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We Interrupt This Blog ...

By Emmet Rosenfeld — July 05, 2006 1 min read

(or whatever World Cup game you happen to be watching) to bring you breaking news. Okay, so it started last May, when Newsweek came out with a list of America’s 100 best high schools based on Washington Post journalist Jay Mathew’s Challenge Index. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where I teach and widely considered one of the best schools in the country, didn’t crack Newsweek’s list.

I wrote a reply to the list which appeared in Education Week’s June 14 issue under the headline, “Ranking America’s High Schools: A Few Quibbles on What Constitutes ‘Best.’” I argued that the Challenge Index is not an accurate tool for determining the best schools because it measures only how many kids take hard classes, but not how well they do. Moreover, an unintended result of the success of Newsweek’s list is that many kids are shoved into advanced classes just so schools can boost their scores in hopes of making the list: this isn’t always what’s best for kids.

In an upcoming issue, Edweek will print a letter from Jay Mathews answering my riposte. (An extended version of his response is included after the jump-- in this blog only!) In his rebuttal, Jay suggests that I have been lured into deserting the progressive ship on which I’ve sailed thus far in my career by the siren call of a wealthy high-scoring school. Not so! I’m still strapped to the mast, and will explain my position at greater length later this month, when Jay and I engage in a dialogue to be featured on Teacher online.

With apologies to those who have been holding their breath as I mountaineer the crevasses of portfolio Entry 4 along the path toward board certification, and because I feel a little guilty at all the homework I’m assigning here (you are to read both my response to Newsweek and Jay’s response to me, with extra credit if you want to look at the Top 100 list itself), I will keep this post brief. I’ll return soon to Entry 4, which-- believe me--isn’t going anywhere.

For now, here’s Jay Mathew’s unexpurgated response to my article:

I am always delighted to see Emmet Rosenfeld’s pieces in Education Week and Teacher Magazine. He is one of the most talented young teachers in the country, and is well on his way to becoming the best teacher/journalist/commentator we have. He starred in several chapters of my book Supertest, about the rise of International Baccalaureate in American schools, because of his innovative work at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, Va.
His commentary in the June 14 Edweek, “Ranking America’s High Schools,” was particularly interesting to me because it is one of the few fresh and original critiques of Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools list, based on the Challenge Index formula I came up with in 1998. So it saddens me to see that in this piece Rosenfeld, usually on the side of the newest thinking, has donned some very rusty armor and joined the throng defending one of the worst aspects of the ancien regime in American education, the centuries-old notion that the best schools are those with the fewest low-income students.
Many of us agree that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where 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 is measuring schools by average parental income. Jefferson’s average SAT score the last time I looked was a phenomenal 1468, higher than any public high school I have found so far. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the connection between scores and family incomes that Jefferson’s percentage of low-income students hovers around 1 percent. It also had the fewest black or Hispanic students for any county high school in 2005.
If people want to measure high schools on this test score-family income scale, that is their right. It is likely to continue to be the favorite yardstick because money is the way we judge so much in a free economy. 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 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.
The editors at Newsweek liked the idea of measuring schools in a different way. Each year we add some new features, such as the equity and excellence rating in response to the complaint from Rosenfeld and others that we don’t say how well students are doing on the AP and IB tests. Rosenfeld’s former school Mount Vernon High, where 36 percent of the students are low income, was on the Newsweek list because of its impressive IB participation rate, but we also noted that its equity and excellence rate, the portion of all seniors who had at least a 4 on one IB exam, was 33.8 percent, more than twice the national average.
A top 100 high schools list based on SAT or AP scores, as Rosenfeld appears to favor as the best definition of the word “best,” would have no schools that had 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. The teachers at Rosenfeld’s school are excellent also, but the nature of their jobs is different because their students cannot attend Jefferson if they do not do very well on an entrance exam, so Newsweek recognized Jefferson on its “public elites” list of schools with few or no average students.
Rosenfeld argues that a school could do well on the Newsweek list if it gave hundreds of AP or IB tests to ill-prepared students who all got the lowest possible scores. Theoretically, that is true, but it is impossible for such a thing to happen in an American public school. Students, parents and teachers simply would not stand for it, and those schools still building their AP or IB programs and producing nothing but low AP or IB scores never have enough tests to make the Newsweek list. The Prince George’s County high school Rosenfeld cites that gave a hundred AP tests a year with no passing scores came nowhere near to making the Newsweek list, and ranked 154th out of all 174 schools in Washington area.
In his piece, 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 mindset. He has somehow gotten the idea that, because of the success of East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, the man who inspired the Challenge Index, 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 few who have followed Escalante’s example have found that he was right. They do not believe, as Rosenfeld puts it, that “just putting kids into hard courses makes them smarter.” But they do believe, as Rosenfeld demonstrated with many low-income and minority students at Mount Vernon, 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 atmosphere of the school.
Simple measures, like body temperature or barometric pressure, can be useful. It surprised me that an indicator as rudimentary as the level of participation in college-level tests helped reveal which high schools were making these unusual efforts, and which were not. But it turns out to be true, and worth doing, even if rankles the most affluent schools to find a few of their poor cousins from the wrong side of the tracks sitting next to them on the same list.
—Jay Mathews

The opinions expressed in Certifiable? 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.

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