High Schools Shouldn't Guarantee Admission

High Schools Shouldn't Guarantee Admission

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because you shouldn’t be bound to your ZIP code. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.

My mother stole my education for me, before I ever strapped on my first bubblegum-pink backpack and entered the brooding halls of kindergarten. In our gritty neighborhood, the schools were close to failing, the textbooks fell apart and the walls crumbled. But if you drove a short 15 minutes west, you’d find schools that stood tall and gleaming, beacons of education. Their doors opened only to the most privileged students in the city — which shut resoundingly in my face. Back then, school-enrollment fraud was, and still is, illegal. But my mother cheated the system and rustled up a fake address to sneak me into an award-winning magnet school — you know, one of those “shinier” schools.

The aftertaste of a failed high school education can linger throughout a person’s life, simply because they reside in a crappy ZIP code like I did. Today, some 900,000 students remain trapped in low-performing high schools where resources are scant, the curriculum is as bland as bran, and the students — disproportionately Black and Latino — are rarely encouraged to reach their full potential. Many studies illuminate just how low-quality schools can undercut grades in college too and limit opportunities to explore new interests that ultimately lead to full-blown career choices. As racial, ethnic and socioeconomic divides continue to be stubborn features of our education landscape, here’s one way to level the playing field: All students must apply to high school, admission not guaranteed.

Yes, school choice already exists in some form or another: Rich parents can “opt out” of public schools, whether by sending their kids to private school or moving houses; others can apply to public or private charter schools in their cities, hoping for the best. But a nationwide mandatory high school application process for all would fall neatly in step with the ideals of American meritocracy. Call it school choice on steroids. Not everyone will go to an all-star school like Stuyvesant in New York City, but at least high-achieving students will no longer be kept down by the system or miss out on all the rich academic and social experience of high school that they deserve — so long as they submit a polished essay, stellar test scores and some excellent extracurriculars.

Teenagers should have options when it comes to their schooling, much like we all have choices at the grocery store or in the various doctors we can select from in our neighborhood. That means 14-year-old Devon should have a fighting chance for a spot at a public charter school that focuses on the arts and Rosa can finally apply for a nontraditional high school like the Public Museum School in Michigan. Principal Chris Hanks says his school boasts lessons on topics like microbiotics and outer space inside an 80-year-old museum and typically accepts only students who score above a certain percentile in math or reading across the district. Just because a kid doesn’t live in a certain neighborhood shouldn’t mean they’re bound to a school that’s not right for them.

Moreover, students would be encouraged — nay, forced — to think about their futures and to deeply deliberate the kind of careers they would like to lead for the rest of their lives, as early as the eighth grade. Just look at Germany’s three-pronged education tracks to find preteens who already have a profound clarity on what they want to do in life and how they’ll achieve it, long before they learn how to drive.

Of course, Germany’s uber-elite gymnasiums have drawn criticism too. Rather than acting as a great equalizer, its schools for so-called gifted and talented students have become more like breeding grounds of privilege. A mandatory application process for high school would likewise favor more affluent families who have the spare cash to drop on application prep and personal tutors to ensure their spoiled progeny will get into the best high school, again reinforcing inequality. And some experts, like Michael Dannenberg, the director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy at Education Reform Now, say our efforts are better served by improving the lot of schools we already have, rather than forcing students to compete for a limited number of spots at top-tier high schools. “We’ve got a quality problem on the supply side,” he says. “School choice without accountability is reckless. It undermines the school choice movement if it’s done without attention to outcomes and education accountability standards.”

So, choice isn’t the only solution at play here — a point made even more poignant when you consider the fact that attending a public, private or charter high school makes little difference in terms of student achievement, according to both the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) and the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. But then again, if applications work so well for colleges, then why not spread the benefits at the high school level too and aim to close our achievement gap before it’s too late? 

I would know. All those years ago, my mother’s well-meaning scam was discovered a few months after my first day of kindergarten. My last day at the glittery school came in the winter — not even halfway through the academic year. All I can remember is the drooping farewell cake from my teacher and the tears streaming down my face.