Public schools have been depicted as an unmitigated failure for so long that it comes as a surprise to many people to learn the truth is far more nuanced. U.S. News & World Report serves as Exhibit A (“Methodology: America’s Best High Schools,” Dec. 9, 2009). Its 2010 analysis of 21,786 public high schools in 48 states and the District of Columbia provides compelling evidence that the bleak characterization is overstated.
The magazine hired School Evaluation Services, a K-12 education data research firm of Standard & Poor’s, to determine which high schools could produce measurable academic outcomes to demonstrate that they are successfully educating their entire student body across a range of performance markers. They identified 100 schools with the highest college readiness index scores for gold medals. Next came 461 for silver medals, and an additional 1,189 for bronze medals.
Critics will argue that these numbers are unimpressive because there are 25,000 public high schools in the U.S. (The report did not include Nebraska and Oklahoma, which failed to provide full data, thereby reducing the total of potential honorees.) But the study used extremely rigorous standards for high schools to qualify for the list. Schools that made it through the first two screens were then judged on the basis of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test data, depending on which program was largest in the school.
No one denies that there are execrable public schools in this country. But there are also excellent ones. Yet it’s the latter that get short shrift by the media in their reportage and commentary. The U.S. alone among industrialized nations takes perverse pleasure in spotlighting failing public schools. It’s little wonder, therefore, that successful public schools are perceived as aberrations. In contrast, the countries that the U.S. competes with take great pains to present a balanced picture. School achievements are prominently featured.
Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that students from any of the top public high schools in this country would do more than hold their own against their counterparts from other countries. But don’t expect any change in the way public education is portrayed. There’s too much money to be made by those who can undermine confidence as the first step toward the ultimate privatization of all schools. By the time taxpayers realize they’ve been fed a steady diet of disinformation, it will be too late to remedy the harm done.
As Richard Florida, sociologist and author of The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, wrote: “We are the most adaptive, inventive nation, and have proven quite resilient.” Isn’t it possible that public schools have played a role in this?
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.