by Frederick C. Calder, Executive Director of NYSAIS
There seems to be no end to America's appetite for ranking. Nearly anything will do as long as it's well fed. The latest concoction of rankings in the school world appeared in Newsweek's May 16, 2005 edition. There the magazine had the temerity to proclaim that it knew the best 100 public high schools in the country, although the headline didn't specify "public." Now, nobody disputes Newsweek's understanding that Americans love contests of practically any sort. Other magazines learned long ago that ranking schools and colleges sells. A reporter asked me once why Americans love to read about school winners and losers. I replied, "Why do people go to cock fights or other extreme sports events? Because they like to go doesn't mean we encourage it, or heaven knows, approve of it." From every point of view that stems from even a modest moral sense of what is good for children, ranking schools is an abomination.
It's important to review the absurdities of Newsweek's analysis if for no other reason than to clear the record. First, the magazine identifies the 100 best public high schools out of a total of 27,468 or .0036%. That's 36/100 of 1%, a ridiculously fine line by any standard. Second, to justify this singular achievement, Newsweek tells us that the sole basis for judgment is the number of Advanced Placement tests (and in a few cases, International Baccalaureates)taken by students in 2004 divided by the number of graduating seniors in a particular school. This calculation produces a ratio, which, mirabile dictu, gives us the 100 best high schools in the U.S. Now, is it true that schools with the largest number of students taking AP's proportionate to their size have a larger group of bright students or are they merely pushing AP's? And has the AP been chosen by great educators in the sky as the nonpareil of tests that measures best the cerebral excellence and accomplishment of the young? And is performance on any test the best indicator of what it means to be an educated person? As Richard Day, the Principal of Exeter in the 1960's, once said to his faculty, "It's not that you teach so brilliantly, it's that you have some of the brightest students in the country." The comment did not go down well.
The point to be made over and over again, is that the best schools are those that draw the most from whatever kind of students they have so that it can truly be said at the end of the process that these students have met or exceeded their capacities. Independent schools know this, and at bottom, this is what they do. They know also that the kind of people they produce is as important as the kind of intellects they hone and that ultimately it is the quality of the decisions their graduates make in life that will justify their work. Which is to say that the Newsweek method of ranking schools is almost as foolish as the Wall Street Journal method that based its distinctions on the number of graduates enrolled in the most prestigious colleges and universities, e.g. the Ivies, in the U.S. This, of course, is exactly what Principal Day had in mind when he spoke to his Exeter faculty forty years ago.
It's one thing to expose the shallowness of the media's "analysis" that leads to school ranking. It's another to explain why ranking is so harmful. In 1997 U.S. News and World Report declared that it planned to duplicate its annual ranking of colleges and universities, but this time for private schools. To acquire the data for the college edition, U.S. News, amazingly, got virtually all institutions of higher learning to fill in detailed questionnaires. It's probably fair to say that the vast majority of participants hated the exercise, but somehow felt helpless to do otherwise. Only Stanford University decided to resist and to sue if misrepresented. Aside from the essential absurdity of simplistic ratings of colleges, what was surprising and discouraging was that U.S. News could not see, or didn't care about, the difference between ranking institutions for young men and women and for children. People over 18 are, at least, legal adults and though it may not be either pleasant or fair to get caught in a ranking frenzy, they are presumably better able to take the heat.
Bad as the college exposé is, to try to "unmask" independent private schools for the delectation of the reading public is worse. Practically everything our schools stand for is sullied by the process. The unhealthy matching of schools with hopes for prestigious college placement would be further exacerbated. Younger children whose schools had been ranked but who would not understand the arbitrariness of the system would be confused and ashamed, while older students would either strut or slink as the case may be. Many parents who are already hooked on status would be even more frantically drawn into the race.
But most important, the point of being private schools, i.e. to be what you want to be, to teach how you want to teach, to serve whom you want to serve, would be compromised and even lost in a welter of misleading and shallow "statistics." The real travesty of such commercially driven surveys is that they purport to clarify when they actually distort. The complexity of private schools, their origins, their purposes, their resources, defies analysis by some glib questionnaire whose sole intent is the excitement of hyped up competition. Under ideal circumstances including careful and fair-minded research, discrete groups of schools that serve similar populations of children could theoretically be compared. But do we really want to speculate on the chances of a commercial news magazine accomplishing that goal?
In early 1997 as U.S. News and World Report tried to herd independent schools into the same corral as the colleges I wrote the following, "The scattering of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes in the Ganges River last month reminds us of the enormous power of passive resistance. To produce such a survey of private schools, as U.S. News and World Report proposes, requires our cooperation. Without consistent responses to the same questions from every school, no credible report can go forward. If all independent schools simply refused to respond, the project would collapse. To collect and make sense of the bits and pieces of information already in the public realm would be a colossal administrative undertaking with incomplete results at best. At some point the magazine would have to cut its losses. Just as U.S. News has the right to publish practically anything it wants, our schools have the right not to testify about themselves. So though we may esteem the First Amendment despite its excesses, this time, for heaven's sake, let's take the Fifth."
As it turned out, nearly every independent school joined the boycott and U.S. News had to scrap the project, a small victory for sanity and for children. But others have tried since and more will. The Newsweek "ranking" of high schools is merely the latest of what can only be called an attempt at entertainment in the absence of anything that is actually useful. Of the many advantages of being private in the world of education, perhaps the greatest is that we can still say no. Let it always be so.
Frederick C. Calder is the Executive Director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS).