Anyone who writes a column always has second thoughts: columns you wrote but wish you hadn’t; things you said that you might now modify or things you wish you’d said; and columns that, for some reason, went unwritten. As 2012 ends, let me atone for at least the last sin by writing about a book-length study called “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Schools.” I intended to write about it earlier but kept delaying until it just slipped away.
To be sure, it wasn’t the year’s most compelling issue: The lackluster economy, the budget and the election all seemed more newsworthy. But unlike these other subjects — on which there was no shortage of information and opinion — this book raised important new questions and illuminated largely unknown facts.
Written by Chester Finn Jr., head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Jessica Hockett, an educational researcher, the study asks whether we’re doing enough to educate elite students. Granted, some families can afford private schools, and many wealthy suburbs have first-class high schools. But what about the rest?
As Finn and Hockett note, educational “reform” since the 1960s has concentrated on the increasing graduation rates and performance of average students, especially minorities. “As more money and energy went into advancing equity in American K-12 (and higher) education, less was devoted to the pursuit of excellence,” they write. Would the country be better off with more public schools like Boston Latin and the Bronx High School of Science? Indeed, how many schools like these are there?
Not much was known; the Finn-Hockett study helps fill the void.
There are roughly 23,000 high schools in America with about 15 million students. Of these, 165 schools with 136,000 students met the Finn-Hockett criteria for being “selective.” They had to be public schools; competitive admissions had to be based on academic performance; schools had to be free-standing (“not a program or school within another school”); and the curriculum had to be college prep.
Interestingly, these select schools don’t primarily serve upper-middle-class white students. About 30 percent of the students are African American, almost twice the 17 percent black share for all high schools; 35 percent are white (the national share is 56 percent); 13 percent are Hispanic (20 percent) and 21 percent are Asian (5 percent). Almost two-fifths of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches based on low family income.
Slightly more than half the schools and two-thirds of the students are in large cities, with a skewing toward the Northeast that modifies the national averages. “In New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, black and Hispanic students are underrepresented . . . while white and Asian students are significantly overrepresented,” write Finn and Hockett. These high schools may act “as a kind of refuge from . . . less desirable schools” for many white and Asian students.
Academically, the select schools have two great advantages. First, they can create a climate that favors success. Peer pressure encourages it. Students aren’t disparaged for doing well in class. Second, these schools can attract superior teachers. Finn and Hockett found that 11 percent of teachers have doctorate degrees, while only 2 percent in all high schools do, and 66 percent have master’s degrees, while 46 percent overall do. About a quarter of the teachers have backgrounds in business, government, technology or the military.
The study’s great gap involves outcomes. Finn and Hockett couldn’t find or assemble data on how well these students do and whether they might have done as well in regular high schools. Though strong, the case for more select high schools is not a slam-dunk. As Finn and Hockett note, creating more such schools will spawn opposition and objections. Principals, teachers and PTAs of existing schools “will be loath to lose able pupils and education-minded parents.” Their loss will lessen pressure to “offer more advanced courses” at existing schools.
Still, Finn and Hockett have done something rare in public policy debates: They’ve raised new issues. Should we be doing more to encourage our best students? If so, how?