A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lake Wobegon schools and US News and World Report

Just how "public" are the schools that US News has crowned as "Gold Medal Schools" in its annual "America's Best High Schools" issue?

As I was looking at the list, I was struck by a few things right off the bat:
1. Most of these schools are not "open enrollment" schools. The majority select their students by application only, or are magnet schools, or charter schools. They are from the fairy tale land of public schools in America. Only NINE of the top 50 schools are open enrollment schools, in fact.

2. Eight of the top ten schools have twenty percent or less of their students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Number three on the list, Pacific College Charter in Santa Cruz, CA, has 0.0% disadvantaged children, and its minority enrollment in a whopping 5.3 percent. Only 20 of the top fifty schools have an economically disadvantaged population above 25%.

3. And speaking of minorities, in a country in which white, non-Hispanics are approximately fifty percent of the population, seven of the top ten have 12.6% minority enrollment, or less. Only 18 of the top fifty schools has a minority enrollment above 25%. As stated below, the average school has 44% minority enrollment, and only one of the top ten and seven of the top fifty meet that standard.

4. Kudos go out to Preuss School UCSD in La Jolla, CA (number 8 on the list), which serves a population that is 99.6% economically disadvantaged and 71.3% minority. The 752 students who go there (and by the way, my own alma mater had nearly three times that number in grades 10-12) are lucky indeed.

5. Only one of the top ten schools has an enrollment as large as the high school at which I teach (over 1500 students). Number 6, International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, MI, has 148 students, and number 4, High Technology High (ha!) in Lincroft, NJ, has 262. Number 7, International Baccalaureate in Bartow, FL, has 278 students. Only eight of the top 50 have enrollments over 1500 students.

And how many of them are in large school districts, I wonder? That information is not included.

I wonder how many students have IEPs or 504s? I wonder how many students have juvenile records? That information is also not included.

What is the student/teacher ratio, flawed though that indicator is when counselors and administrators are allowed to be included in determining the average?

And we're not even considering the fact that the ranking is based on how many Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests the students can take-- which is a real problem when so many schools cannot find the staff or afford the training to offer these kinds of classes. And yes, I am an Advanced Placement and College Credit teacher in the discipline of history.

But it is obvious that, in more ways than excellence, these schools are hardly representative of public schools across the country.

Well, let's just consider this from the National Center for Education Statistics to help frame our discussion:
The 100 largest public school districts, representing less than 1 percent (0.6 percent) of all school districts in the United States and jurisdictions, were responsible for the education of 23 percent of all public school students.

The 100 largest public school districts employed 22 percent of the United States and jurisdictions' public school full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers and contained 17 percent of all public schools and 20 percent of public high school completers.

The 100 largest public school districts had larger average school enrollments compared to the average for all school districts (695 vs. 518) as well as a higher median pupil/teacher ratio (15.9 vs. 15.4).

The percentage of students in the 100 largest public school districts who were other than White, non-Hispanic was 71 percent, compared to 44 percent of students in all school districts.

In FY 2005, current expenditures per pupil in the 100 largest public school districts ranged from lows of $5,104 in the Puerto Rico Department of Education and $5,503 in the Alpine District, Utah to a high of $18,878 in the District of Columbia Public Schools and $17,988 in Boston, Massachusetts).

Three states-California, Florida, and Texas-accounted for 45 percent of the 100 largest public school districts.

So all that I see here is a reminder that schools that have to deal with disadvantaged populations, schools that have to take everyone (as the law requires of most public schools), are not ideal schools, and never will be. They just can't compete. Allow public schools to exclude "troublesome" or disadvantaged populations, I guess, and you're on the rocket ship to success. Even if that would place real public schools in violation of federal and state law.

Any school that gets to exclude populations, that only has students who WANT to be there, is going to have an advantage. In any other facet of modern American life, the people who partake in any activity-- even the military-- are there because they choose to be there, except in public schools-- oh wait, except for most of the schools that US News considers to be the "best."

It's ironic.

Almost as much as the fact that those who espouse charter schools-- schools which are exempt from many regulations and bureaucracies that other public schools have to endure-- decided to "improve" public schools by-- drumroll, please-- adding MORE regulations and MORE bureaucracy onto the backs of public schools, complements of the No Child Left Behind Act, et alia. And of course testing requirements don't apply to private schools, either-- but some would like to see my tax dollars going to pay tuition for students to go to private schools (completely ignoring the fact that once an institution takes public funding, it ceases to have the right to behave as a private institution, but that's a post for another day....).

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At 12/19/08, 11:24 AM, Blogger Mrs.K but you can call me Coach said...

Once again:


Great job and thanks!

At 12/19/08, 10:53 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

Preuss School UCSD in La Jolla, CA . This institute recently had a scandal regarding changing grades and grade inflation. It was reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune. IIRC, the chancellor of the school resigned or quit. I don't recall how widespread the scandal was, but it did not make this school look very good.....

At 12/19/08, 11:22 PM, Blogger Mrs. W. said...

Beautifully put. Seems that few people look at this part of the data, though. :-/

At 12/20/08, 9:09 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Coach K, thanks.

Polski, fascinating info! My point is that none of these schools represent reality, and Preuss is one-third the size of the high school at which I teach-- indeed, of most schools that I know that are in metropolitan areas. Almost none of them deal with the budgetary and enrollment constraints that we do. So basically I see these rankings as a PR blitz for charter schools-- and most charters around here are horrifying.

Mrs. W, I agree, and its time that someone did.

