Sunday, March 16, 2014

Myth 8. Want to find the best high schools in America? Ask Newsweek or U.S. News.

The print media regularly mine gold. Rank anything from best to worst and some market niche is going to spend money to get to the results. The most livable cities in the U.S.? Minot, North Dakota and Dalhart, Texas, rank #1 and #2. Never mind that the criteria are some crazy combination of “Car thefts per 1,000 people” and “Days per year without gale force winds.” The citizens of North Dakota and the Texas panhandle will fall over themselves to buy the magazine and the local newspapers will feature the good news.

Who doesn’t love to see who’s number one? It was only a matter of time until Newsweek and U.S. News ranked high schools. Of course, separating the wheat from the chaff proves not to be as simple when dealing with tens of thousands of high schools that differ in a multitude of ways.

Newsweek is particularly inept. It sent its survey to 5,000 schools; about half returned filled out forms. The nation has about 20,000 high schools. So maybe the ones who didn’t respond had something to hide and wouldn’t be in the highest echelon anyway, so no harm done . . . maybe. Newsweek asked for self-reports of six statistical indices: graduation rate (weighted 25% of the total score); college acceptance rate (25%); SAT/ACT average (10%); advanced placement/International Baccalaureate/Advanced International Certificate of Education (AP/IB/AICE) tests per student (25%); AP/IB/AICE (10%); and percent students enrolled in an AP/IB/AICE course (5%).

It’s obvious that the Newsweek variables will rank schools by wealth, ethnicity, and exclusivity – not by how well they teach and care for students’ needs.

Newsweek rankings serve well people who want to know where the “right kind” of people enroll their children. Newsweek-like rankings produced by state education departments are used by Realtors more than any other audience. Realtors are enjoined by law from discussing racial composition of neighborhoods with their clients, but school test scores do the job of directing home buyers to privileged neighborhoods.

U.S. News & World Report continues to make a fortune from annual publications of college, grad school, and public school rankings. U.S. News does a better job of finding the “best” high schools than Newsweek, that is, if being more statistically sophisticated is “better.”

Consider an example that should give any objective individual pause in interpreting the hoax associated with U.S. News high school rankings. BASIS Schools is an Arizona-based charter school company with 10 campuses in Arizona and plans to open more. It announces proudly on its website that its “campuses are ranked in the top ten in the nation by Newsweek, The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report.”. Top ten! But to all who know BASIS Schools firsthand, the reality is anything but “top ten.” Although a typical BASIS school starts off with hundreds of students in elementary grades, the number who survive the gauntlet of tests and requirements for promotion, and make it to middle school and high school, is hugely reduced. Special-needs students need not even attempt the required admissions essay. After the relentless shifting and winnowing of wheat from chaff, fewer than 2 dozen students were around at graduation day in one of Basis’s featured charter schools. Just about any large suburban high school in America could collect a few dozen graduates who aced their AP courses and topped their SATs. But measures like “percent graduates accepted to college” make schools like BASIS appear to be in the top ten. There is much less to these ratings than meets the eye.

U.S. News also rakes in the dough with its annual rankings of undergraduate and graduate schools in America. In the rankings of graduate programs in Education released just this past week, there were a couple of surprises. Foremost was the appearance at the top of the list – the #1 ranked graduate program in Education in the U.S. – of Johns Hopkins University. Now Johns Hopkins is a wonderful university. If I had an incurable disease – and as a matter of fact I just happen to – I would want to know someone there. But, Johns Hopkins never appeared in the U.S. News ranking of Education grad schools in the past 20 years until a few years ago. And, in fact, when my major professor, Julian C. Stanley, left Wisconsin in 1967 and went to Johns Hopkins, they had just abolished their Education Department. It only was resuscitated in 2007 as the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Now when I asked my colleagues if they knew anybody on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Education – forgive me – they were as much in the dark as I am. In fact, the only thing apparently remarkable about the faculty of the School is the number of joint appointments with the medical school and other departments in the health professions. And this might be the reason behind Johns Hopkins’s sudden remarkable appearance at the top of the U.S. News best Education graduate schools list. It has long been known that medical schools and agriculture schools need only to open the tap and federal money for research and training flows in torrents – and the U. S. News rankings depend heavily on things like “Research dollars per faculty member.” Hopkins's ed school has another remarkable statistic: doctoral students per faculty member ratio is 0.3. If I read that correctly, that means that there are three faculty members for every doctoral student! Talk about personal attention, or are we talking about a graduate program with hardy any doctoral students? In short, pretty much just a Masters program.

The ascendancy of Johns Hopkins to preeminence in Education is remarkable in another respect. U.S. News also ranks graduate programs in 10 specialty areas: Curriculum, Ed Admin, Ed Policy, Ed Psych, Elementary Ed, Secondary Ed, Higher Ed, Special Ed, Counseling, and Vocational Ed. Johns Hopkins does not rank in the top 10 programs in any of these 10 specialties. What then is it #1 in? Well, the specialty rankings are not based on statistical indicators, which largely hide more than they reveal. The speciality rankings are based on reputation as seen by deans and associate deans around the nation. And on the street, professionals know that these reputation rankings tell the true story about a graduate program.

As much as we all love these rankings, they clearly need to be taken with a grain of salt, or an entire salt lick.

David Berliner and I have joined with 15 bright young PhDs to expose 50 of the myths & lies that are threatening our nation’s public schools. 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools is published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University, a university with a truly great college of education.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

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