Opinion
Education Teacher Leaders Network

The Rankings Game

By Mary Tedrow — December 12, 2007 4 min read
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U.S. News & World Report recently released its first ranking of America’s “Best High Schools,” in apparent competition with the annual ratings published by Newsweek and Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews. We can be sure the latest Top 100 will compel some communities, parents, students or political leaders to claim bragging rights—and others to begin questioning local leaders about the ranking of their hometown high school.

No matter where your school shakes out on the scale, you can be sure of two things. First, U.S. News & World Report has already generated the coveted “buzz” and will sell a lot of magazines to—and gain a lot of visits to their ad-laden website from— parents and leaders who must know who has won the Super Bowl of Education. And second, this newest “rank order” (read that however you like) will begin to affect what goes on in high schools across the country—adding one more hurdle to the marathon we call public schooling.

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A bit skeptical about that last claim? Witness the effect of the five-year-old Newsweek rankings on the school nearest you. Mathews’ rankings formula leans heavily on a school’s involvement in the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. As a result, thousands of local dollars are now being spent on AP curriculum and tests so that Any Local High School will make an appearance somewhere in Newsweek’s list. The College Board, in essence, is now writing the curriculum for many of America’s secondary schools—with little debate among educators and parents about what we hope our children will know and be able to do at the end of their high school years. These days, we just hope we’re on the list.

Winners and Losers

The race to rank our schools—and to achieve status as the biggest dog in your town, district or state—can easily erode any ideals that education is about bettering the world or improving lives. Instead, our schools, and ultimately our children, are sorted into one of two groups—winners or losers. And once you’ve been labeled a loser (and the nature of ranking systems creates more losers than winners), teachers and guidance counselors find the “You can do it” speeches a lot harder to sell.

What’s more, our obsessive need to quantify everything (just look at all those cable TV shows with names that begin “The 100 Most…”) distracts us from our belief in the potential to grow and improve. Once we’ve bought into the idea that numbers will tell us all we need to know about what we are worth, then all we want to know are the numbers.

U.S. News declared Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology as the number 1 high school in America. To his credit, principal Evan Glazer acknowledged the limited scope of such rating systems when he told his staff that “In my ideal world, [rankings] should reflect the degree to which [schools] prepare students to develop original ideas and influence progress in society.”

As Dr. Glazer implies, the rankings don’t reflect any substantive debate in this country about what we think constitutes a successful high school graduate and how each and every student’s aspirations and potential fit into that definition. What we have instead is are formulas devised by journalists, policy wonks, and testing companies to distill all of our human endeavors down to a single number.

The Rat Race

The AP-level juniors I teach are nearing the end of their public school race, and they are all feeling it. Listed as their top concerns in a brainstorming session about issues that affect their lives are grades, SAT results, and getting into a good college. When pressed to explain why they are chasing these scores, they cannot articulate where the striving will land them.

In their minds, the path to the prize is expressed as: “You have to get good grades to get into a good college to get a good job to make good money.” And good money is just more numbers on a scale, apparently the only measure of success that most Americans understand. An overriding focus on the numbers has left these students with little time to explore where their affinities might lie and what they imagine their lives might be like when the schooling is finished.

These are great kids who have not escaped the message that they must continually reach for the top. High achievers in many areas, they all express the feeling of being pitted against all other high achievers in their age group for a few choice opportunities. Most strive to get the best grades to add to already-packed resumes that include laudable efforts in volunteerism and leadership roles. The irony is that once they have reached the top of the numbers scale they look like everyone else.

With identical resumes, what will finally distinguish them from each another is their personal narrative, a vehicle for evaluation that our culture has increasingly dismissed as too subjective. Give us objective numbers—we don’t have time for nuance. Yet, after all of the late night study sessions, short weekends, and three-hour testing sessions, getting into the “good” college may come down to a one-of-a-kind personal essay where they are asked (and this is the ultimate irony) to reflect on their affinities and imagine where education might lead them.

I’m exhausted just thinking about what this latest round of rankings will mean for teachers and kids—how it will further increase the pressure to win the gold medal (or the silver or the bronze—U.S. News actually uses these words), whatever the cost.

It feels like a rat race to me, and, like Lily Tomlin said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

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