Robert Samuelson | Do We Need More Elite High Schools?

WASHINGTON — Anyone who writes a column always has second thoughts: columns you wrote but wish you hadn’t; things you said that you might now modify or things you wish you’d said; and columns that, for some reason, went unwritten. As 2012 ends, let me atone for at least the last sin by writing about a book-length study called “Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.” I intended to write about it earlier but kept delaying until it just slipped away.

To be sure, it wasn’t the year’s most compelling issue: The lackluster economy, the budget and the election all seemed more newsworthy. But unlike these other subjects — on which there was no shortage of information and opinion — this book raised important new questions and illuminated largely unknown facts.

Written by Chester Finn Jr., head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Jessica Hockett, an educational researcher, the study asks whether we’re doing enough to educate elite students. Granted, some families can afford private schools; and many wealthy suburbs have first-class high schools. But what about the rest?

As Finn and Hockett note, educational “reform” since the 1960s has concentrated on the increasing graduation rates and performance of average students, especially minorities. “As more money and energy went into advancing equity in American K-12 (and higher) education, less was devoted to the pursuit of excellence,” they write. Would the country be better off with more public schools like Boston Latin and the Bronx High School of Science? Indeed, how many schools like these are there?


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