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Three essays by the prospective student. Transcripts and test scores. Three letters of recommendation. A three-hour admissions exam.

A college application?


That’s what was required of our ten-year old son to be an applicant to a middle-school magnet program in our county’s public schools.

On top of all the above, we had to submit a parent statement and had the option to submit an additional “advocacy statement” if we thought aspects of our son’s record should be overlooked.

So many families are eager for the opportunity to have their child in a magnet program that, in the previous year, 880 students completed all the components of the application in order to be considered for one of the 125 seats in this particular magnet program. That’s a 14% acceptance rate—the same as at elite universities like Cornell University and Amherst College.

The problem with these complicated application procedures is that schools aren’t selecting all the students with the greatest potential to excel. Such a complex application process—with many components, and different deadlines for turning in recommendation forms to teachers, submitting applicant and parent essays, and a yet different day to sit for the written exam—surely favors applicants with highly educated, fluent English-speaking parents who have themselves navigated multi-step school and job application processes multiple times.

No doubt this application process yields highly able students, but it likely fails to identify many qualified applicants whose parents are less skilled or motivated, or who are not fluent in the language of the application materials.

Is that what we truly want, as taxpayers and citizens? Educating the most highly able students to their maximum potential is surely important for the long-term welfare of our county. And, it suits our democratic sensibilities to offer seats in magnet and other enrichment programs to the most qualified, regardless of socio-economic status.

Chester Finn and Brandon Wright take up this issue in their recent book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students. Although conservatives usually argue for a smaller role for school administrators and a greater role for parents, Finn and Wright argue that there is a strong case for making greater use of universal screening—all those tests students spend so much time taking!—and teachers’ nominations in selecting students who would benefit from enriched curricula. That would mean that strong students whose parents, for one reason or another, are less effective advocates for their children and less skilled at coaching their children through complex application procedures would have a better chance at making it into a program suitable to their talents. (Finn and Wright allow that it is also very important for parents to have opportunities to seek admission for their child to selective programs.)

Perhaps another lesson here is that there are many more students who would benefit from enriched and specialized curricula that there are opportunities available in many public school systems. When magnet programs have a 14% acceptance rate, it’s a good bet that many strong applicants don’t land a spot. We need more such programs—and to consider carefully how students are selected for those programs.

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