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Refining School Rankings

Americans love rankings. They serve as a quick and easy way of determining who or what is better than others in the same category. I understand their appeal, but I wonder if rankings do more harm than good because they fail to take into account vital nuances.

Consider rankings of hospitals and schools. In a column in The New York Times, Peter B. Bach, M.D. wrote that "researchers at Dartmouth College publish rankings of hospitals and states based not on how successful they are at preventing deaths of patients who are very ill, but on how much they spend on those they fail to save" ("When Care Is Worth It, Even if End Is Death," Dec. 13).

If you think about it, schools are ranked in similar ways. We constantly read reports that the U.S. spends more money per student than any other country in the world (with the exception of Luxembourg) and yet has appallingly high dropout rates. But we rarely read anything about the success of schools that prevent dropouts even though these same schools are composed of students from the most chaotic backgrounds.

Instead, we are told that throwing more money at failing schools won't matter. These schools are beyond repair and should be shuttered or converted to charter schools or some other educational entity. Would we make the same argument about hospitals? And what about doctors who attend to patients who are very ill when they are admitted? Should these doctors be penalized when they can't save the lives of these patients?

Public schools are not Lourdes and teachers are not miracle workers. They don't always succeed. But reformers hold them to a standard much higher than hospitals and doctors. Pathologies are not limited to the health care industry. They also affect the educational sector in the background of students. In both cases, practitioners are forced to perform triage. It's something to think about the next time public schools are painted with a broad brush of failure.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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