Oyster River High School, the high school just four miles from my home, the high school my two daughters will attend in just a few short years, has made Newsweek magazine’s 2014 list of America’s Top High Schools!
Woo-hoo! Awesome, right?
Well…no, not really. Not at all, as a matter of fact.
Before you roll your eyes–this isn’t just an excuse to be snarky, I swear!– allow me to explain Newsweek’s methodology for compiling this answer to the question that apparently a whole gaggle of people are breathlessly asking:
“Which U.S. schools are the best schools?”
According to their own website, the ranking of America’s high schools is done by examining three key analyses completed by the good folks at Westat, a research firm out of Rockville, Maryland. These include:
- a “threshold analysis,” which looks at a school’s performance on standardized assessments;
- a “ranking analysis,” which uses six indicators (graduation rate, SAT score composite, student attrition rate, etc.) to create a handy-dandy “College Readiness Score”; &
- an “equity (Gold Star) analysis,” for those schools that qualified, which examins the performance of “economically disadvantaged” students on state-wide assessments. (If the who are economically disadvantaged performed better than the state average in reading and math–clearly, the only two subjects that matter–then the school received a very special “gold star” designation.)
Out of nearly 14.5 thousand high schools across the United States, Newsweek ranked Oyster River High School in the top 8%–lucky number 110. That’s 643 spots higher than 2013, according to our local paper!
So what’s the problem, you ask? The problem is, when I am thinking of the nation’s “best schools,” I–scratch that. I don’t consider whether the schools my children attend (or in this case, will attend) are some of the “best” schools in the county, the state, the nation, or the world. I don’t do this because doing so would imply that I am happy to rank my local school in relation to other schools. I don’t need my children’s schools to be “the” best, because by definition, that would mean I am satisfied knowing that other parents’ children’s schools are not as good.
Sort of a sucky thing to be satisfied by, yes?
Rather, I want my children’s schools to be excellent. And by excellent, I don’t mean that the students in these schools perform well on standardized assessments. I don’t mean that their SAT scores are the highest. I don’t mean that they have a flawless (or near-flawless) high school graduation rate, although I would surely worry if a school has a high number of students who drop out each year.
By excellent, I mean that the schools my children attend are true learning communities–communities where both teachers and students are engaged in a continuous learning process, where students are given opportunities to pursue their intellectual, vocational, and/or creative passions, where learning is authentic, integrated, meaningful, and shared with a wider public audience. Where students aren’t bound by artificial subject areas or grade levels. Where student voices matter–and are heard. Where exploration and healthy risk-taking is encouraged.
That, to me, is excellence. That is what kind of school should be lauded in a national magazine, should warrant a mention in people’s Twitter feeds.
And it’s sad and infuriating and mind-boggling to me that rankings like the one Newsweek puts out each year–and are picked up by local papers like the Foster’s Daily Democrat— continue to sell a story about education that I’m just not buying.
I won’t buy it for my children, and I won’t buy it for anyone else’s children, either.