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.