The U.S. News & World Report recently came out with their list of the best high schools in the nation, and I found myself having a weird reaction to the news that my district’s high school was the best in our metro area: I felt dismay. So often, we get this kind of information, and it validates that we’ve chosen well for our children. But the more I lingered on it, the less settled I felt. Before I go too far down this road, let’s look at what comprises these rankings.
On the surface, these seem like decent data points. Sure, you’d want a school your children will attend to have a high graduation rate and decent scores on state assessments—but those measurements are limited.
Here’s what I mean:
-You can only measure so much—For decades now, schools, districts, and organizations have cared about what we can count. Our collective social desire to make everything a competition (we even have a Teacher of the Year) has required us to have relatively easy figures to be able to compare data from a large swath of schools, and so we’ve found ways to count what is countable. Data like attendance rates, Carnegie units (explain), teacher retention, suspension, and free and reduced lunch rates are other metrics that give information about how a school functions or how successful it might be. But when we can only look at what we can easily count, we miss most of the truly important aspects of what happens in a school.
-Those measurements can only tell so much—When we look at the data that is available, the information it gives is limited. We can know how many students had perfect attendance, but we can’t know who was helping to take care of a sick family member and had to miss a few days. We can know how subgroups of students (like Black students or students who qualify for free and reduced lunch) perform on state tests, but we can’t know what specific supports were the most helpful in allowing for their success. We can’t know what kinds of work is on the walls of the classrooms or which schools provide their teachers adequate prep time both for themselves and to collaborate with other teachers.
Schools are community centers that require human interaction, which is difficult to quantify. We can’t measure with a simple algorithm the kinds of relationships that students and adults have or how teaching teams work together successfully or how administrators show that they trust staff members, so instead organizations who measure good schools look at how many AP classes are offered. I wish that these kinds of ranking systems could come with a narrative about the school, noting other pieces that they get right or what is unique and interesting about that place. It’s labor intensive, sure, but what about education isn’t labor intensive?
So why did I have a sinking feeling when I read an article about how good my kids’ future school is? The numbers feel completely disconnected from the reality they will face every day when they walk into the building. I understand that the teachers will push my kids to do well on standardized tests and will most likely encourage them to take AP classes, but that isn’t nearly enough for me to imagine that I’m sending them to a good school. I’d much rather have a sense of how they’ll help my children understand difficult concepts or help them work through disappointment or hold them accountable. Schools are about so much more than producing high test scores; they need to be about shaping humans ready to live in and contribute to a democracy.
Among the metrics I’d love to see are:
-what percentage of alumni voted in the last election?
-how many have served in elected office or work in government?
-what jobs are graduates working at 15 or 20 years after graduation?
-who has given to charity?
-who has traveled more than 500 miles away from their hometown within ten years after graduating?
-who, by their own discernment, considers themselves happy?
All of the items on this list may not be equally useful, but at least they represent an expanded way of thinking about what creates a good school, and I think our education system would benefit from this kind of perspective taking.
Until we find a way to collect and report on metrics that are harder to “count,” I’ll be doing my own research about the schools that my children will attend. If you have other ideas about the kinds of information that could or should be measured, send them our way; we’d love to know your thinking.
Image from U.S. News & World Report.