New Book Offers Window Into Selective Public High Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — August 23, 2012 8 min read
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Although public schools that admit students based on academic performance are rare, and the practice controversial, such institutions can be found in many states. A new book takes a look under the hood of America’s small set of selective public high schools, an “obscure yet consequential corner of the public education cosmos,” as the authors put it.

Some of these schools you’ve probably heard of—think Boston Latin or Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—others probably not.

How did they get started? Who exactly do they serve, and how are those students chosen? Who teaches there? What do the curriculum and instruction look like? Could, and should, such academically selective public high schools play a more expansive role in educating the nation’s high-potential, high-achieving students.

These are some of the questions that longtime education pundit Checker Finn, joined by educational consultant Jessica Hockett, set out to answer in their book.

The volume, Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public Schools, will be publicly available early next month. Tomorrow, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank led by Finn, is hosting a forum to discuss the book, published by Princeton University Press. (The event also can be viewed online.)

“Partly it was just curiosity about an utterly unexplored sector of public education,” Finn told me of what inspired the project. “And partly it was a continuing interest in what most people call ‘gifted and talented’ and my awareness from several studies ... that the so-called ‘high flyers’ in our schools were being neglected in the No Child Left Behind era.”

The book identifies 165 “exam schools” across 30 states and the District of Columbia. (Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia are especially well represented.) To be counted by the authors, a school must use academic measures such as prior grades and test scores to select applicants, but also meet several other criteria, including being primarily focused on preparing students for college. The book covers a lot of terrain, but I’m going to set my sights here mainly on the academic experience these schools offer.

Before I do, I’ll briefly say something about the student population served. On the whole, the authors report, it’s only slightly less poor than in the total public school system. Asian-Americans are heavily overrepresented, as some might guess, but so are African-Americans, who make up 30 percent of enrollment at the 165 schools, compared with 17 percent in all public schools. Nearly all the schools that responded to a survey said they have far more applicants than spaces, and most engage in serious efforts to expand or diversify the applicant pool.

For each of the 11 schools that Finn or Hockett personally visited, the book describes the climate for learning. Here’s how they summed it up:

By and large, all the schools we visited were serious, purposeful places: competitive but supportive, energized yet calm. Behavior problems (save for cheating and plagiarism) were minimal, and students attended regularly. The kids wanted to be there, and were motivated to succeed.

Most classrooms they observed were “alive, engaged places,” and teachers had high expectations, as might be imagined.

One distinguishing feature of many exam schools is a more flexible schedule than is usual in public high schools, the book says, to facilitate opportunities for more in-depth learning and to prepare students for the college experience.

“We found an awful lot of these schools organize their weekly calendar like colleges do, with two-hour blocks and three-hour seminars, so the course doesn’t meet every day for 47 minutes,” Finn told me. The book notes that there is typically ample time in the schedule for collaborative and independent research projects.

When it comes to curricula and course offerings, the book found diverging pathways that reflected “differing philosophies about what and how academically talented students should learn,” the book says. Some, for instance, make Advanced Placement courses, along with prerequisite honors courses, the heart of the curriculum; others sprinkled them in, and several simply don’t offer them. (Finn said a common complaint he heard from teachers, however, was that pressure students feel to take lots of AP classes was squeezing out time for other valuable learning activities, like building a robot or doing extensive historical research. “Teachers feel like the school’s ability to develop these kids into all they can be is actually constrained by the AP pressure,” he said.)

Some of the schools with a STEM focus or a university affiliation reported a variety of upper-level math and science courses rarely seen in high schools, such as Human Infectious Diseases, Chemical Pharmacology, or Vector Calculus.

An important, recurring theme they found was a focus on independent research projects by students, “ranging from classroom-supported guided-inquiry models to extended team-based problem-solving challenges to collaborative research with university students and professors.”

Many of the exam schools offer mentorship and internship opportunities. And oftentimes, students had reason to leave campus for such activities, as well as independent research projects, or to attend class at a nearby college or university.

When administrators were asked to pick the term that best describes the approach guiding most classroom instruction, a popular choice was “other.” (Options included didactic instruction, problem-based learning, project-based learning, cooperative learning, and so on.)

For those readers still with me and wanting to get a few more specifics about individual schools, below is a sampling of what Finn and Hockett learned during school visits and follow-up research.

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (Aurora, Ill.)

• The academic program at this statewide boarding school is framed by its own Standards of Significant Learning, “an extensive set of expectations for IMSA graduates that ‘articulate valued habits of mind which contribute to integrative ways of knowing.”

• All students are required to perform at least 100 hours of community service before graduation.

• As part of its mission statement, the academy strives to “ignite and nurture creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition.” The authors observe that this isn’t just words, but appears to be “woven into the language of staff and students.”

• IMSA does NOT calculate GPAs or have class rankings. No valedictorian is named, either.

• Time is a “flexible commodity” at the school, with room to accommodate courses of different lengths, out-of-class experiences, meetings with mentors, etc. ... In fact, no classes are held on Wednesdays, when students engage in yearlong independent and collaborative research projects on and off campus.

• About half the teachers have doctorates; all have at least one master’s degree.

Townsend Harris High School (Queens, N.Y.)

• Students must take two years of Latin or Greek, and a “Great Books” course at nearby Queens College.

• One distinctive curricular feature is a “heavy, schoolwide emphasis on writing in almost every class.”

• Classroom instruction is often the traditional teacher-led approach, but it typically entails “a heavy Socratic element.”

Liberal Arts and Science Academy (Austin, Texas)

• The school features four interdisciplinary “signature” classes developed by the faculty: Electronic Magazine (creating a print and digital publication); SciTech (employing robots and other sophisticated technology); Planet Earth (geobiology); and Great Ideas.

• “The school’s other course descriptions read more like those of a college than a public high school, with subjects including medical microbiology, playwriting, constitutional law, and fifth-year Japanese.”

• The students “almost without exception, appear motivated, self-directed, eager, intellectually acute, and self-aware.”

• However, some veteran teachers complain that “accountability pressures and the college-admissions frenzy are eroding the school’s distinctiveness.”

Benjamin Franklin High School (New Orleans)

• Students must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA to return the following year.

• The school offers 22 AP courses and has a strong record of passing AP exams. In fact, students must pass at least two AP exams to graduate.

• Through a relationship with the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, located in the French Quarter, about a tenth of students enroll in one or more courses in the performing and visual arts.

• The school has “an impressive array of extracurricular activities, including a prize-winning literary magazine and a first-rate orchestra.”

Stepping back, the book explores the question of whether more public exam schools are warranted in the United States. Linked with that, of course, is the question of whether the students would thrive just as well in a regular high school. (As Finn remarked: “We do joke about the Harvard-Stanford quip, ‘The curriculum is fine, the faculty is good, but the admissions office is terrific.’ ”)

Finn cautions that the research base on such schools’ academic impact is thin. A couple of recent studies “throw some cold water” on the value the schools bring, he told me, though he pointed to some limitations of that research.

Ultimately, Finn said that while he’s mindful of the downsides of having more exam schools, particularly the creaming off of top students from ordinary high schools, and the effect that may have, in the end he sees reason to multiply them.

“I think the country would be better off with more such schools, and the market data makes clear there is demand,” he said.

As the book puts it at the end: “Selective-admission schools aren’t the only way to incentivize or educate high-ability youngsters in the K-12 world, but they’re a valuable part of a comprehensive strategy that the United States neglects at its peril.”

(Finn and Hockett have already published an essay in the journal Education Next about their new book.)

Photo: President Barack Obama watches students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., as they demonstrate a robot they used in a competition. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File

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