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We're #1

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In case you missed it, Newsweek’s role as the arbiter of the best high schools in the nation has just been challenged by U.S. News & World Report, which released its own tally today. Turns out TJ, where I teach, is tops.

I last wrote about this over a year ago in Education Week, (Ranking America’s High Schools: A Few Quibbles on What Constitutes 'Best', June 14, 2006) when Newsweek’s list came out and we weren’t on it. TJ and other selective public high schools were not ranked but instead relegated to a sidebar for being, well, selective. My comments led to a dialogue in “Certifiable?” (We Interrupt This Blog ... July 5, 2006) and beyond with Jay Mathews, the Washington Post education writer who created the formula used by Newsweek (and a mentor in my own journalism career, such as it is).

I challenged the Challenge Index in part because it only measured the number of tests taken, but not the results. Andrew Rothertham, pithy edu-brain and an author of the new rating scale, has taken that into account with a formula that gives 25% of the credit for just taking hard tests, but 75% for doing well on them.

Our principal announced the news to staff in an email that took a measured tone. While he acknowledged the significance of the recognition he also noted that we were ranked not for “the uniqueness of our curriculum and the rigor and creativity of our student projects … nor as a result of our commitment to innovation [or] interdisciplinary connections,” and went on to add, “In my ideal world, [rankings] should reflect the degree to which [schools] prepare students to develop original ideas and influence progress in society.”

Like Dr. Glazer, I have mixed feelings about the accolade. On one hand, US News got it right. The achievement of our kids is ridiculously high, due both to their remarkable innate abilities, and also to the great job we do with them once they walk in the door. Simply put, I have never been at a school that addresses its mission with such robust integrity, day in and day out.

But I also go back to some of Jay’s thinking, about which I’m Voltairish: not agreeing with his results but defending to the death his right to focus our collective attention on the issue of what makes a great school… particularly in light of his oft-repeated assertion that ranking schools by test scores is akin to ranking them by the socio-economic status of the parents. It’s hard to ignore that US News’ top ten includes a healthy dose of magnet schools or ones from good zip codes, most with relatively low figures under “minority enrollment” and “disadvantaged student enrollment.”

To put a face on TJ achievement, take Vishaka, one of my tenth graders and a typical TJ kid. She led the group of meditating girls mentioned last post, hosts a cable TV show in her spare time, and in general displays the kind of wonderfulness that allowed me to write about her without a blush in a recent letter of recommendation that she “embodies the qualities of pageantry.”

Sure enough, over the recent Thanksgiving break while most of us were lolling in tryptophan stupors on our couches at home, she went down to Florida and won a Miss America contest. She came back to school with her crown and sash in a little glass box etched with stars, and couldn’t resist wearing them in the library when she told me about her whirlwind week. After her story, she slipped off the tiara and went back to her computer to continue a research project.

A few kids nearby raised their eyebrows, but most just smiled and turned back to their computer screens, continuing work on their own research projects. Miss America contests aren’t everyone’s thing, but they are Vishaka’s. And she’s incredibly good at them. But she didn’t get that way without a lot of determination and sacrifice. Qualifying as the runner-up in Northern Virginia, Vishaka worked twice as hard as the other girls to look calm and collected while talking about world poverty in an evening gown.

Like Vishaka, TJ will bask briefly in the glow of its newest award and gracefully ignore the haters. Before you know it, the tiara will be back in its box as we continue the work we do every day in pursuit of excellence. More than test scores, demographics, or one particular mathematical formula versus another, that’s what makes us #1.


5 Comments

tHERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A TRPTOPHAN STUPOR, LARGELY DISCRDITED AND RECENTLY ASSERTED TO BE NON-EXISTENT. YOUA RE TIRED BECAUSE YOU ATE TOO MUCH, PERIOD.

The commenter above is actually correct, it has shown to be a result of carbs instead of tryptophan, but it is still a fun term to use. I think the #1 ranking is a mixed blessing, because on one hand it brings enormous attention to our school, which can lead to more funding, etc. But take, for example, the fact the a well-liked biology teacher was planning to teach an alternative AP Biology class, one where the official curriculum wasn't exactly followed, but it still prepared students for the test and boosted their GPA. Well after the article hit the stands, the teacher threw the idea out the window because the rankings depend upon students taking AP classes. So what is more important, a high ranking at the expense of students who actually would like to learn AP bio without being stuck with the current teachers and curriculum, or a lesser ranking with more succesful kids?

It's funny how every time some organization ranks high schools, TJ starts screaming how unfair the ranking process is.

Unless we come out on top, of course.

Thanks, Mr. Rosenfeld. You're a fantastic teacher.

I just follow my dreams and try my best to make them come true. When something doesn't happen as I wish, I understand that it is so with some reason, and that I will uncover that reason when the time is right, and the dream comes true.

In the meantime, I will "bask briefly in the glow of my newest award and gracefully ignore the haters" as I continue to work toward further excellence. :)

How can you compare schools that are selective to schools that are non selective? I simply can't get over it. I'm principal in a school of choice where kids are picked by random lottery. Everything would be different if there were any kind of selection criteria whatsoever. I am sure you have a great school, but a defining reality is that selectivity invalidates comparison to anything other than another selective school. Am I missing something?
- Sue Meier (also an eduholic: does it count if I only teach one elective and am otherwise an administrator?)

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