The Best Bargain in American Education

Imagine a high school where every course is challenging, all students choose (and are academically strong enough) to be there, discipline problems are few, teachers are knowledgeable and attentive, pretty much everyone earns a diploma, and virtually all graduates go on to good colleges.

How much would you pay to send your son or daughter to such a school? If it’s an elite private institution, you might easily fork over the price of an Ivy League degree before your child even sets foot on a university campus.

But this vision isn’t a snapshot of a $40,000-a-year prep school. It’s the profile of 165 free public secondary schools in the United States, many of them in big cities known for sky-high dropout rates, low test scores, metal detectors at the schoolhouse door, and rapid turnover among teachers.

What distinguishes this small subset of America’s 20,000 public high schools is that they are academically selective. Students compete for admission by demonstrating they are qualified (and eager) to do the work.

Sometimes called “exam schools,” because test scores are typically part of their selection process and a handful of them rely solely on such scores, they tailor their curricula and teaching to high-performing, high-potential kids who want a high school experience that emphasizes college-prep, or college-level, academics. Some are ancient institutions—Boston Latin is as old as Harvard, New York City’s Townsend Harris High School has roots in the 1840s—but half of them are creations of the past 30 years. Some are world-famous, but many are not. They come in all sizes—from 68 pupils to 5,000—and can be found in all kinds of communities. A majority are affiliated with school districts, but some are university-run or otherwise exist outside the regular system. One in 10 is a public-sector boarding school, often statewide, such as the Illinois Math and Science Academy. Only a few are charter schools.

Some have highly competitive admissions processes, accepting as few as 10 percent of their applicants. Others take every youngster who meets their threshold standards, provided there’s an available desk. In either case, exam schools are probably the best deal a high school parent can find today in American education—public or private. Our recent study uncovers why.

First, exam schools offer a free, full-time solution to the problem of providing suitably challenging curriculum and instruction to bright, motivated students. They are entire schools devoted wholly to high-level academics, not magnet programs within conventional high schools, honors tracks, or collections of Advanced Placement courses. Rigorous homework is routine. Independent research projects and internships are common. High expectations are the norm, as is hard work. Such a culture all but guarantees that students aren’t picked on for being “nerds” or “acting white,” as they might be elsewhere. Many exam schools screen applicants for behavior, too, so students go through classes, hallways, and lunchrooms without major distractions or threats to their safety.

One’s teacher is apt to be amply qualified also. The proportion of instructors with Ph.D.s in exam schools is higher than the norm, and many have had experience teaching at the college level or working in fields related to the disciplines they teach (e.g., engineer-turned-science teacher). Teacher turnover is low and, although the pay seldom exceeds the district scale (aside from compensation for longer days and additional periods), those we spoke with found their work gratifying and relished the chance to work with eager, high-ability students.

Exam schools are also surprisingly diverse. As a group, over 40 percent of their pupils are black or Latino. Some schools, like Jones College Prep in Chicago, are among the most racially balanced secondary schools in town. Their proportion of low-income youngsters nearly matches the wider high school population. Individual schools may not reflect the demography of their communities, but most make earnest efforts to create a diverse applicant pool.

With challenging classes, dedicated and knowledgeable teachers, and able, motivated peers from all kinds of backgrounds, it’s reasonable to ask whether exam schools consume more than their share of scarce financial resources.

On the contrary, we found that exam schools also get pinched as states and districts allocate tight budgets. Washington plays a role here, too, since the focus of the No Child Left Behind Act on low achievers and troubled schools, coupled with state and federal funding streams for special education, means that schools serving high achievers don’t receive money that other public schools often do. Yes, some districts provide extra resources for “advanced” courses, and exam schools strive to piece together funds from multiple sources, including county supervisors, university budgets, parents, and alumni. We visited some that are generously resourced, but most were laying off staff and enlarging classes.

Money isn’t their only challenge. Allegations of elitism persist. Admissions practices are under constant scrutiny by politicians, civil rights groups, and others. And regular high schools in the vicinity tend to be jealous, accusing exam schools of “creaming” the best students, thereby jeopardizing the other schools’ academic rankings (which are often based on how many pupils take AP exams) and college-entrance reputations. They may even be seen as threatening real estate values in the neighborhood.

In response, savvy exam school promoters sometimes enter into treaties with the regular high schools—a sort of reverse quota system—and promise not to admit more than so many youngsters from particular districts or neighborhoods. (We encountered this in Bergen County, N.J., and the Queens borough in New York, for example.) Virginia’s Maggie Walker Governor’s School eases “brain drain” angst by reporting each student’s test scores to his or her “home school,” where they get included in the school’s state report card.

A further challenge for exam schools—not yet resolved—is the question of whether they truly “add value” to their pupils. Although such schools typically win plenty of accolades, including academic prizes, stellar college-matriculation results, and lofty rankings on “best high schools” lists, they haven’t had to produce hard evidence that they impart more knowledge or skills to their students than these same talented youngsters would pick up elsewhere.

When a school screens applicants for academic talent, it ends up with pupils who perform well on tests, earn high grades, and get into competitive colleges. But do such students learn more because of what happens in the school? Little research has been done. State and district assessment results don’t much help. Hence today, America’s exam schools have no systematic answer to that important question.

Even so, they’re awash in more qualified applicants than they can accommodate. Demand clearly exceeds supply in this particular education marketplace.

And a marketplace it is. These are “schools of choice” that nobody attends against their will. They’re educational havens for high-ability youngsters from low-resource families. They encourage education-minded middle-class families to stay in cities (and public education systems) that they might otherwise flee. They foster municipal pride. And they sometimes attract talented adults—and the firms that employ such folks—to move to town because they can see education offerings there that they want for their daughters and sons, kids who may become tomorrow’s scientists and engineers and thus help boost the nation’s competitiveness in the global market.

If, as Warren Buffett said, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get,” then exam schools are a good value, indeed a real bargain, not just for thousands of young Americans and their families, but also for the wider society.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This article first appeared in Education Week, October 17, 2012. Chester E. Finn Jr. and Jessica A. Hockett are the authors of Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools (Princeton, 2012) and “Exam Schools from the Inside,” in the Fall 2012 issue of Education Next.

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