Learning from Highly Selective Public Schools

Thursday, September 27, 2012

high school testing students school (Frederick Florin/Getty)

The Takeaway has been shining the spotlight on the problems in our public education system and what solutions or models are helping to get American kids the education they deserve.

Here's one model that's undoubtedly successful for the lucky few who get in: academically selective schools, where kids from all backgrounds compete to get in. But is it a model that could eventually trickle down to all sorts of schools?

There are a handful of public schools scattered across the country where kids are clamoring to get in and to excel. What we can learn from them?

Chester Finn Jr. is former assistant secretary of education and co-author of the new book: "Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools." 

"In some cases, these schools take fewer than 10 percent of their applicants," says Finn, who thinks that these exam schools are a good idea, but not the only good idea.

The recent cheating scandal surrounding the academically elite Stuyvesant in New York City has raised a lot of questions about the kind of pressure students are under at these schools, and whether that's good for high schoolers. But, as Finn points out, cheating is the only disciplinary problem the schools have. "They don't have kids cutting class, they don't have kids bringing knives to school, they don't have kids out rumbling in the corridors." In addition to being better academically, the schools are also safer.

This is not to say that cheating is not a huge problem, in society as well as school. As John Hockenberry points out, if these students end up in investment banking they can do far more damage than the kids who have knives. But the major benefit of schools like this is that they keep educationally-minded families in the community, and in the public school system. Hopefully this means the best and the brightest aren't the only ones to benefit. 


Chester Finn, Jr.

Produced by:

Maggie Penman and Jen Poyant

Comments [4]

Gaetane from Greenwich, CT

Exam schools may work well, but I think it is better to have advanced programs within our schools as we do in Greenwich, CT. Starting to challenge students in 3rd to 4th grade, as Mr Finn suggests, is too late. Advanced students can be very frustrated and turned off from learning by years of inadequate challenge. I think grouping advanced students in middle and high schools by subject without separating them to specialized schools balances their education and social needs. I absolutely agree that our schools are failing our strongest students and that it hurts both the students and our society.

Sep. 27 2012 04:09 PM
Andy from new york

It's utterly inexact to judge who is truly gifted or talented through multiple choice exams. Most often, it's the students who enroll in the preparation courses who pass these tests and get admitted to these schools. Critical, creative thinking is completely ignored when picking who gets admitted. Hopefully we will soon depart from this test centered education trend.

Sep. 27 2012 02:43 PM
Nathan Miller Foster from Boston

My favorite teacher was one not only of academic helpfulness, as I was 8 years old [!!] when I was in her class. It was that she lived on my street which I grew up in, that she was so kind, and classic to a 't', I would go over time to time over the years, helping her with her massive gardens. With an 's'. And truer to form, my never-married, heavily Irish Catholic second grade teacher treated me with such kindness, talking with me about life, education, and Maine Coons and Tabbys (tabby cats) which she spoke to nearly as much as I, but not in 'that' way, mind you. Truly, an empathetic woman. I'm natural (some call it an atheist, but look to A.C. Grayling for why this, 'atheism' is a misnomer, if you care to), and despite my loathing of religion, she was a positive influence which reminds me always that those with religion are good people, they're just taught improperly. No irony there! She instilled in me a lifelong love of education, of learning, and of how I love those who bring our society the necessity and treasure of knowledge. As long as they're teaching properly, that is!

Sep. 27 2012 11:58 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I am all for selective schools and testing. When I was a kid I got into Stuyvesant. The School turned out not to be for me. I didn't like the kids. Ironically, and I mean this sincerely, back in 75 the kids were "Too Cool For School," and I was a kid who just returned from Israel and a war torn country. I was a total misfit.
I transferred to Bowne which is the High School right behind Queens College on Main Street. The School had great teachers and kids at the time and I excelled. I got lucky. That school, Bowne is over run with a gang problem now, from what I understand.

Sep. 27 2012 10:06 AM

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