Exam Schools: How Do We Take Care of our Best and Brightest?

What do human capital, the Roosevelt House, and demand versus supply have in common? An evening with Checker.

On April 4th, 2013, Dr. Chester “Checker” E. Finn, Jr. president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, explained for a packed audience of parents, faculty, Hunter College alumni, graduate students, civic leaders, and policy wonks at the historic former home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt findings from his recent book, co-authored with Jessica A. Hockett, Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools

Of the 165 selective American high schools studied by Finn and Hockett, 23 of them (some 14%) are in New York City. Hurrah for NYC!  Nationwide, however, these 165 represent less than 1% of the 22,568 public high schools.  “We’re not doing our talented kids any favors,” said Finn of these small numbers of schools for the gifted and talented. “There are simply no system incentives to do right by our smart kids.”

Finn pointed out that in Ohio, where the Fordham Foundation has a strong presence, a quarter million students are disabled and a quarter million are gifted and talented.  “But while almost all of the disabled receive special services,” said Finn, “only 18% of the gifted and talented receive special services.”  This ineffective attention to our best and brightest should not be tolerated, said Finn. “We have many more smart students than we have room for in our gifted and talented programs,” he said.

Finn attributed this lack of programs for smart kids to weak lobbying efforts by state and national advocacy groups as well as to “internal resistance” in the regular schools. “They do not want to lose their bright students to special programs,” said Finn. Moreover, in 2011 under pressure to address a growing budget deficit, Congress eliminated the only piece of legislation and funding for gifted education, leaving yet another barrier.

In his 30-minute talk Finn presented data dispelling several myths about selective high schools. The first is that these schools are reserved for the wealthy; as he pointed out, 36% of students in the select schools he and Hockett studied are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The other myth is that select schools are filled with white students; in fact, almost a third of the student body in these 165 schools was African-American (compared to 17% for all public high schools nationwide).

Finn also pointed out that most of the select schools were in large cities and clustered east of the Mississippi River and noted the apparent paradox of the country’s current concern about our students’ international competitiveness and the lack of resources and infrastructure for gifted education.

In a lively question-and-answer period after the lecture, several audience members asked why gifted education has not been successful in earning more funds for programs and why there is not more empirical data to support these schools.  Finn was quick to challenge the participants to get involved and emphasized the need for a sense of urgency in the effort because “the future of the country may depend on it. Collateral victims are a society and an economy that fail to make the most of this latent capital.”

Finn and Hocket’s book, Exam Schools, is available here.


Elissa F. Brown, Ph.D., is Director, Hunter College Center for Gifted Studies & Education, and Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter School of Education.

Editor’s Note:  By coincidence the New York City Department of Education  released data about its Gifted and Talented programs  several days after Dr. Finn spoke.  See this New York Times account by Al Baker here.

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