This week marks Public Schools week, and even amid a sea of bleak test scores and terrible woke policies, there are some notable reasons to celebrate. Not every public school in America is a disaster—thankfully! There are bright spots in the educational landscape that are doing well, and the traits they share in common can serve as a road map for other schools looking to make progress.
The U.S. News list of 2022 Best High Schools provides some insight into what makes great schools great. (The list for 2023 has not yet been published.) Top-ranked schools routinely offer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, which allow students to earn college credit in high school by demonstrating mastery of a subject on an end-of-year test. Many of the top schools are charter schools, meaning they have more flexibility than traditional public schools to meet the needs of their students. Other featured schools are magnet schools, which are non-zoned district public schools that offer a specific area of study or approach to education.
A great many of the standout public magnet schools require students to apply for admission (charter schools do not have entrance exams or competitive admissions requirements). Of course, a school is far more likely to churn out top performers when it has a choice of whom to admit. However, admitting talented freshmen means nothing if a school can’t turn them into high-performing seniors. The school itself has to make a difference.
Plus, magnet schools do not have a monopoly on high-performing students. There are talented kids who are right now stuck in schools that refuse to educate them, that hold them back in the name of “equity,” or that don’t offer courses that let them develop their natural abilities. Those students, and all students, deserve the same smart policies that exist at America’s top high schools.
One common thread is that these schools do not shuffle students along from grade to grade without concern for what they have learned, the way many other schools do. Haas Hall Academy in Arkansas sorts students based on “academic ability[,] not by grade level,” for every subject except English. At the International Academy of Macomb, an unusually rigorous testing schedule makes it clear how well students are performing throughout each semester. No one can coast from one year to the next without having accomplished meaningful learning.
Several schools also emphasize history and civics. Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago requires its students to pass a basic civics test to graduate. The School for Advanced Studies, which operates several campuses in the Miami area, offers an honors class in Constitutional law. Similarly, Nevada’s Davidson Academy offers a class on the Principles of American Government and Economics. Most students never have the chance to study our country in the level of detail these courses represent.
A high proportion of stellar schools allow students to pursue their interests and give each student some level of agency in what they will learn and how they will learn it. Quite a few of the nation’s top schools are science and mathematics magnet schools, meaning they admit students who are excellent at, and interested in, these core subjects. Other schools, even those that aren’t STEM-focused magnet schools, encourage students to take classes that appeal to them: The Signature School in Indiana allows students to take courses offered elsewhere for credit, so long as such courses are approved by the school’s Curriculum Committee. At Davidson Academy, each student must complete a Prospective Learning Plan that charts the course for expanding on curricular requirements with classes a student wants to take, that will get them closer to their scholastic goals.
These programs are the opposite of the one-size-fits-all model seen at so many traditional public schools. The success of these learning models shows that, perhaps, the ability to pursue one’s own interests shouldn’t be a special privilege reserved for the few who make it into a magnet school. Students at all academic levels could find themselves more engaged by courses that match their interests.
Some outstanding schools, including BASIS charter schools and Townsend Harris High School, among others, provide pre-college counseling services that take into account each individual student’s interests, talents, and career goals. Guidance counselors are not an afterthought in students’ high school careers; they are partners in getting students to their right next educational step.
All of this adds up to two main themes shared by great schools: A commitment to academic achievement, and a willingness to treat students as individuals. The standard American high school has a lot to learn, and powerful examples to follow.