At 12/20/08, 9:21 AM, Blogger MommyProf said...

I never really understood why # of advanced placement/IB was such a good indicator of quality in a high school. I guess you have to measure on something, but it seems like there is so much more.

I was reading an article the other day on the latest "The US lags in Math and Science" doom and gloom report. The article was making the point that public education in America is diverse in a way that is both extremely different from what you find in the countries that do well and in ways that make it hard to come up with a single standard to pass for quality.

So I'm not sure a list of best high schools is even possible to create...

At 12/20/08, 5:53 PM, Blogger Mrs. T said...

Definitely nailed it.
BTW, I'm looking forward to your post re: public funding for private education. My own kids go to Catholic school and I really don't want public funding for it. Once an institution starts receiving gov't monies, they are beholden to the source.
Looking at the top schools in the country makes my job seem impossible. We have 30% minority,75% economically disadvantaged, a student population of 1600. There's no way we can compete with a school of 200 kids who had to apply to go there.

At 12/20/08, 9:32 PM, Blogger Lightly Seasoned said...

I was interested enough to look through some of the stats. First of all, we all know that to get on that list you have to be sending nearly your entirely population through the AP exams -- this is their measure of college prep. It matters not that some of those schools in the top 10% had passing rates of 17%.

Several of the schools in the top 100 in my neck of the woods are actually public schools, but in extremely affluent areas. One is a magnet for gifted students.

I have nothing against AP. I teach AP (and my median score is usually over 4). But I know damn full and well that if less than 20% of your kids are passing that exam, you have not prepared them for college during their 4 years with you.

We have about 1400 kids in our building; about 85% go on to complete a bachelor's degree.

At 12/21/08, 3:13 PM, Blogger Goldie said...

My kids' school is on this list (bronze, though). I'd say I'm pretty happy with it so far. It is a large school that serves four cities. The district is pretty diverse both ethnically and economically. We have a large percentage of immigrants, and other minorities. A large number of lower-middle-class families. We have a strong gifted program, AP classes, as well as a large percentage of students with IEPs/504s and an EXCEL TECC vocational program. I personally know a kid with downs syndrome who graduated recently from EXCEL TECC, having learned a trade as well as life skills. Both my sons are in the gifted program and my oldest also has Aspergers. The school has been extremely supportive. The cost of living in our district? I'm not gonna lie to you. The houses are overpriced, and the property taxes are through the roof (both, actually, because the schools are so good). We have a large number of apartment complexes though. My own family was pretty broke when we moved to this district, yet we were able to afford an apartment. I really like it about our district that my children get to interact with people from all walks of life. It also helps that I can send my kids to school wearing old patched hoodies and Walmart-brand jeans, and they wouldn't be teased for it. Would not trade this district for any other. A few other schools from our area also made the list, gold and silver, but they are preppy high schools located in affluent areas, and I just wouldn't want that for my children - I think being there would skew their worldview. I think we have the best of both worlds here.
My point here, I guess, is that for a lower-middle-class family that cares about their kids' education, it is in fact possible to afford some of the schools on this list. I'm going to be honest with you though - kids from families below poverty level, inner-city kids - for them it is unfortunately not an option. Also, kids from low-income families whose parents care more about new cars and big-screen TVs than they do about their children's education - these kids are screwed. Living in our district is affordable, but it ain't cheap and a family will have to make certain sacrifices if they want to move here. In the end, a lot is up to the parents. Not fair to the kids, I know, but I don't have a solution to this problem - I don't know how to force the parents to give their children the best education they can afford.

At 12/22/08, 3:15 PM, Blogger Liz Ditz said...

Thanks for crunching (some) of the numbers. One of the things that irritates me about the USN&WR list is that a high school is only as good as its feeder (schools) (districts). If you get a crop of 9th graders, 60% of whom read at a 3rd grade level...well, at the very least, you've got a lot of work to do.

I live in Town B, which is served by a k-8 district and shares a 9-12 district with other towns. The next town down, Town A, has a unified (k-12) district. Surprise! Town A's 2 high schools are higher-scoring than the ones Town B's students attend. Yes, Town A is more affluent, but it also doesn't have to deal with non-performing schools in other districts at the high school level.

You know what I'd like to see? A high school honor roll with the highest low-SES graduation rates.

At 12/23/08, 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live and teach in the district with the #1 school on the list. We're one of the biggest school districts in the country, so there is a LOT of competition to get into "TJ." Children start talking about it as early as third grade, which is when they are placed into GT. The pressure only accelerates from there.

By the time they enter middle school, many of the potential applicants have already begun drafting their essays, and they (and their parents) carefully plan their schedules and extracurricular activities to make them more appealing candidates.

These kids spend most of their eighth grade year obsessing over TJ - filling out the application, studying for the test, taking the test, awaiting the test results, getting their recommendations and waiting for their applications to be evaluated (IF they pass the test). Many of them are under tremendous pressure from their parents who consider TJ to be the "end all, be all" of their young lives. This is especially true if they have older siblings who are TJ alumni. Some of these kids are so stressed they've had to go on anti-anxiety medication!

What's really ridiculous about this (as if that isn't enough) is that a number of these students aren't particularly interested in science and technology (TJ's focal areas). There are several great high schools in our district with a variety of excellent academic programs (including AP and IB). Still, everyone wants to go to TJ because it's "the best." I hate these stupid lists, and I hate what they do to our kids.

It's HIGH SCHOOL, people. Can we get a little perspective here?


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