Cincinnati media are buzzing that the region's number of National Merit Semifinalists bumped up significantly this year, with 230 in the region, up about 50 from last year.
With an personal interest in one semifinalist, we note that local numbers show ongoing concentration in a few schools. Giant Oak Hills, which boasts the highest enrollment and number of course offerings in Ohio, has two. Lots of big publics have one or none. The big numbers come from selective publics (Walnut Hills); large, upper-middle-class-suburban publics (Sycamore, Mason); small, upper-middle-class-suburban publics with a history of high tax support for education (Wyoming, Mariemont, Indian Hill); and well-funded, selective privates (Seven Hills, St. Xavier, Cincinnati Country Day).
Still, why the bump? In a local case, it could be sheer coincidence. Trends take time to develop, of course. We'll see if this is but a blip.
If it persists, we suspect it could be reasonably attributed to some schools' deliberate competition to serve bright students better. For awhile there's been a quiet rivalry among some local high schools for Greater Cincinnati's smart kids. To attract them, schools have to cater to them. In catering, they offer programs that educate that segment better, putting a few more kids over the top on the standard for standardized-test excellence than they might otherwise.
Too bad there isn't similar competition to do the best with other demographic segments, at least as far as we can tell. While there's been plenty of attention given to working with at-risk students, there's nothing resembling healthy competition to attract their enrollment. Communities may work to attract and retain families committed to education, but we need not enumerate the disincentives to attracting the other end of the pool.
Meanwhile, what of the middle? Perhaps some of the schools with lonely-only National Merit Semifinalists are indeed putting their focus on the average to moderately bright student and show good outcomes in graduating such students and getting them successfully enrolled in postsecondary education (not necessarily college, but that's another subject). These stats won't reflect that effort.
But we doubt very much that there's a real competition to attract such students with programs aimed at them. And we think we know why.
Such students are served almost exclusively by public schools, though Cincinnati's robust parochial system is a sort of public-school surrogate. Public schools by nature don't see themselves in a competitive situation, apart from athletics. Kids go to the school because they live in the community. Homeowners and realtors generally push the schools to be attractive as a means of supporting demand for homes in the community and thus supporting home values and sales. Residents want better rather than worse, at least if they have kids enrolled. Meanwhile, property owners want the lowest taxes possible on their homes, applying pressure (wholesome, in our view) on spending.
But if you live in a school district, you're normally stuck sending your kids to the local schools. Many folks make the calculation that moving for education isn't worth the bother, though they might jump at the chance to send their kids to another school if they could do so at the same cost as their local public entity. And if such were possible, schools would be driven by competition to improve services to attract such students.
This, of course, is exactly what school-choice advocates say: choice breeds competition, breeding quality improvement over time.
For those in Cincinnati with bright kids--statistically better funded than most families, more committed to education and so more willing to make the expensive choices presently available--the results of such choices just might be visible in this statistic, not least because such schools have deliberately competed for such families. We'll see what the future holds before we draw that conclusion, but the correlation is at least interesting.
Meanwhile, and by way of SWNIDish advice to the young and thoughtful, we'll note yet again that Cincinnati Public Schools comprise a low-cost, competitive choice for families with a commitment to education for their bright kids but limited finances. For district residents there's no tuition for Walnut or the best elementaries in CPS. Cincinnati proper has lots of housing bargains, making it affordable for just about anyone to go to great schools. Taxes could be lower, but they're partly offset by lower costs for housing.
And interestingly, CPS long ago created (accidentally?) a competitive market. In the 1920s it provided a selective, college-prep high school that soon became competitive with the best private academies. In the 1970s it created what became a small, highly regulated but still competitive market among its elementaries and high schools, allowing several schools to enroll city-wide.