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Rethinking “Rethinking Schools”: An Open Letter to Chester Finn

October 16, 2013

Mr. Finn–

I noticed in your blog entry, Rethinking High School, you are concerned about issues in America’s (public?) high schools, including flat ACT and SAT scores and America’s no longer having “…the world’s highest graduation (and college going) rate.” You note that other countries (the examples you provide include Finland, South Korea, and Poland) have, “Better teachers. A clear focus on learning. Higher expectations– and higher stakes for kids.” You later write, “the most promising path to change is working around the system.”

I offer that “around the system” is not enough.

You are a reformer, Mr. Finn.  You should “re-form.”  You should change the shape of American education.

No Excuses.

Besides, the key to true reform is right before you– a part of your own personal experience– and that of your own father and your own children.

A veritable 100% graduation rate– and a college attendance rate to match.  Beautiful ACT and SAT scores.  A clear focus on learning.  Higher expectations.  And much more.

Allow me to introduce the Exeter Reform Plan (hereafter referred to as the Exeter Plan), named for the high school alma mater for generations of Finns, Phillips Exeter Academy.

You see, Exeter manifests the very outcomes you so desire in American high school education. In fact, I could find no evidence that Exeter has a high school graduation rate lower than 100%. Exeter’s college attendance rate appears to be equally marvelous.

Average ACT score: 29. Average SAT score: 2100.

Top ten college choices for graduates (2011-13): Columbia, NYU, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Tufts, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, U of Penn.

Now all that you must do is replicate the Exeter model and apply it to America’s public high schools. This will be no easy task. However, you have already proclaimed yourself a “troublemaker”; so, I believe you can rise to the challenge.

First is the matter of the overflowing, $992 million endowment. I realize it might take some work to arrange for all American public high schools to rest on such a fat-fruited money tree, but I think if you rally all of the foundations active in the ever-so-benevolent charge of Education Reform, you can make Exeter Plan happen in cities across our great nation. Also, you must still secure state and federal funds in some form in order to retain the designation of “public” school (to use whenever convenient).

Ample endowments for all American public high schools is non-negotiable in order for the Exeter Plan to work.

Next is the issue of selective enrollment. Call it “higher expectations– and higher stakes for kids.”  In the Exeter Plan, just as in Exeter High School, not everyone who applies is admitted. Indeed, Exeter advertises that it “seeks students” evidencing “proven academic ability.” So, just as Exeter High School accepts roughly 20% of all applicants, so the Exeter Plan must allow for only 20% of those now allowed to attend American public high schools to continue once the Exeter Plan is fully instituted.

This admissions restriction solves a number of issues faced in education reform today. First, it helps level the field when American graduation rates and test scores are compared with those of other countries, for many countries simply do not allow anyone who wishes to continue on to high school. Second, it guarantees that American graduation and college acceptance rates will shine when compared with those of other nations. (Who can beat 100% graduation and college attendance rates?)

Third, since the Exeter Plan requires fewer public high schools, selective admission automatically reduces the demand for teachers, thereby weeding out the bad teachers. Only the best will remain, for supply will far outweigh demand. Fourth, if bad teachers are no longer an issue, value-added measurement of teachers will no longer be necessary. (Note that Exeter Academy does not evaluate its teachers using student test scores. All students are already stellar; they weren’t admitted otherwise, and this makes teachers look good.)

Fifth, selective admission of students makes teaching once again an attractive profession, thus addressing the improvement to the stature of teaching discussed in your “Re-Imagining Teaching” gathering in Washington, DC, on October 4, 2013. And finally, the selective admissions process erases the need for a common core of standards since the bar has already been raised in the first place concerning who is admitted. These students will be college and career ready by virtue of who they are– the best and brightest.

Of course, the question arises as to what one should do with the 80% who are not admitted to public high schools under the Exeter Plan (i.e., the non-accepteds). Here you have some options. First, you could simply do what Exeter Academy does and not concern yourself with them. Second, you could offer a given percentage employment in exchange for a tax of sorts that would pay funds into the endowments of the schools. Third, you might make arrangements with businesses to apprentice some non-accepteds in exchange for no-bid contract work on Exeter Plan campuses. These are just a few ideas. The point is, try to get them out of the streets in a manner that works to Exeter Plan advantage.

