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.
For more on this issue, purchase Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools.
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
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a federal civil-rights complaint against the New York City Department of Education last week on grounds that the special test used for admission to eight of the city's selective public high schools is discriminatory—because it results in too few African American and Hispanic youngsters gaining entry into those schools.
The Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT) is a two-hour multiple-choice exam. Under a forty-year-old state law, the scores that students earn on it—and only those scores—determine who gets into, and rejected by, these eight schools, including the three old and famous ones: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech.
The SHSAT is also a very big deal in New York City, as some 28,000 (mostly) eighth and ninth graders take it every year, competing for about 6,000 spaces in the schools themselves. Because attending any of these schools is a pretty certain path to graduation and admission into a decent (or even stellar) university, all at public expense, the competition is fierce. There are cram schools and tutors. And one's test score determines everything.
That's rare in the world of selective-admission public high schools, as Jessica Hockett and I learned in our recent examination of some 165 such schools around the country. Nearly all the others consider multiple elements of their applicants' readiness to do well in the generally high-powered academic environments that such schools offer. Along with test results, they weigh middle
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both attended elite private high schools. Both are undeniably smart and well educated and owe much of their success to the strong foundation laid by excellent schools.
We’ve failed to raise the ceiling for those already well above the floor.
Every motivated, high-potential young American deserves a similar opportunity. But the majority of very smart kids lack the wherewithal to enroll in rigorous private schools. They depend on public education to prepare them for life. Yet that system is failing to create enough opportunities for hundreds of thousands of these high-potential girls and boys.
Mostly, the system ignores them, with policies and budget priorities that concentrate on raising the floor under low-achieving students. A good and necessary thing to do, yes, but we’ve failed to raise the ceiling for those already well above the floor.
Public education’s neglect of high-ability students doesn’t just deny individuals opportunities they deserve. It also imperils the country’s future supply of scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.
Today’s systemic failure takes three forms.
First, we’re weak at identifying “gifted and talented” children early, particularly if they’re poor or members of minority groups or don’t have savvy, pushy parents.
Second, at the primary and middle-school levels, we don’t have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand. Congress has “zero-funded” the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, Washington’s sole effort to encourage such education. Faced with budget crunches and federal pressure
Admission to what was until recently "America's best high school" (as named by U.S. News & World Report) is again under assault from multiple directions. Seven teachers at Fairfax County's acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology allege that the school's famously rigorous selection process has been eased, such that it's no longer enrolling the ablest and best-prepared pupils.
Recent high-profile complaints against TJ overlook widespread failings in American public education.
A federal civil rights complaint filed by a former Fairfax County School Board member asserts that entry criteria at TJ, as the school is known, in conjunction with the district's clumsy handling of "gifted and talented" education in earlier grades, rig the enrollment against black and Latino kids. At the same time, a law professor is pressing his claim that black students are favored over white students in the admissions process.
Any of these allegations could be true. But both complaints about TJ overlook two widespread failings in American public education that give rise to such grievances while also jeopardizing the nation's long-term economic competitiveness.
First, we've been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters. States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated attention and resources on low-achieving and other "at-risk" youngsters, while paying scant heed to the fate of smart, eager pupils. Uncle Sam hasn't helped in recent years by zero-funding the one program intended to strengthen "gifted and talented," or G/T, education for poor and
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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