Chester Finn on the Virtues of Public Exam Schools

by Reihan Salam

Having attended a public exam school, I’m partial to Chester Finn’s view that they are a valuable part of the broader K-12 landscape. In a New York Times op-ed, Finn argues that our (understandable and important) emphasis on “raising the floor under low-achieving students” has led educators to neglect efforts to “raise the ceiling” for high-ability students. His discussion reminded me of Rick Hess’s National Affairs essay on “achievement-gap mania,” which we discussed last fall. The following passage is drawn from the essay:

The effects of achievement-gap mania have been particularly severe in the area of advanced instruction and gifted education. In February 2009, the California Legislature adopted a plan that allows public schools to divert state money for gifted children to ‘‘any educational purpose.” A 2010 study by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found that 68% of the 231 school districts surveyed had shifted resources away from education for gifted students. California’s Evergreen School District, for example, responded by eliminating all its programs for approximately 800 gifted children. After noting the extensive cuts being made to gifted and talented programs, the San Francisco Chronicle observed: “Critics see courses tailored for exceptional students as elitist and not much of an issue when compared with the vast number of students who are lagging grades behind their peers or dropping out of school.”

Frank C. Worrell, faculty director of the Academic Talent Development Program at the University of California, Berkeley, has identified part of the problem with this approach. “We have focused on bringing up the bottom,” he explains. “But we have failed to recognize that by ignoring the top, we are creating another problem. We are not sparking the creativity of those who have the most potential to make outstanding contributions.”

Fortunately, the unbundling of educational services advocated by Hess and his colleague Olivia Meeks, among many other K-12 reformers, can help address this problem by creating new opportunities for innovative instructional providers to fill the gap. The Florida Virtual School, for example, allows public school students in suburbs and cities across the state to enroll in advanced or niche courses that might not otherwise be available. Per Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation thesis, students who perform above grade-level in discrete subjects are in many cases “non-consumers” of advanced instruction, and distance learning and blended learning is obviously preferable to non-consumption, which can lead to disengagement and frustration on the part of the student. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.