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School Rankings: Trash Talk About School Quality

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A current project requires me to muck about among school rankings. As a college counselor I know the power these hold over parents. I'm also aware that colleges, at least, have been tempted to fiddle data that they submit to, say, U. S. News, newsmagazine-turned-ranking-service.

High school rankings are an industry, too. A bunch of regional magazines--Boston Magazine here in Red Sox Nation--use them to top off the feature well once a year, and Forbes and the Wall Street Journal have had their innings, focusing on independent schools. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has developed a methodology based on the percentage of students who expose themselves to high stakes (i.e., Advanced Placement) testing; Mathews' list covers primarily public and charter schools, and he has challenged more independent schools to pony up their data. And most communities have those crowd-sourced review websites, Yelp-like, that purport to provide families with useful information as well as an outlet for the pent-up joys and biases of local folk.

Why do we care--especially about the national lists? The independent school rosters are mostly about metropolitan bragging rights (New York City at the top, Boston a close second--the AL East), unless we're considering boarding schools. Like the college rankings, they probably make alums feel good and parents feel glad. In the main, rankings seem reliable ways to sell copies or eyeballs, one more way to feed our national illusion of hip connoisseurship.

The independent school community tends to resist rankings. The official position of the National Association of Independent Schools, is that "Ranking such wonderfully different schools against one another misrepresents the institutions, misleads consumer-minded parents about the factors that should be considered in the complex process of choosing a school, but most importantly, can hurt children." Top-ranked schools haven't exactly lined up to repudiate their anointment, but neither do they flaunt it; it is generally a matter of discretion not to make reference to one's rankings.

Rankings will be with us always, like bedbugs. And every educator knows why they stink; NAIS has it right, above all in its own diverse world: Every school is different, just as every kid is different, and matching a family's values and aspirations to a school is more complicated than selecting the "best" free-range organic hot dog.

The problem, and it's an even worse problem for public schools, "ranked" as they often are based on state testing, not programs, is that we are so enthralled by rankings. If Boston Magazine doesn't publish its list, whatever the methodology, the carpool caucus already has its own, based on who knows what.

The real challenge is to come up with measures of quality that are, like the schools we love, truly student centered. A kid's school experience can't be meaningfully measured by test scores. (Some independent schools, for example, are able to admit a lot of kids with 98th-percentile test scores. How much can we really infer from their impressive selective-college matriculation lists about how much they might have materially added to these kids' "value" as college applicants?) It also can't be measured by the size of the science center, the swim team's win-loss record, the number of pony tails in website photos, the languages taught, or faculty longevity. It's complex and messy; no handful of data points can capture it.

The best part of independent schools' independence is that they can carry out the unique experiment that is each childhood and adolescence in conditions that can be continually adjusted, right down to the student level. Complexity and messiness are part of our DNA.

But this isn't some special thing only independent schools do. Public schools yearn and work hard to provide the same experience to kids, even when hampered by external regulations generated by bureaucrats or the minions of billionaire "reformers." Teachers in every kind of school turn themselves inside out to help kids become the best versions of themselves. Rankings only emphasize the utter poverty of the ways we have found to talk about school quality.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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