Is ‘Best’ Better?

August 29, 2006 7 min read
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This summer, Emmet Rosenfeld, an English teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, and the author of Teacher Magazine’s blog “Certifiable?,” published an opinion piece in Education Week criticizing Newsweek’s “Best High Schools” list. Rosenfeld argued that the formula on which the list is based, known as the Challenge Index, measures only how many kids take advanced classes, not how well they do, and is thus an inaccurate gauge of school performance.

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, the creator of the Challenge Index, wrote a detailed response to Rosenfeld’s piece, published both in Education Week and, in a slightly longer version, on Rosenfeld’s blog. In it, he accused Rosenfeld of supporting an outmoded model of evaluation that discounts schools’ efforts to boost learning for all students and ultimately equates school quality with family income.

Over the summer, Rosenfeld and Mathews, who are friends, continued their debate via e-mail. A transcript of their dialogue follows:

From Emmet Rosenfeld to Jay Mathews: You are the unsung mentor to a generation of education writers, myself included. You encouraged me to blog on Teacher, and long before that, you will recall, I helped research one of the earliest versions of the Challenge Index back in 1998. I doubt you imagined then how influential this list would become, and I certainly never thought I’d be calling it Frankenstein’s monster. But eight years later and with the help of Newsweek, the list has changed the landscape of American education. It’s time to ask if the changes help or hurt kids.

In your recent response to my critique of Newsweek’s list, you make a convincing case that test scores generally correspond with average parental income. I agree with you. I did not, however, challenge the list because I’ve embraced “the centuries-old notion that the best schools are those with the fewest low-income students.” Thomas Jefferson’s rich parents aren’t sitting in my classroom, and its astronomical test scores are merely a reflection of its quality, not what defines it.

When I say “best,” I’m speaking from the gut, as a teacher. Never before have I been so challenged intellectually by my students and colleagues as I am on a daily basis at TJ. The quality of the academic experience at this gifted magnet school—the engagement, the depth, the rigor—surpasses anything I’ve yet seen in my career. That includes my time at the very diverse Mount Vernon High School [in Fairfax County, Virginia] (what some might call a “regular” school, albeit with a robust International Baccalaureate program) and a variety of other institutions.

From Jay Mathews to Emmet Rosenfeld: I will follow your good example of not pulling any punches on the issue of the Newsweek list, since that was what made your Education Week commentary so compelling.

You put the emphasis just where it should be: Does the list help or hurt kids? Your piece talked about TJ. I just cannot see that the list has done a speck of harm to those young men and women who are, as you say, among the brightest and most advantaged in the country. The list is not designed for them, but for students in average schools, and you are equally familiar with that group.

So please tell me how you think the list has harmed the kids at Mount Vernon High, where you did so much great work. It is my feeling, based on my conversations with teachers there, that the school’s appearance on the Newsweek list has been a big plus. Because the school has so many low income and minority students, people tend to assume it is not a very good school. Its placement on the list suggests to them that they might examine that assumption more carefully, and at the same time provides a deserved boost, the Mount Vernon people tell me, to the morale of the educators, students, and parents at that school.

Emmet Rosenfeld: I’m glad for Mount Vernon that being on the list raises its profile: For the ten years I taught there, we never seemed to get a fair shake. It’s also true that TJ is so awash in trophies and awards that one more won’t make a difference. So where is the harm? I see it in two places.

You state above that, “The list is not designed for [the TJs of the world], but for students in average schools. ...” That may be how you designed it, Jay, but Newsweek calls it “America’s Best High Schools.” They certainly have the right to slap a superlative on their cover to sell magazines, but they still have to tell the truth. Frankly, if they had stuck with the far more accurate name you gave the thing, “The Challenge Index,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Newsweek’s list, and the mathematical formula you devised on which it is based, measures how much a school challenges its kids. Certainly worth doing. But it doesn’t measure accurately which schools are best.

The second harm is more than semantic. There’s an insidious chain reaction that goes like this: The list is popular. Schools want to be on it. To get on the list, they shove more kids into advanced classes whether or not these are the right classes for the kids. “Regular” classes become ghettoes for malcontents rather than places where a kid can learn (or where a teacher can survive for long—and usually it’s a young teacher, as we know, since those with any seniority get out while they can). Net result of having no middle ground between special ed and advanced? “Easier” hard classes, and lower retention of energetic new teachers.

Jay Mathews: Not so fast. You are ignoring my point—that your view of what is “best” does not stand up to close scrutiny. You seem to assume that everybody agrees with you that best means those schools with the smartest students, as measured by test scores, like TJ. You don’t bother to defend that assumption because you know that almost everyone reading this will agree with it. But I want you to defend it. I think you will find that very difficult, but if anyone can do it, you can.

And if you want to substitute as a definition of “best” your own fleeting reference to the best school being the one where it is the most fun to teach, please do so, and give me a defense of that. It is one of the many subjective assessments of schools that cannot be measured, and if you want to say that there is no useful quantitative measure of high school, go ahead and say that. But you can’t just ignore the problem of defining what is best as if we all already knew the right definition.

And while you are at it, defend this sentence: “To get on the list, they shove more kids into advanced classes whether or not these are the right classes for the kids.” Those were the very words that many people used to criticize Mount Vernon’s decision to open its IB program, and access to a splendid young teacher named Emmet Rosenfeld, to all students who wanted a challenging courses, including many low-income students. Many people who believe that test scores best define students, and schools, looked at the test scores of those kids and said those IB courses were not right for them.

Emmet Rosenfeld: Which best is best? Is the ideal school one that fosters an incredibly rich life of the mind, or one that truly educates every student that walks in its doors? For me as a teacher seeking challenge and fighting the perennial battle against burnout, the first is best. For you as a journalist/champion of the American educational ladder, the second is best. Newsweek should be so clear.

As to shoving warm bodies into tough classes, let me be clear. I agree with you 100 percent that any kid who wants to should be able to take an advanced class. There should be no gatekeeping. That’s why Mt. Vernon’s IB program was and is vibrant, why I enjoyed teaching there, and why you wrote about it in Supertest [Mathews’ 2005 book on the International Baccalaureate].

It’s the shoving that gives me pause. A shove comes from behind. The desire to learn comes from within. Kids from families without a college background need to be encouraged to take academic risks, I agree. But these kids, as well as middle-class kids (and guess what, kids from families with college backgrounds don’t always flourish in AP) deserve a range of good choices. By a choice, I don’t mean on the one hand a stimulating class with an engaging teacher, and on the other hand, a holding tank with a standardized-test “content deliverer.”

Peddling an AP or bust mentality robs kids—and teachers—of choices. It promotes an achievement-driven culture, too often at the expense of genuine learning. Want to know how to find America’s truly best high schools, Jay? Look for the ones that care more about what happens during their courses than they do about the initials attached to those courses’ names.

Jay Mathews: As soon as the rest of the world begins to label the usual test-score-driven ratings of schools with a disclaimer that says “these are actually measurements of average parental income,” we at Newsweek will be happy to add something to the title of our list. At the moment, however, we are much clearer about what we are assessing than most school raters are.

Otherwise, I agree with nearly everything you said, but I want to urge you to go see more AP and IB teachers in more schools before you conclude that they are all shoving kids into forced-march academic boot camps. I have seen many more of these classes in action than you have, and I think you will discover that the vast majority are being taught with the same verve and imagination found in any course taught by Emmet Rosenfeld.


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