because the standards were “somewhat minimal and lack[ed] specificity.”

Wilson argues that the proposed revisions fill in missing content, and maintain clarity and organization, but fall short in other areas. Download the review to learn more.*

*Updated 4/18/12

How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar

Vertical Tabs

While the economy may be turning around, local school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. The "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope? This policy brief provides a useful tool for navigating the financial challenges of the current school-funding climate, complete with clear dos and don'ts for anyone involved in or concerned with local education budgets. Author Michael J. Petrilli argues that quick fixes won't solve the problem, nor will slashing teacher salaries. Instead, creative, thoughtful, and fundamental changes are needed to address our budget crisis without hurting children. To learn more, download to the brief, and be sure to explore related Fordham publications, including "Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for State Policymakers" and Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best, and Chris Tessone's Stretching the School Dollar blog.

3 ways districts can stretch the school dollar

  • Aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce
  • Pay for productivity
  • Integrate technology thoughtfully


5 mistakes districts must avoid

  • Shrink the workforce by laying off the newest teachers
  • Narrow the curriculum
  • Furlough workers
  • Shortchange choice options
  • Pass the buck to families

In the Media

May 10, 2012
The Heartland Institute

Defining Strong State Accountability Systems: How Can Better Standards Gain Greater Traction?

Vertical Tabs

Rigorous standards and aligned assessments are vital tools for boosting education outcomes but they have little traction without strong accountability systems that attach consequences to performance. In this pilot study, Eileen Reed, Janie Scull, Gerilyn Slicker, and Amber Winkler lay out the essential features of such accountability systems, intended to add oomph to new common standards and aligned assessments. “Defining Strong State Accountability Systems” identifies six essential elements of effective systems:

  • Adoption of demanding, clear, and specific standards in all core content areas, and rigorous assessment of those standards;
  • Reporting of accessible and actionable data to all stakeholders, including summative outcome data and other formative data to drive continuous improvement;
  • Annual determinations and designations for each school and district that meaningfully differentiate their performance;
  • A system of rewards and consequences to drive improvement at the school and district levels;
  • A system of rewards and consequences to drive improvement at the individual student level; and
  • A system of rewards and consequences to drive improvement at the individual teacher and administrator level.

What distinguishes the report from previous work on this subject is that it insists that individuals—both students and adults—must be held accountable along with institutions. These elements were developed from in-depth analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of seven states’ accountability systems and provide a framework for Fordham’s future analyses of state accountability systems during the early years of Common Core's implementation. Download the study to learn more.

Teacher Compensation Based on Effectiveness: The Harrison (CO) School District's Pay-for-Performance Plan

Vertical Tabs

A teacher’s effectiveness has a tremendous impact on a child’s learning and academic trajectory. Yet knowing that, and being able to create teacher evaluation systems that successfully measure and document teacher effectiveness, are two very different things. In fact, for as long as anyone can remember, a public school teacher’s effectiveness and performance in Ohio classrooms-as in the rest of America- haven’t been measured much at all. These critical factors have had little impact on decisions about whether she is retained by her district or laid off, how she is compensated or assigned to a district’s school, or how her professional development is crafted. This report, authored by Superintendent Mike Miles, takes a detailed look at the Harrison (CO) School District 2's Pay-for-Performance Plan. The Harrison Plan confronted the dual challenges of defining an effective teacher then identifying all the things that demonstrate her effectiveness. This how-to guide is meant to serve as a tool and model for Ohio’s school districts.

In the Media

March 19, 2012
Profit of Education