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Two Cheers for Public Schools

At a time when public schools can't seem to do anything right, it's welcome news that the fourth edition of the rankings of the Best High Schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report awarded 500 gold medals ("U.S. News Ranks Nation's Best High Schools," U.S. News & World Report, May 8). This compares with 100 in 2009. California is home to the largest number (97), as well as the largest number of schools receiving gold, silver or bronze medals (577).

In light of this improvement that was based on data from nearly 22,000 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, why do public schools warrant only two cheers? It's because U.S. News moved the goalposts. It made three key changes in the 2012 rankings methodology that made it easier for some schools to qualify for medals, as compared with the last edition published in Dec. 2009. Nevertheless, I still think the media need to cover the improvement story the same way that they cover dropout rates and other negative news. It's a matter of fairness.

Certainly for California, whose schools went from first to worst over the last few decades, the number of awards is most encouraging. I stress this point because Hispanics have made up the majority of public school students in the state since 2010. The fact that many of them are English language learners means that if schools in the state were held to the same standard as in the past, even the best of them would not pass muster.

Only four charter schools finished in the top 20. I would have expected more because they are not bound by the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools. By the same token, I was surprised that just two schools in the top 20 were magnet schools since they typically are highly selective in which students they admit. Still, they deserve recognition for their achievement. Let's not forget that they are public schools.

What the U.S. News report shows is that public high schools are doing a better job in the face of daunting challenges than critics maintain. It also calls into question the claim that public schools are responsible for undermining the nation's ability to compete in the global economy. In the final analysis, "The U.S. remains the largest, richest, most secure market in the world, full of valuable resources" ("Myth Of Decline: U.S. Is Stronger and Faster Than Anywhere Else," Newsweek, May 7). How about giving credit to public schools for their contribution? They still have a long way to go, but they're making progress.

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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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