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Lists of Top Schools: Let the Numbers Do the Thinking

Last week, Jay Mathews released his yearly Challenge Index. All the discussions and controversies about the Index reminded me of a recent conversation about school rankings when I was at a local pizza restaurant after school.

As I was getting ready to take a bite out of my pizza, a man at the table next to me saw my ID badge and said, "You work for the school system, right?"

After I nodded, he continued, "Well, I'm up here on a contracting project, so my family and I are moving to this area. I heard test scores are good. Any recommendations where we should buy a house to get a good education?"

So, while trying to take large bites out of my pizza, and sound professional at the same time, I remember saying something like,

"(chomp.. chomp) Fairfax is regarded as one of the best systems in the country. (chomp.. sip from soda)... One of the great things about this system is that all demographics and testing data can be found online. You will see that, overall, Fairfax is an excellent school district. But more importantly, if you really want to know that your child is getting a good education, you will need to see beyond broad school wide test scores and understand how your child's specific needs will be met. After all, kids have different strengths and needs. Go to the school. Meet the administrators. Meet the teachers. Maybe, even visit the classroom. Get a sense of how your child learns and how he or she feels about the school. Be involved daily in your child's homework and projects. Volunteer to help the school when you can. Test scores are only one indicator, but to really know about the quality of your child's education, it's helpful to be involved and have that partnership with the school."

Moment of silence.... He just looked at me. Then after a pause he said "Uh... But the test scores are good, right? Come on, which school is good? Where's a good neighborhood to move into?"

I was actually proud of my detailed response and that I was able to say all that without choking on my pizza. But, I then realized that he had no interest in what I was saying. He wanted me to say that if the school's passrate on the standardized test is below "X", stay away from that area. If it's above "Y", buy the first house within that school's boundaries you find.

I wasn't going to say any of that, but I thought I did answer his question about how to understand if his child's school would be a "good" fit. It just wasn't the answer he wanted to hear.

I've actually had lots of conversations like this with people who aren't in education. They all want the short answer in finding out which schools are "good."

It's easy to understand why published lists of "Top" or "Best" or "Challenge" rankings of schools continue to do so well. No matter what teachers and many parents say about a quality education being more than just a number, in the end, the public just wants lists and numbers. Without numbers, the alternative is trying to objectively define what a good school should look like in way that is easily and quickly understandable.

Defining a good school is not easy, and the answer can be so complex and subjective depending on individual family preferences, student needs, and local school circumstances. Is a "good" school just student performance on a standardized assessment? Or, is it also about having winning sports teams, debate teams, and recognized drama programs or marching bands? Maybe it's just about straight enrollment in advanced courses without any consideration of preparedness or outcomes. Or maybe it's that school where all the teachers have interactive whiteboards and students have clickers.

Are "good" schools just about sending graduates to the top state and national colleges and universities? What about alternative career programs? Or, do "good" schools also have excellent special education services, school counseling departments, and other "wrap around" services to meet the needs of families with diverse socio-economic backgrounds?

The answer to all these questions is probably "yes".

And when understanding individual needs of students, these questions become more important. In the end, defining "good" is relative based on one's perspective, and sorting all these multiple perspectives out for broad public discussion is too hard.

Authors of these lists can try to explain and rationalize their methodology, in reality; most of the public cares only about what number their local school "earned." It's just human nature. Most people don't have the patience to sort through all our education jargon- they just want a number on a ranked list.

Most people want the conversations about finding good schools to go something like this:

"Are the schools here any good?"
"They're phenomenal! Did you know that over 75% of the schools in this area made The Index? And all the high schools in this district made the Index! And the school you're looking at, is..... (drumroll)...... number 1!"

That's a conclusive conversation. Numbers, for better or worse, are re-assuring in their simplicity. None of the ambiguous edu-talk that I was trying to say in my advice..

Whether accurate, inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete, Top School Lists conveniently summarize ONE perspective of the complex and difficult analysis of what is a "good" school.

And, from the public point of view, if the list is on the Internet or published by a major news organization, it's quotable, and therefore, it must be valid? Right?

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