Administration Eyes New Rules For Blue Ribbon Schools

By Alan Richard — June 13, 2001 3 min read
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The popular National Blue Ribbon Schools program run by the Department of Education will survive in its present form—but maybe for just another year.

After that, President Bush has proposed big changes. His “No Child Left Behind” education plan called for the Blue Ribbon program to be transformed into rewards for schools that had narrowed the achievement gap between students of different races and ethnic groups.

“There will be a different recognition program,” Lindsey Kozberg, the chief spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said last week.

Congress could still act to rescue the Blue Ribbon program, which recognized 264 elementary schools last month. It operates on a budget of about $1 million a year. Next year’s Blue Ribbon winners will include middle and high schools, and Ms. Kozberg said those schools may apply by November under current rules.

Education groups, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals, have written letters asking the administration to preserve the program as it is. But the administration wants any federal reward program to more closely reflect President Bush’s education plan and the soon-to-be reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

White House education adviser Sandy Kress said an entirely new system of rewards for schools could be allowed under the reauthorized ESEA, with many of the details left to the secretary of education.

“If the federal government is going to be in the business of honoring schools, we ought to honor schools doing well in relation to their accountability standards in their own states,” Mr. Kress said.

Ms. Kozberg said she was uncertain about whether the traditional White House ceremony honoring the winners would be held later this year, but she said some type of awards ceremony was planned.

Bells and Whistles?

The program, launched in 1983 during the Reagan administration, has come under scrutiny several times. Congress cut its funding in 1992, but then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander found the money to keep it going.

Many schools, in fact, can win the award despite significant academic problems. (“In the Age of Accountability, a Blue Ribbon Means a Lot,” May 24, 2000.)

The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, blasted the program in a report last year and urged that schools be barred from nominating themselves and that the awards be more closely tied to student achievement.

“Good schools are not the schools doing all the bells and whistles. They’re the schools that are teaching children what they need to know,” said Tom Loveless, a scholar affiliated with Brookings who wrote the report. Recently, he co-wrote an article showing that many of California’s many ribbon-winning schools had test scores only slightly higher than state averages.

Defenders of the program say the model has been tested by time and continual review.

“It’s pretty tight now and very heavy on assessment. I’m not quite sure I know what the Bush people want it to be. It’s certainly on board with the standards movement,” said Evelyn Ogden, the deputy superintendent of the 8,600-student East Brunswick, N.J., schools and a veteran member of the panel that selects Blue Ribbon winners.

Some districts have adopted the Blue Ribbon process as a school improvement model, including the 6,000-student Flowing Wells district in Tucson, Ariz.

J. Robert Hendricks, a former superintendent of the Flowing Wells schools and a member of the panel that selects winners, said changes might be warranted, but must be undertaken with care.

Mr. Hendricks, the lead author and editor of a yet-to-be-published book on the Blue Ribbon program, researched the educational practices of Blue Ribbon winners. He said if the program shifts its emphasis to student achievement, it should rely on a broad set of data, not just a few test scores.

“If they want revealing information about how students are truly performing, it requires a step back and a broader look at assessment,” Mr. Hendricks said. He added that the program should also keep its name, since it’s so well-known.

Kimberly Edwards, the state director of Blue Ribbon schools in California, said the criteria used to pick winners can be improved, but that it has rewarded schools serving low-income students.

“When Blue Ribbon started 18 years ago, it may have been the more affluent schools [that often won],” she said. “But it’s flexible enough to look for and accommodate the schools that need to be modeled.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Administration Eyes New Rules For Blue Ribbon Schools


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