Getting What We Pay For

The promise and peril of America’s most selective public high schools

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Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools
by Chester Finn Jr. and Jessica Hockett
Princeton, 2012
$24.95, 256 pp.

Education reformers, middle-class parents, and philanthropic donors are increasingly concerned about our highest-achieving students. It has been more than 10 years since President George W. Bush and a bipartisan majority in Congress pledged to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Since NCLB measures progress in terms of the proportion of students deemed “proficient,” there is little incentive for teachers and school leaders to cater to those who already meet the standard. Moreover, a budding generation of education reformers has defined success as “closing the achievement gap,” which generally means helping students who lag behind catch up to their more advanced peers.

But how has the era of standards and accountability affected those at the top? Student achievement data shows that our high achievers have stagnated. In one study of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the bottom 10 percent of students made gains in reading and math between 2000 and 2007, but scores for students in the top 10 percent were “languid” over the same period. You get what you measure—and what you pay for. While federal spending on K–12 education has ballooned, funding for the Jacob Javits Scholarship for gifted students has remained flat. As New York University’s Richard Epstein his written, “Our most able students are not so much ‘shortchanged’ as they are ignored.”

Closing achievement gaps is a laudable goal. But America’s continued economic competitiveness will depend on whether our public schools can also prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

In Exam Schools, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett profile a unique set of public high schools that are designed to do exactly that. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Hockett, an educational consultant, take readers inside the country’s “academically selective public high schools”—what they call exam schools—a collection of high-flying institutions that nonetheless tend to fly below the radar. Their relative obscurity is unfortunate, not least for K–12 education donors, and the authors do a service by bringing attention to these important schools.

Exam schools defy easy categorization, but have a few things in common. They are self-contained public schools supported by tax dollars, and they select students on the basis of their academic records via a competitive admissions process. One of Finn and Hockett’s hardest tasks was to find these “needles in the haystack,” 165 in all. Some of them are well-known—Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Boston Latin—but compared with some high-profile charter networks, many of these schools are not household names among education reformers.

The schools are spread across 31 states, with most located in urban districts. The degree to which they are (or are not) representative of their communities is a recurrent theme in the book. In New York City, for instance, roughly two-thirds of students in the regular public high schools are black or Hispanic; in the 23 exam schools, these students make up less than one-quarter of enrollments.

What stands out about these schools is their academic selectivity: most accept less than 40 percent of their applicants. But how do these schools perform? Most—though not all—are high-performing. Of the 144 exam schools with valid GreatSchools ratings (a 10-point scale that measures academic quality), 72 percent were rated a 9 or a 10. Finn and Hockett admit the more interesting question is how much value these schools add to their already-high-achieving pupils. But because researchers have tended to ignore these schools, the authors are unable to provide a definitive answer.

What’s most striking, though, is the sense that many of these schools, while revered in many quarters and touted as community assets, tend to suffer from “benign neglect.” Put simply, the era of federal standards and accountability has put exam schools in an awkward place. Traditional district schools often resent exam schools for soaking up the best students, thereby making it more difficult for district schools to reach state-mandated proficiency goals. In response, some exam schools, like Townshend Harris in Queens, use complicated admissions quotas to ensure they don’t take too many students from one neighborhood. But this leaves them vulnerable to criticism and legal action from angry parents when qualified students do not get in.

Funding can be similarly tendentious. For district and state leaders, NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” calculation creates an incentive to allocate resources to their worst-performing schools. This means exam schools can end up at the top of the list when it comes to making budget cuts. Finn and Hockett report that “nearly all” of the schools they visited faced budget cuts in 2010–11, and that most felt “unjustly victimized” in having to face deeper reductions than other district schools.

Above all, you get a sense that exam schools are overlooked and undervalued. There is little evidence that states or districts are making an effort to replicate or expand these successful institutions. In reference to an exam school in Austin, Texas, the authors write, “practically nobody in the ‘education reform’ world in Texas and beyond seems interested in the future of schools like this.” In New Orleans, “enhancing the school experience of smart, mostly middle class kids is not a priority for many of the national foundations and on-the-ground education-reforming . . . organizations.”

The good news: the status quo represents a clear opportunity for donors interested in education. In an era when districts and states find it increasingly difficult to justify additional resources for the most advanced students, private grants and advocacy can help fill in the gaps. Finn and Hockett do not much dwell on philanthropy. They leave undeveloped, for example, their intriguing aside that exam schools benefited from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “small schools” initiative (which Bill Gates has described as “disappointing” overall). But implicit in the book are the contours of what giving to the gifted might look like.

First, in districts where exam schools already exist but are hemmed in by physical capacity, donors can help to finance their expansion. Interested philanthropic organizations can, for instance, pledge matching funds for necessary capital improvements or support a new facility.

Second, in states and districts where such schools are rare, donors can help make the case for starting an exam school. Finn and Hockett argue that business leaders are especially likely to appreciate the “whole school” model, not only as a way to educate the next generation, but also to draw knowledge workers with families into the district. Foundations can help to coordinate these interests into a coherent campaign, and pledge the start-up capital necessary to get a new school on its feet.

Third, philanthropists should encourage researchers to study these schools more intently. Funders have invested lots of money in distilling lessons for closing the achievement gap from “no-excuses” charter schools. Honors and Advanced Placement programs in schools across the country could benefit from a similar effort to learn from exam schools.

Finally, a note of caution: there are inherent limits to expanding selective schools. Exam schools are special, in part, because they are rarified; they bring together small groups of the best and the brightest. In their enthusiasm to spread this option, funders must be careful not to dilute what makes public exam schools unique in the first place.

Andrew Kelly is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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