What Do School Rankings Really Mean?

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How good are the “best” schools, and how do we define best?

In the area where I live, Philadelphia magazine recently published a list of what it identified as “best”—the top 50 public high schools in the region. Parents put great stock in such rankings. Those in the market for a home consult these lists: Friends of mine who work at state departments of education refer to them, only half-jokingly, as “real estate reports.” Those who already live in top-ranked districts assume that this guarantees their children the “best” public education available (or, in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburban areas, the best that high real estate taxes can buy).

In my experience as a researcher, principal, and parent, this is not necessarily the case. Attainment of “top” status can render schools complacent at best, and negligent at worst, regarding the learning of individual students. If you’re the “top,” why would you feel compelled to question instructional practice or ask whether all students are getting what they need?

When it came time to choose a high school for my son, an inquisitive learner and hard worker, I thought that selecting a school on the list of top high schools would translate into superior instruction for him. I should have known better. But for a few precious exceptions, his instruction compared poorly with many classrooms I have observed in my years as an educator. Research tells us that seatwork and memorization are the quickest ways to sap students’ interest, yet I found many of his teachers and school administrators deeply entrenched in such mediocre practice, with little incentive to examine the varied experiences of students or to operate differently.

"Attainment of 'top' status can render schools complacent at best, and negligent at worst, regarding the learning of individual students."

The “top 50” distinction in my area is based on indicators such as high SAT scores. But these scores are misleading as a key indicator of a school’s educational quality, because students from advantaged backgrounds tend to do relatively well, in part because they have access to hours of expensive test preparation, and ongoing intellectual enrichment from home. The rankings include other indicators besides test scores, such as extracurricular activities and access to educational resources, which are of course important to a well-rounded education. Most of these schools have impressive facilities and are well equipped, and typically enjoy a generous and supportive community. There’s no denying that students in them benefit on many levels from such relative abundance. But in terms of teaching individual learners and maintaining focus on the core purpose of public schools—to provide rich educational opportunities for all kids—this wealth of resources no more guarantees educational quality than a well-appointed house guarantees a happy family.

As a scholar on this subject, I would argue that rankings like the Top 50 shed no new light on school quality. What’s worse, they reinforce a culture that is damaging to many students—those who languish because educators fail to take their needs into account and provide them with the support and instruction that will enable them to succeed.

We know from decades of research that student learning can vary widely, even within so-called “good” schools. The research tells us that the single most important school-related factor contributing to a student’s success is the quality of his or her teacher, particularly in a child’s early years. Research also tells us that, on average, the quality of classroom instruction varies more from teacher to teacher within any given school than it does from one school to another. Another non-school-related factor that may trump all others is whether a child receives enriched learning experiences outside of school, such as private tutoring, lessons, or academic camps.

Essentially, the rankings tell us much more about who goes to these top schools than about what students get out of them. Because they operate in an attainment culture, these schools place a heavy emphasis on credentialing: seat time, course credits, and obedience to the hidden rules of the game, like taking the right classes and participating in the right activities, culminating in a diploma. Students who come to such schools with superior language skills, middle-class work habits and social behavior, and sufficient social capital need only work reasonably hard to make good grades and be “college ready.” Top-ranked high schools provide a standard-size instructional hoop that many students jump through well enough. But does “well enough” warrant distinction as excellence, which implies high standards, innovation, and engaging, rigorous instruction?

I am not speaking out against children attaining high levels of “success.” Rather, I am questioning how some “best” schools (and those who would rank them) define success—and why teaching for attainment and teaching for actual learning so often appear to be mutually exclusive. At some point, students will no longer be trying to gain entrance to the next level of schooling, but will need the skills to live productive, satisfying lives, and even make important contributions in many arenas. Who prepares them to do that?

At his “top” high school, my son fought to learn and to hold on to his career goals in science. I watched as by his junior year, his love of the subject and his aspirations were exhausted by ineffective and indifferent teaching practice. And he was not alone. A not-so-well-kept secret among parents is that many hire private tutors to compensate for inadequate instruction at all levels of coursework, from remedial to Advanced Placement.

Make no mistake: I am deeply disappointed in the schooling my son received, so this is personal. But I’m even more disheartened by the fact that these misleading rankings persist, and that parents have very little objective, reliable information upon which to make more-informed decisions about their children’s education.

What would a truly top high school look like? Above all, it would focus on the progress of each student, his or her performance, rather than attainment through compliant coursetaking. It would continually gauge student learning throughout the year, and intervene when work effort or quality seemed to decline, addressing issues of motivation and interest, providing the resources and instruction each student needed to learn at high levels. It would connect students’ learning to the world outside school, so that they remained engaged and enthusiastic. It would ensure that every teacher was a knowledgeable and capable teacher with the time, skill, and inclination to reach every student.

One way to build such schools is to create a demand for them. That means we need to stop relying on spurious measures like Top 50 lists that reinforce the attainment culture. Instead, we need to see whether schools actually succeed with every child. Only then will all children receive the kind of education that ought to be their birthright—one that will truly prepare them for the bright future each one of them deserves.

Vol. 29, Issue 14, Pages 23, 25

Published in Print: December 9, 2009, as What Do School Rankings Really Mean?
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