The Best High School in America

The best public high school in America is the Claude Shannon Technical Academy, but you won’t find it on any list of top schools. Simply called the Shannon School by its students, it’s located in Lansing, less than two miles east of the Michigan State Capitol building.

The school lives in a large but modest Colonial Revival building, which over the years has been extended and renovated. It’s unremarkable but for a beautifully designed cloister, which lends the place a feeling of study and seclusion. Other than the cloister and a bronze statue of the school's namesake—the brilliant Michigan son responsible for information theory and modern communications—there is little in the way of grandeur. Nothing is overwrought or suggestive of the school’s preeminence. The immediate surroundings are thick with old hemlocks, oaks, and white pines, broken up only by a track and soccer field.

The Shannon School is a magnet program—drawing 800 students from across school districts in Lansing, East Lansing, and nearby townships—and has a charter from the Michigan government that allows it to operate independently of the normal public education system. Half its students are admitted based on an entrance exam, and half are admitted by simple lottery. These features aren’t unique, and echo those of many top high schools around the country.

What is unique about the Shannon School, as its teachers are proud to tell you, is that it’s not a college preparatory program. Its mission is to graduate “free-thinking citizens who thrive in any pursuit.” Much of its curriculum departs markedly from what you might consider a typical secondary education.

One of the reasons the Shannon School doesn’t appear among rankings like that of the U.S. News & World Report is because the school offers no Advanced Placement courses. (AP exams allow students to earn college credit and test out of many freshman-year college courses.) Ranking bodies treat AP exams as important evaluation criteria for comparing high schools: what percentage of students take AP exams, what percentage of students pass, etc. Shannon School administrators believe AP exams obscure learning objectives and curb teacher autonomy. They also cite a growing body of research showing that the College Board has lowered AP standards over the years, such that AP scores don’t actually demonstrate college preparedness.

Instead of English classes, the Shannon School divides the subject into Composition and Literature. This is motivated by the fact that most writing beyond high school has little to do with the study of the humanities.

As people like startup investor Paul Graham have noted, the way children learn writing today is an intellectual hangover from medieval law and 19th-century university research. The vast majority of the world’s writing isn’t about arguing a position, and it certainly isn’t about analyzing works of literature.

Writing, simply put, is refined thinking. And an essay, from the French essayer, is an attempt to figure out what you think. So while Shannon School students write works of literary criticism and analysis like all high schoolers, they also write just as often about topics more personal to them, like baking, bitcoin, and the Detroit Tigers.

Freshman-year Composition dwells on grammar, as teachers have found that students often enter the Shannon School with remedial-level reading and writing skills. All freshmen are given a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. (A controversy is brewing, however, as some of the younger teachers have started to champion Farnsworth’s Classical English Style.) The curriculum emphasizes fluency, and fluency demands mastery of the fundamentals.

In Literature, Shakespeare is read every year. Contemporary literature is virtually absent from the school, in favor of works like The Odyssey, Antigone, Frankenstein, and Crime and Punishment. Students read more essays, poetry, and philosophy than typically seen on a high school syllabus, which allows them to sample a wider breadth of human thinking than if they were confined only to drama and novels. They’re exposed to Aristotle, Descartes, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf. Juniors devote an entire semester to satire, reading Gulliver’s Travels and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Seniors read Plato’s Republic.

History for the students first concentrates on classical antiquity. From there students survey world history up through the Enlightenment, with special attention paid to the Islamic Golden Age and the Renaissance. American History comes in junior year. The curriculum ends with Civics, in service of the school’s mission to educate citizens. Seniors study the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They read excerpts from The Federalist Papers, George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the works of Frederick Douglass, and notable Supreme Court decisions like Marbury v. Madison and Plessy v. Ferguson. They compare other forms of government, like the constitutional monarchy of  the United Kingdom and the state communism of the former Soviet Union.

Three years of foreign language courses are required, but only one language is offered at the Shannon School: Latin. This is because roughly two thirds of English is rooted in Latin, and Latin helps form the technical language used in science, medicine, and law. Latin thus not only offers the benefits of foreign language learning, but gives students a better grasp of their own language and culture. In the U.S., students who take Latin score significantly higher on the SAT, and Latin is of course the basis for all Romance languages, laying a foundation for further foreign language learning.

Students translate excerpts of The Aeneid, The Gallic Wars, and Cicero’s speeches. In their first year, Shannon School students get to study Roman history while simultaneously learning its ancient tongue; after graduation, many students cite this as their single favorite educational experience. It’s a special kind of immersion to learn about Caesar in his own words.

Students take laboratory-based science courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, but equipment is rarely more sophisticated than a Bunsen burner. You won’t find  supercomputers or advanced robotics labs like those boasted by many top science and technology programs. Administrators regard them as frivolous.

Two of the school’s required classes are rarely required by other high schools: Introduction to Computer Programming, and Principles of Economics. Both are arguably necessary in apprehending modern civilization, and teach mental models useful to any profession.

In the required year of programming, students learn basic concepts through a variety of approachable languages like Scratch and Python, and build a simple webpage.

Principles of Economics combines practical finance—budgeting, debt, and the magic of compound interest—with the beautiful and counter-intuitive concepts of classical economics. Students learn about supply and demand, opportunity cost, and comparative advantage.

Very little money is spent outside of the classroom. The desks and textbooks are old, but the school is always clean. The only school sports are soccer, basketball, cross country, and track and field, although there is a wealth of electives and clubs, including a debate team and a chess club.

The average Shannon School teacher makes nearly $90,000 per year, almost 50% more than the state average. Unlike traditional public schools, teacher compensation is based on merit rather than seniority, and the Shannon School offers no teacher tenure. And unlike many charter schools, which hire year-to-year in a model derisively called “churn and burn,” Shannon School teachers are typically hired for a one-year probationary period, and are then offered three- and five-year contracts.

