Q&A: Chester Finn Talks About Exam Schools

By Catherine A. Cardno — September 25, 2012 5 min read
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Chester Finn, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has a new book out, Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools (Princeton University Press). Written with Jessica A. Hockett, an education consultant, the book does exactly what you’d expect it to: It examines the academically selective, public high schools that students must test into. Finn and Hockett located 165 schools—located in 30 states and Washington, D.C.—and profiled 11 in the book.

The book has received much notice, including on the pages of Education Week reporter Erik Robelen profiled the book in his Curriculum Matters blog. Both Sarah Mead, a senior associate with Bellwether Education Partners, and Walt Gardner, a retired teacher, responded in their Education Week-hosted blogs to a recent New York Times op-ed written by Finn.

Finn was kind enough to answer some of my questions, via email, about exam schools, their connections to non-selective public schools, and the recent strike in Chicago:

You’ve tackled a great many K-12 policy issues over the years. What motivated you to write about exam schools at this point in time? Can you pinpoint an “Aha!” moment when you realized there was a book that needed to be written?

No “Aha moment”, rather a gradual dawning—much of it resulting from Fordham research—that “smart kids” are being left behind in the era of No Child Left Behind. Which is to say, almost all the focus of attention, resources, policy energy, etc. has been on low achieving kids and low performing schools. Perfectly legitimate, but not sufficient as other countries outstrip us on Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), especially at the “high end” of achievement, and as we worry more about international competitiveness and long term human capital development.

I realized that there is this little handful of specialized public high schools that worry about kids like this. But nobody had ever looked closely at them; indeed, there wasn’t even a list of them. So Jessica agreed to join with me, both Fordham and Hoover agreed to sponsor it, and the Kern Family Foundation helped (in part) to cover its costs.

What similarities did you find among exam schools? Was there anything that fundamentally surprised you about these schools or their student bodies?

We have a whole book on what we learned, of course, and one thing we learned is that these schools are more different than alike, save for the fact that they all meet our criteria—which means being academic, selective, public, and an “entire school”, not a program within another school.

The biggest surprise—a happy one—was the demographics of the kids attending them. Nearly as low-income as the overall high school population, blacker and more Asian (less white and Hispanic). These aren’t bastions of privilege. They’re (mostly) refuges for smart kids from families that don’t have a lot of resources.

You write about many of the nation’s “gifted and talented” students being under-served, but acknowledge that many local governments would be hard-pressed to find the money to launch new exam schools or other challenging programs. How can school administrators and policymakers balance the need for new incentives to challenge students intellectually with budget realities?

An interesting point is how not costly most of these schools are. A number of them were recycled from some pre-existing school (a magnet school, ordinary school, school needing to be turned around, even a former vocational school), often in the old facility, and often without the extra resources that come to kids (and schools) in trouble. But, of course, budget challenges and tradeoffs are ubiquitous, today more than ever, and I’m not about to dismiss that.

PS: All the schools we visited supplement what they get from public sources with various forms of private fundraising and mooching.

What can traditional public schools do to create more rigorous programs at non-selective schools? What school systems are doing this?

Of course there are myriad programs within non-selective schools—Advanced Placement courses, international baccalaureate, honors tracks, etc. Many of those are growing, though not always intelligently. But our focus this time was on “whole schools.”

How do you respond to the criticism that exam schools “cream” the best students out of the regular public school system? Generally speaking, what can you say about the regular high schools located near exam schools and their student bodies?

If we did a much better job of identifying talent in the early grades, especially kids from poor/minority/immigrant families, then supplying those youngsters with the stimulus and enrichment that they need and could benefit from, there’d be a heckuva lot more “cream” to go around at the high school level. That’s the most important point.

This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, as it tends to be today. Of course the principals of the “regular” high schools don’t like losing their ablest kids to the selective schools; it can reduce their rankings on U.S. News and Washington Post lists, for example, and maybe thin the number of students that justify various A.P. offerings. So some of the schools we visited entered into “treaties” with the regular schools such that not too many of their new entrants come from any one school zone. But this has got to be about what’s good for kids not what’s good for schools or principals. And there’s plenty more cream waiting to rise.

The next study (though not mine) should be on why we do such a crummy job of talent search and gifted and talented programming in the primary and middle grades.

And finally, let’s switch to current events. You’re known for your strong opinions: Any thoughts on the teacher strike in Chicago?

I just happen to have an entire Gadfly editorial on that very topic.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.