Ranking High Schools: How Rank, Part II

(This is the second part of a short series. To read Part I, please go here.)

by Hilary Crowe*

Just in case you doubted the diversity of the Top 100 “Gold Medal” high schools anointed by U.S. News and World Report, the magazine points out that of the students enrolled at number 99, Boston’s Media and Technology Charter School, “more than 90 percent are black or Hispanic, and most live in poverty.” The publication goes on to state the extreme-but-necessary measures the dedicated faculty and staff take to get the majority of students off to college and future success. However, I seriously doubt that magnet and charter schools should be included in the rankings of public high schools, as these institutions are only partially open to everyone’s child.

Also in line with purveying deceptive pedagogical equity, U.S. News says that its top-ranked school, Thomas Jefferson High School is in “suburban Washington, D.C.” Actually, U.S. News, to be precise, it’s in Alexandria, Virginia, but I didn’t have to point that out – you know you didn’t include the District in your rankings considerations. To do so would have been a waste of statisticians’ time and energy, anyway. The D.C. public school system is the most infamously neglected in the nation; it’s not uncommon for students to graduate at only a third grade reading level (just do a quick Google search of the myriad non-profit tutoring organizations in the area that strive to pick up the system’s slack). Schools in the affluent suburban areas bordering D.C. are actually a world away, so the magazine's geographic label for its top school is disingenuous. In fact, U.S. News’ rankings considered high schools in only 40 of the 50 states. A few of the states not included were Mississippi, Montana and Nebraska (because they provided insufficient data for calculation), and Alabama, Alaska, and the Dakotas (and D.C.) because they didn’t make their 2005-2006 school-year state test data available in time for the magazine's analysis.

Due to the obvious and expected holes in data collection, statistics are a notoriously shoddy representation of fact. I can personally attest to inequity and the system flawed logic that goes into such ranking, as my former high school was ranked number 41 in the nation this year by the trailblazer in school ratings Newsweek and my school was rated number 36 in 2005 – when I was in attendance. As high as my school was ranked, most likely because of the magnet International Baccalaureate program it hosted, our graduation rate was abysmal and there was a cleft in administrative attentiveness toward students: the clearly college-bound IB-ers experienced a deluge of encouragement and praise regularly, not to mention some animosity on the part of the students who were not in the program, while the traditional students did not. Based upon my observations and experience, half the school was receiving, a half-assed education, unless the individual strove to achieve and pursue academic excellence on his or her own volition. One visit by Newsweek’s editors would have revealed the disparity, and, in light of such knowledge, I question the journalistic integrity of a publication that would praise such a rift in educational practices divided by, most notably though not prohibitively, socioeconomic standing.

For that reason, U.S. News claims its more equitable standards of ranking sets its list above that of Newsweek’s, stating “Because the U.S. News list uses more data to judge schools, it paints a clearer picture,” and defends its praise of the ranked, encouraging readers that “We are a nation that always strives to do better, and the good news should galvanize us.”

I agree – there is a lot we can learn by analyzing the practices and teaching methods (but not just the results) of effective institutions of learning and by investigating why such is not the case with institutions across America and across communities of varying socioeconomic standing. However, the praise these once widely-read publications (before the web put some of the publishing power in the hands of sometimes-erudite and opinionated citizens) dole out in hierarchical list-form is tantamount to yellow journalism. These magazines cash in sensationalism and gimmick for profit while simultaneously placing an ironic smiley face band aid on a festering open wound that stands to swallow the healthy tissue of the nation – those young cells waiting to be fortified each morning as they sit in their mass-produced desks and salute a mass produced, red, white and blue symbol of ever-increasingly mythical equality.

So, instead of sweeping the academic untouchables under the rug, corral some of those less-effective samples of the U.S. public education system, put that petri dish under the microscope and look for a solution. Take all that statistical information and energy and publish an investigative story. Visit those schools that didn’t make the list. Hold the educational powers that be accountable and make them strive to do better. Because Newsweek and U.S. News are knee-deep in numbers, TIME, I’m looking at you.

*The author is a graduate of C. Leon King Magnet School in Tampa, Florida.

(To read this piece from the beginning, please see Part I.)

(Photo by Valsilvae of Boutersem, Belgium via stock.xchng. To see a video from U.S. News about how it put together the high school rankings, please click here.)

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Anonymous said...

Great content but try to be more brief, a lot more brief
The 5 cent words are mostly eye sores. Blogs aren't the place for wearing out your thesaurus..

Hilary Crowe said...

i didn't use a thesaurus, and i refuse to change my style. i write on ivory towerz because there's no outlet for young writers to stretch their legs and get a bit of freedom in journalism school. and blogs are the place to say what one wants, how one wants.

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