Shannon School teachers are hired for more than just credentials, and are recruited from a much wider breadth of work experience. Little attention is paid to advanced education degrees. Some teachers’ past jobs include business consulting, software development, and construction management.

All of this I consider highly desirable, but what first drew my attention to the Shannon School, what most impresses me, what most needs to be imitated and endorsed and expanded upon is the school’s math curriculum.

Mathematics is an art, as Paul Lockhart notes in his essay, “A Mathematician’s Lament” (later expanded into a book), yet our society doesn’t recognize it as such. We fabricate sterile lesson plans that stamp out a youngster’s curiosity, imagination, and inborn love of puzzles.

American mathematics pedagogy is in a bad way. Formulae are served and regurgitated. Classes are larded with excessively formal notation and lessons which elevate that formalism above discovery and understanding. An ordinary high school math class will introduce a technique, demand that students memorize it, and then test their ability to mechanically execute said technique in a series of exercises. This is backwards. A Shannon School class will ask students a question—one like “Do prime numbers go on forever?”—and only after they grapple with it will the teacher introduce the technique.

Mathematics is “the music of reason.” Like any art, it needs to be learned in context, and a Shannon School math class will in any week draw on far more history, conjecture, philosophy, and informal proof than you might see in a whole year of ordinary high school math. The essence of a good mathematics education is not the set of truths it delivers, nor the unthinking manipulation of symbols, but rather the process—the way of thinking—for deriving truth. In short, the Shannon School teaches math as a verb, not as a noun.

That’s not to say rote learning has no place at the Shannon School. Engineering professor Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and teacher of one of the world’s most popular online courses, “Learning How to Learn,” argues that repetition is necessary for fluency, and fluency is necessary for competence and understanding. The research literature says that this is the best way to learn complex subjects. Any high art, like painting or music, requires breaking up the art into its constituent parts, and practicing those parts repeatedly.

“The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding,” says Oakley, “is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition.”

Shannon School teachers know this well, and use techniques like spaced repetition and cumulative exams to ensure that students have a breezy command of math’s building blocks.

Unlike every other American high school, the math curriculum’s arc doesn’t terminate with Calculus. Students begin with Algebra and Geometry, but Calculus is offered only as an elective. Seniors instead take two math classes: Logic and Proof, and Probability and Statistics. In these classes, students are introduced to propositional logic, elementary proof techniques, combinatorics, probability distributions, Bayes’ theorem, and classic puzzles like the Monty Hall problem.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of calculus, as John von Neumann once noted, and it’s the mortar of nearly every engineering field, but logic, proof, and probability apply to all of life’s footpaths. Everyone needs to think through consequences, to spot contradictions, and to navigate uncertainty. These tools aren’t only useful in higher mathematics, but give us a Swiss army knife for the subtle mathematical problems that face every human every day.

The Shannon School is in many ways an ideal of secondary education. It’s what I wish my own high school could have been, but, as the discerning reader has probably guessed, there is no such place as the Shannon School.

Why can’t the Claude Shannon Technical Academy exist? Why isn’t there a Shannon School in every American city? When I ask my friends and colleagues, many tell me that the problem is simple: money. Teachers are underpaid and schools are underfunded. But this is a facile complaint, made popular only by ignorance of the basic facts.

Yes, U.S. teacher salaries are behind Luxembourg and Germany, but they’re comparable with Denmark and Sweden—normally pointed to as model education systems—and ahead of countries like France.

The U.S. spends $13,600 per pupil per year on K-12 education, near the top of OECD countries. This far exceeds the OECD average of $9,800, and outpaces the spending of countries that beat the U.S. along every measure of educational success, like Canada ($11,100), Finland ($10,200), and Estonia ($7,400). And while we spend more every year, American test scores remain stagnant. This is deeply discouraging; the straightforward solution—spend more money—doesn’t work.

G.K. Chesterton said that the business of progressives is to go on making mistakes, and the business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. In a strange way, all of the major forces in public education today are conservative. Parents, trying to maintain local control of schools, yoke children to zip codes. Good schools boost nearby home values, thereby pushing those schools out of reach for the poor, stratifying public education in a self-reinforcing cycle. And teachers unions, representing schoolteachers of course, keep bad teachers on the job and consistently kill proposals for education reform like charter schools or merit-based pay. In that context, our typical responses to failing schools—new standards, new bureaucracies, evermore spending—however well intentioned, foremost cement the failures.

We’ve turned statistics like high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and standardized test scores into educational targets. This does serious, pernicious harm. Such statistics can be valuable indicators of success, but only when they’re not the goals in themselves. This is called Campbell’s law, after the psychologist and social scientist Donald Campbell, and is the phenomenon being described when you hear parents and educators decry “teaching to the test.”

When our statistics become our goals become our demands, we invariably distort our decisions. The easiest way to boost high school graduation rates is, well, to make graduating high school easier. One needs only look at exam questions from 100 years ago to see how thoroughly we’ve debased secondary education.

That’s not a cranky argument for winding back the clock on our high schools; it’s an argument for humility. We still hew to a 19th-century Prussian model of education for training farmers and factory workers. We should be humble enough to admit that we don’t know the valuable professional skills of tomorrow, we don’t know how to teach that flabby concept critical thinking, and we don’t know the best model of education.

The Shannon School is an ideal, but it’s certainly not the only ideal. It’s not even a particularly imaginative ideal, in that I’ve dreamt up fairly minor changes to high school subject matter and pedagogy. We rage over the barest changes to our educational model—over Common Core or school vouchers—when we should be experimenting with so much more and trying so much harder to venture out of the dust bowl of American schooling.

Thanks to Zak Slayback for reading an early draft.