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Book Review

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

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 believe (with some caveats), for more than 100,000 students each year, the solution is to enroll in an academically selective public high school. Exam Schools is a close-up look at this small, sometimes controversial segment of American public education. This book discusses how these schools work, their role in nurturing the country’s brightest students, and how they can serve as models for the larger educational community.

The 165 selective schools identified by Finn and Hockett are located in 30 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 examine 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 11 exam schools (between the two of them, the authors visited these 11) and reflection on policy implications, Finn and Hockett ultimately consider whether the country would be better off with more such schools.

Lest readers get the impression that Finn and Hockett give a full-throated endorsement to the notion that we should launch a campaign to create legions of selective high schools, we should mention the final chapter of the book, where the authors pose questions about the benefits and drawbacks of establishing such schools.

For example: “If you are a school board member in a sizable city with, say, five or more high schools but none that is selective, and you are petitioned by parents seeking such a school for their kids, what should you do?”

The parents of gifted-and-talented students may be dissatisfied with their public high schools. Maybe there aren’t enough advanced course offerings, or maybe the advanced classes are not as challenging as these parents would like. These parents may also be concerned about school safety, climate, or peer influences.

Finn and Hockett write: “Devising school options that satisfy and placate such parents—probably including influential community residents—is not bad politics, and it has its pluses, too. It may make one’s city more appealing to sophisticated employers and middle class families, while strengthening their ties to its public education system. It may foster racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity by drawing students of dissimilar backgrounds out of their neighborhoods into a shared school experience. It’s apt to appeal to certain kinds of intellectually keen teachers. It may invite partnerships with local firms, especially the high-tech and scientifically oriented kind, as well as with cultural institutions and area college universities.

“But [the authors caution] there are downsides, too….” Opening a new school will likely mean shrinking enrollments in other high schools in the district. The new school may be seen (perhaps correctly) as skimming the best students from other schools, changing the nature of those schools. Parents of students who fail to be admitted to the new school may be angry. There could be union troubles if the new school has a different or longer day than other schools. Finally, they write: “When all is said and done, you also face the risk that, after going through ample expense and hassle, the graduates of your selective high school may end up taking their knowledge and skills elsewhere after completing college. Your investment may well yield a public good for the country but not necessarily for your own community.”

Finn and Hockett also pose a question to principals who might be offered a choice between leading a selective or a comprehensive high school. What factors should influence their decision?

They write: “On the positive side, the selective high school is probably among the most visible and respected educational institutions in town, and leading it is apt to be a high-profile, high-status job and very possibly a career booster for you. On the other hand, running that school may be mostly a matter of preserving it as is, along with its resources and (limited) privileges, its track record, friends, and community supporters, all at a time when few states or districts are putting great emphasis on students and schools like these…. A comprehensive high school, by contrast, is more likely to require a tune-up if not a makeover, and its students are apt to be needier in multiple ways. What kind of challenge puts a glint in your eye?”

They also note that selective high schools are “under a microscope.” They face pressures to maintain their reputations, be at the top of media rankings, get graduates into high-status colleges, and create and maintain alliances with current and former parents and other possible benefactors.

A selective high school may also be the object of envy and political pressure. Administrators in other schools may compete to hang on to their best students and their financial resources.

“No high school principal’s job is easy,” they note, “but this one may be really hard.”

The authors have a question for the parents of a high-achieving middle school student in a community with a selective high school. Should they encourage their son or daughter to seek admission to the school?

Their thoughtful response: “The ultimate decision to apply to one of these schools hinges on a comparison of its quality and potential ‘fit’ for your youngster with those of other public options from which you might realistically choose….

“Is your child more apt to thrive in a high-powered environment full of smart, motivated youngsters (some of them likely smarter than she is) or in a setting with all kinds of kids and perhaps greater opportunity to distinguish herself as an outstanding pupil? Is your child able across the curricular board or just in one or two subjects? Is she willing to work really hard in an intense, competitive setting, likely involving long hours, tons of homework, and perhaps a lengthy commute?…. If the school has a particular focus in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] realm, in the humanities, etc., does this match your daughter’s own interests and aptitudes? If she has special needs—not an unusual companion to high ability—you owe it to her to find out whether the selective high school is set up to address them. You should also consider whether she is apt to miss some of the curricular or extracurricular opportunities that may be lacking at the selective school, such as a strong sports program or career-related offerings (e.g., journalism, photography, medical technology). Finally, you should gauge the odds of getting in and consider whether your child will deal successfully with rejection if she fails to win admission.”

Finn and Hockett conclude by returning to some broad questions that they considered at the beginning of the book. One in particular struck me: “Is the United States providing all of its young people the education that they need in order to make the most of their capacities, both for their own sake and for that of the larger society?

“Have we neglected to raise the ceiling while we’ve struggled to lift the floor? As the country strives to toughen its academic standards, close its wide achievement gaps, repair its bad schools, and ‘leave no child behind,’ is it also challenging its high-achieving and highly motivated students—and those who may not yet be high achievers but can learn substantially more than the minimum? Are we as determined to build more great schools as to repair those that have collapsed?”

This is a rhetorical question, of course. The authors think we have “neglected to raise the ceiling while we’ve struggled to lift the floor.” But, “We’re not naïve,” they write. “Especially at a time when resources are tight, we don’t expect hundreds more communities and dozens more states to rush to create many more academically high schools, even where the reasons for doing so may be compelling.” And the authors don’t think selective schools represent the only way to raise the ceiling. They do believe, however, that “…selective schools can model what all high schools should one day be.”