This brings us to the next point: You must consult with your legal team regarding how to handle situations whereby the authorities want to force Exeter Plan campuses to accept students. This is a problem in traditional public schools: Students violate the discipline code and are removed from the school by school authorities, only to be returned to the school by the courts. Furthermore, the courts might try to override the Exeter Plan application deadline, thereby forcing Exeter Plan campuses to accept new students at any point in the school year. This, too, is a major problem in the traditional public schools.

The legal team should also consider how to defend the Exeter Plan of non-acceptance of English language learners and lack of support for students diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. Useful information might be gleaned on this front from charter schools; they know how to declare themselves as public or private, depending upon the designation that serves a given purpose. Too, shifting focus to the fact that the Exeter Plan (like Exeter Academy) accepts 44% of students of color and offers an average financial aid grant of $38,430 to 45% of students can help mask who is not being accepted.

It may or may not be useful to try to explain to those who would try to force non-accepteds into Exeter Plan high schools the value of the Harkness tables and restricting classes to a maximum of 12 students. Since Harkness is reminiscent of the Socratic method, some might decry that this is not true reform for its drawing on ancient teaching methods. They also might not understand the value of the 5:1 student-teacher ratio; the high percentage of faculty with advanced degrees (80%); the 21 interscholastic sports offered, or the 160 extracurricular organizations. The beautiful library facilities might seem to be a bit extravagant, as might the boarding of 80% of students.


Exeter Academy: Harkness Table with maximum class size of 12 students.

So, Mr. Finn, there you have it: My challenge for you to really institute a set of reforms that will make the American high school the envy of the modern world.  And you can say that you did it by starting with what you knew: The highly exclusive, Ivory Tower world that is Exeter Academy.


–Mercedes K. Schneider

Traditional Public School Graduate

  Traditional Public School Teacher

  1. Very deftly and cleverly done, Mercedes. A bit of a “modest proposal,” no?

  2. Sara Wood permalink

    I Love this, thank you!

  3. jean sanders permalink

    Brilliant! Thank you so much. We have a conference coming up next week and I will try to get this message into the hands of the attendees and give them your website/blog address.

  4. Peggy Schwarz permalink

    An Immodest Proposal, Mercedes! – You really laid bare the Achilles heel of the corporate education reform philosophy & its gang of liars, fast-talkers, & pretenders of facts. Thanks for a succinct, on-point, & entertaining expose of the fundamental lie of the promise of this faux reform movement. I am going to share this brilliant authentic nonfiction literature with my English teachers.

  5. Bridget permalink

    Yes, Peggy, you can do a VENN diagram to compare and contrast traditional public schools vs the Exeter school, making sure to cite evidence from the text…
    Thanks Dr. Schneider, this is priceless!

  6. You nailed it, Meredith!

  7. Laura h. Chapman permalink

    Wonderful letter and analysis. “Checkers” the reformer appeared on a PBS program with his reform agenda. Agreed to visit an LA high school with a high Latino population, even visited the home of a student where he had a meal and was totally clueless about the hospitality he had been given or the alienation of the student he spent the most time on camera with–a student gifted in art and without a single person in his orbit offering an affirmation of his affinities or talent. I hope I can find the program. It is a great companion to your letter.

  8. ira shor permalink

    Perfect puncture for inflated dishonest rhetoric of a pseudo-reformer, thanks! Exactly right, the ultra-privileged who undermine our public schools deserve no mercy for their hypocrisies.

  9. The truly privileged never realize…some things never change.
    I’ve been reading J L Hammond on the effects of enclosure in the 1700’s.
    Ch. 10, The Mind of the Rich could have been written today rather than 100 years ago.

  10. Excellent example of how a great school could operate! We know he’ll NEVER take this to heart since the unions will not eliminate poor teachers. Too bad.

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