After nearly a year of planning, Secretary of Education Rod Paige has announced new rules and a new name for the popular Blue Ribbon Schools awards program.
The “No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon Schools” awards will recognize schools nominated by their states, based almost solely on test scores. Schools no longer will apply for the award on their own initiative, nor will they face the scrutiny of a selection panel or site visitors.
The results could be very different, and the set of winners much larger, for the award, which draws the added words in its name from the federal legislation signed by President Bush in January that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
About 420 elementary and secondary schools nationally could qualify this coming year, said Stephen O’Brien, who oversees the Blue Ribbon program. This year, 264 schools won the award.
Mr. Paige announced the changes July 28 at the Council of Chief State Schools Officers’ summer meeting in San Diego.
Officials have been talking about revamping the 20-year-old program for about a year, since Congress started debating the president’s education plan and reports emerged criticizing the Blue Ribbon program for rewarding some schools with serious academic problems. (“Ed. Dept. Weighs Changing Blue Ribbon Program,” May 22, 2002.)
“In keeping with the principles of the No Child Left Behind Act, we will reward schools based on student- achievement results, not process,” Mr. Paige said as he made the announcement.
The New Approach
States will be able to nominate two sets of schools for the awards: those that rank among the top 10 percent on state tests, and schools with 40 percent or more of their disadvantaged students making dramatic improvements on test scores.
Instead of leaving it to schools to apply and then show on their applications why they deserve the award, states now will be charged with seeking out high-scoring schools and finding out what makes them successful.
“Very often, the schools that really are the highest performers don’t even apply for Blue Ribbon status,” said Beth Ann Bryan, a senior adviser to Mr. Paige who worked on the changes. “They’re so busy making sure their schools are doing well that they don’t have time to apply.”
Some educators closely affiliated with the program under its previous approach aren’t thrilled with the changes.
Joan M. Solomon, who has worked with Blue Ribbon schools in Missouri for nearly 20 years, said dozens of schools in her state already had begun the yearlong application process for the old award, despite her warnings that the program might be eliminated or revamped.
The old application—which required schools to show test data, explain their programs, and give details about their curricula and professional- development efforts—was a powerful school improvement tool that Missouri may continue to use in some fashion, Ms. Solomon said. The best Blue Ribbon Schools used the application to evaluate themselves and make improvements, she said.
“The new program may have some good results,” Ms. Solomon said, but it “doesn’t look at schools that comprehensively.”
The revised awards program places more responsibility at the state level, primarily on the chief school leader in each state.
The new Blue Ribbon application, in draft form, consists of 18 fill-in-the-blank pages requesting test scores and other data. The former Blue Ribbon application asked about 35 pages of questions and required longer written responses.
Ms. Bryan said the new application is simpler. States will run test data, notify the schools eligible, and then ask them to apply for the award by March of next year. Mr. Paige will announce the winners in May.
“Suddenly they’re going to say, ‘This is not overwhelming. Let’s do it,’” Ms. Bryan said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Paige Revamps Blue Ribbons, Basing Awards on Testing