A new report published in Education Week looks at public high schools that cater to high-achieving students, often called “exam schools.” The schools are controversial because public schools are supposed to be…well…public and open to all. Private schools are often accused of selectivity—even though the vast majority of them are not.

The analysis by Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Jessica Hockett reveals that these schools are filling a demand from students and parents alike. Which begs the question, why have the distinction between public and private schools at all? Let schools offer various curricula and be responsive to parent and student demand. The let parents actually choose the schools they think are best for their children. As Education Week reports:

… the schools are more racially diverse, taken as a whole, than is widely believed.  African Americans comprise 30 percent of their enrollment versus 17 percent in the larger public high school population.  Asian Americans comprise 21 percent of their enrollment, compared with 5 percent of all high-schoolers.  Hispanic students are underrepresented, however, as are white students.  Academically selective public high schools are 35 percent white and 13 percent Hispanic, as compared to 56 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in the public high school universe.  Economically, the exam school student body is only slightly less poor than the U.S. public high school population. … 

The schools spark controversy; some people think that they are elitist or exclusive while others believe that selectivity contradicts the mission of public education.  The schools are vulnerable to budget cuts, even though they are vastly oversubscribed by eager applicants.

The authors surveyed the schools’ leaders and visited 11 schools, finding them to be “serious, purposeful places:  competitive but supportive, energized yet calm.”  Students want to be at these schools and behavior problems are minimal.  Surveyed schools reported a 91% graduation rate.

Most exam schools offer AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, but many also (or instead) feature other kinds of specialized offerings.  Schools with a STEM focus or university affiliations, for example, offer courses that few traditional high schools provide – such as Human Infectious Diseases, Chemical Pharmacology, and Vector Calculus.

With few exceptions (chiefly in Louisiana), exam schools are not charter schools.  Most teachers in exam schools are subject to the provisions of collective-bargaining contracts, but almost one in five is not (or not fully) subject to seniority-based staffing decisions.  Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that teacher-hiring decisions are made at the school level or jointly by school and district.

These “whole school” models appear to offer the kind of dedication to high achievement, as well as reinforcement from similarly focused peers, that serve students with exceptional abilities well.  Whether the U.S. creates more schools of this kind or widens its offerings of specialized programs in regular district schools, the authors observe that “If the best of such schools are hothouses for incubating a disproportionate share of tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology, entrepreneurship, and other sectors that bear on society’s long-term prosperity and well-being, we’d be better off as a country if we had more of them.”

Indeed—and there’s no good policy reason why such a diverse country as ours should have an equally diverse education landscape capable of meeting the needs and talents of students.