Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools

Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools

Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools

Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools


What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters? Can the United States strengthen its future intellectual leadership, economic vitality, and scientific prowess without sacrificing equal opportunity? There are no easy answers but, as Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett show, for more than 100,000 students each year, the solution is to enroll in an academically selective public high school. Exam Schools is the first-ever close-up look at this small, sometimes controversial, yet crucial segment of American public education. This groundbreaking book discusses how these schools work--and their critical role in nurturing the country's brightest students.

The 165 schools identified by Finn and Hockett are located in thirty states, plus the District of Columbia. While some are world renowned, such as Boston Latin and Bronx Science, others are known only in their own communities. The authors survey the schools on issues ranging from admissions and student diversity to teacher selection. They probe sources of political support, curriculum, instructional styles, educational effectiveness, and institutional autonomy. Some of their findings are surprising: Los Angeles, for example, has no "exam schools" while New York City has dozens. Asian-American students are overrepresented--but so are African-American pupils. Culminating with in-depth profiles of eleven exam schools and thoughtful reflection on policy implications, Finn and Hockett ultimately consider whether the country would be better off with more such schools.

At a time of keen attention to the faltering education system, Exam Schools sheds positive light on a group of schools that could well provide a transformative roadmap for many of America's children.


Selective public high schools that serve motivated kids and high achievers, many of them also very smart, have been a tiny but important part of the U.S. secondary-education landscape for generations. Some are world famous and boast celebrated alumni/ae. Others may be virtually unknown beyond their immediate communities, but there they often play distinctive and highly valued roles.

Yet nowhere can one learn much about this galaxy within the American secondary-schooling universe. There’s no orderly list of these schools, nor any trade association to which they all belong—and that hires lobbyists and publicists to advance their interests. Many have low profiles, perhaps intentionally so. They don’t hold great interest for contemporary education reformers, philanthropists, or elected officials, most of whom concentrate on the challenges of low-achieving and disadvantaged youngsters. They’ve also been largely ignored by scholars and analysts. If they appear at all in the media, it’s usually because of some diversity- or fairness-related ruckus involving their admissions practices. And practically nobody except those directly involved seems to know what actually goes on inside them.

Our purpose in this book is to explore this obscure yet consequential corner of the public-education cosmos, mindful that these schools intersect in important ways with four urgent policy challenges facing American education.

First, is the United States providing all of its young people the education that they need in order to make the most of their capacities, both for their own sake and for that of the larger society?

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