Tuesday, April 22, 2014

US News Releases "America's Best High Schools" List for 2014

Americans love their rankings and the act of living by comparison. And, that is perhaps nowhere more significant these days than in the world of education. As the debate about "Common Core State Standards" and PARCC tests have fueled the accountability discussion around schools, education reformers insist on quantitative data to determine "what school is the best." Newsweek was the first to gain prominence years ago for ranking "America's Top High Schools" according to Jay Mathews' (of the Washington Post) Challenge Index. It was a simple formula that ranked "best" by the number of AP exams taken, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

The more comprehensive list was developed later by US News & World Reports. Its list of the "Best American High Schools" is based on numerous factors, including AP scores and other state-mandated assessments, the achievement by minority students, and measurements of college readiness. US News awards school gold, silver, and bronze medals, and publishes basic demographic data. It's no surprise, as with any of the rankings systems, that the top of the list is generally dominated by charter and magnet schools. Schools such as the Dallas School for the Gifted & Talented or the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology are truly exceptional academic institutions.

There is certainly nothing wrong with these rankings, though they can be myopic. For example, Jay Mathews concedes with his list that 67 of his top 100 high schools don't even field a football team. Is that truly the "Best High School"? Not that football is the end-all-be-all of high school - but it is sort of a standard and iconic symbol for a thriving athletic program. And athletic programs are an important aspect of public education, if we're actually interested in educating the "whole child." The same goes for theater programs. And fine arts classes. And school clubs and activities. And a strong counseling and post-graduate office.

A truly great "high school" would do all these well. Like schools such as Stevenson High School  in Lincolnshire, IL, or Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, CO. Cherry Creek is ranked #341 on the US News list, and it received a gold medal. It is also the top ranked athletic program in the state according to Mile High Sports. And Sports Illustrated recently ranked it the fifth best athletic program in the country. And the school's music program recently won a Grammy Award, as part of the Grammy's Signature Schools Program. And it has eight different choirs, several of which travel and perform internationally. And the school has nearly 100 active clubs, with everything from National Honor Society and Robotics Club to the Harry Potter Club and Capture the Flag Club. And it has a top-notch post-graduate program that helps kids access the best colleges in the country. And it has 206 state championships in 25 different sports. And it defies the downside of large schools by achieving success with 3,500 students. And its student body has raised tens of thousands of dollars every year for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. And it has the eighth best Speech & Debate program in the United States, as well as being one of the largest programs. And it has more than thirty different languages spoken in the homes of its students. And it's growing more diverse every year. And its Diversity Task Force is the host of the nation's largest diversity conference for teens. And it is a neighborhood school that accepts and teaches to all kids within its boundaries.

Its seems to me that we need to start looking at schools that offer a full range of successful programs aimed at educating the whole child. The "Best High Schools" have strong academics, a thriving fine arts program, numerous extra-curricular activities, a broad and inclusive athletic program, and more.

The "Best High Schools" really do it all well. Not just test scores.

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