I enjoy reading Michael Winerip in the New York Times every Monday. He always finds a way of writing about education issues that avoids jargon and goes to the heart of the matter. He demonstrates every week that a probing intellect is of greater value than any sort of metrics one can devise when judging education initiatives.
This past Monday, Winerip looked at the practice of creating lists of “the bests.” He closely analyzed the Newsweek list of “the nation’s best high schools.” He pointed out that 37 of the top 50 high schools on its list of 1,000 high schools had selective admissions.
As he puts it: “Best in, best out, best school.”
Winerip shows that many of the “best” schools have small numbers of students who are Hispanic, black, or low-income. Some of the “best” schools are located in affluent communities. Says Winerip: “Clearly, best schools would do best not to get bogged down serving students considered un-best.”
But then comes the coup de grace. Only 2,000 of the nation’s 26,000 high schools sent data to be included in the judging. So any high school that joined the “contest” had a 50% chance of being named as one of the best high schools in the nation.
What a joke! The only reason Winerip can think of for creating these lists is that they sell magazines and boost circulation.
He concludes that he is not opposed to schools with selective admissions: “My concern is that the lists are stacked. Schools with the greatest challenges can appear to be the biggest failures. At a time when public education is so data-driven, that kind of thinking can cost dedicated teachers and principals their jobs.”
So next time you see a list of “the best,” be wary. Schools are not teams in a football league. The qualities that make them successful may not reside in the measures. A school may be beloved and successful without meeting the criteria established by Newsweek or some other organization. Let us not be slaves to data.