Education Letter to the Editor

The Meaning of ‘Best’

July 11, 2006 4 min read

To the Editor:

Emmet Rosenfeld’s Commentary “Ranking America’s High Schools” (June 14, 2006) was full of smart comments on Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools list, based on the “Challenge Index” formula I came up with in 1998. But it saddened me to see that in part of the piece Mr. Rosenfeld, otherwise a very modern thinker, joined the throng defending one of the worst aspects of the ancien régime in American education, the centuries-old notion that the best schools are those with the fewest low-income students.

Many of us agree that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where Mr. Rosenfeld now teaches English, is the best high school in America when measured by the old standard, test scores, which is pretty much the same thing as measuring by average parental income. The Fairfax County, Va., high school’s average SAT score, the last time I looked, was a phenomenal 1468.

It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the connection between scores and family incomes that Thomas Jefferson’s percentage of low-income students hovers around 1 percent.

If people want to measure high schools on this test-score/family-income scale, that is their right. Nearly everybody does it. Go into any neighborhood and ask the first person you see about the local high school, and, invariably, if it has many poor kids you will hear it is a bad school, and if it has few poor kids you will hear it is good.

I invented the Challenge Index because I had stumbled across several schools full of low-income students where the quality of the faculty, as measured by their efforts to help average and below-average students improve and prepare for college, was better than in several schools I studied in good neighborhoods where the teachers were either afraid of or discouraged from giving even their most eager average students a chance to try an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course.

A top-100 high schools list based on SAT or Advanced Placement scores, as Emmet Rosenfeld appears to favor as the best definition of the word “best,” would include no schools that have even as many as 30 percent low-income students.

Newsweek’s top-100 list has 29 such schools, including a few with more than 70 percent low-income students. The great teachers and administrators at those schools deserve recognition for believing in their students and doing some of the hardest work known in American education.

In his piece, Mr. Rosenfeld is being true to his school, and I admire that, but he has to be careful not to judge the world with a Jefferson mind-set. He has somehow gotten the idea that, because of the success of East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, there is now a “widespread notion that urban educators who can’t make kids succeed simply lack the force of will to help their students defy society’s low expectations.” Believe me, this idea is not even close to being widespread, and anybody who teaches in inner-city schools or visits them regularly can tell you that.

But those who have followed Mr. Escalante’s example have found that he was right. They do not believe that, as Mr. Rosenfeld puts it, “just putting kids into hard courses makes them smarter.” But they do believe, as Mr. Rosenfeld once demonstrated with many low-income and minority students at Fairfax County’s Mount Vernon High School, that putting kids in hard courses and giving them extra time, encouragement, and good teaching does in many cases lead them to reach levels of achievement they never thought possible, and changes the school in a way that should qualify it to be on somebody’s best list.

Jay Mathews

Washington, D.C.

The writer is an education reporter and online columnist for The Washington Post. He is also a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.

To the Editor:

Emmet Rosenfeld’s Commentary puzzled me. Does its bitter tone stem from disapproval of the measures Newsweek used to rank America’s high schools, or is it because his school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, was omitted from the Best High Schools list, while many other Fairfax County, Va., high schools were included? Does he need to seek approval from Newsweek to gain satisfaction? Isn’t teaching at such a well-regarded school enough?

As a proud alumnus of another “public elite” high school omitted from the list, Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I was happy to see that those “other” high schools were given some credit for the stellar work they do: providing “regular” kids with a competitive education that prepares them well for success in college and their careers.

Not all children have the honor of being able to attend exemplary schools like Thomas Jefferson or Stuyvesant, and very few public high schools have student bodies with the exceedingly high socioeconomic backgrounds that both those schools enjoy. That Newsweek chooses to exclude these already well-lauded schools from its list in favor of schools that receive very little recognition should be applauded rather than denounced by an educator who has the rare opportunity to teach educationally and economically privileged teenagers.

Vincent Badolato

Denver, Colo.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Meaning of ‘Best’

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