The Average Mistake: School Rankings
Just off a busy four-lane strip mall-lined road, within a quiet neighborhood in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, rests Jeffersontown High School. When arriving at the school, visitors will notice nothing remarkable about the setting or the building. Similar to the view from the parking lot, a review of the school’s published accountability statistics will uncover extremely average results. Yet, if my family still lived in Louisville, Kentucky, this would be the only high school in the district that I would want my son and daughter to attend.
I am not a “bleeding heart” who hopes that my children’s attendance at J-town would better society or teach them some sort of altruistic life lesson. In fact, I am a competitive, rather conservative educational researcher who teaches and preaches the benefits of quantitative measures to aspiring school leaders. I hope that my children matriculate to one of the top-tier schools my wife and I have attended (Northwestern, Notre Dame, Virginia), so that they might enjoy lucrative careers that bring them happiness. In the end, like many parents, I hope that my children fare better than my wife and me. So, why would I choose an average school like J-town?
Skeptics might suggest that I am trying to game the system. Talented children in a safe and mediocre school might more readily lead teams, earn awards, and achieve good grades. (Like I said, I am competitive and good with numbers.) More investigative doubters might suggest I am showing or would expect favoritism from my former student, co-author, and principal of J-town, Marty Pollio. However, spend some time walking around J-town with Marty and you will realize that giving breaks are not part of his charm or talents.
This is where I am supposed to explain how J-town is an extraordinary and special school. But it is not. J-town does not house any elaborate specialty programs or utilize a unique schedule.
Unfortunately, students at J-town do not benefit from in-house services like medical care, dentistry, or mental health. At J-town good grades do not earn students cash, nor does good instruction earn teachers bonuses.
Instead, J-town relies on the two factors known to influence student achievement: teachers and leaders. As I have walked the halls of J-town, I have witnessed excellence in teaching. I watched a young math teacher dissect his paycheck to connect with his students, as well as teach the tenets of algebra. I have seen a veteran chemistry teacher challenge the most talented students and reach those who will never use her content. The skills of these teachers are difficult to measure on standardized tests, but their dedication is easily ascertained by the number of teachers’ cars in the parking lot after school hours.
Similarly, the skillful leadership required to orchestrate this educational symphony is difficult to measure. As seen in school grading systems across the country, researchers and policy wonks can use advanced statistical techniques to estimate Marty’s influence on multiple measures of J-town’s performance. However, these evaluations cannot quantify the increased trepidation among J-town teachers when rumors fly about Marty taking a new position, nor their satisfaction when he remains for another year.
Some might question my calculus, as talented educators and extended hours should not produce average results. However, the J-town population is anything but average. Nearly two-thirds of the student body receives free or reduced lunch prices. J-town students are equally split between white and minority students, with as many students seated in advanced programs as are receiving special education services. The disadvantaged circumstances of many J-town students usually equate to sustained and poor achievement, as well as talented students fleeing the school. This mismatch between the forecast and reality of J-town results in my esteem for the school.
J-town represents what is wrong with current judging and ranking of schools. Like many schools across the country, J-town will not be identified as a persistently low-achieving school, nor cited as a top school in the state. For many educators, this
limbo-like designation has become welcomed camouflage. This lack of attention allows them to not only keep their jobs, but also provide meaningful educational lessons to future business leaders, doctors, military personnel, and educational
researchers. The current state of accountability has put a premium on being left alone.
Although such isolation removes certain political and professional pressures, it also hinders or prevents the requisition of additional resources. For instance, schools with similar populations to J-town, but with worse academic performance, have received huge amounts of aid and assistance. On the other end of the spectrum, schools with much higher academic performance, yet dramatically different student populations, receive public accolades. Such admiration does not necessarily bring more monetary resources, but it does attract more high-performing students, their parental resources, and more opportunities.
When it comes to schools like J-town, the numbers don’t always add up. Rankings by average student literacy and numeracy proficiency cannot appropriately value the often impressive and unexpected accomplishments of great schools. Such rigid measurements can mask the excellent work of effective educators, by ranking their schools in the frequently disregarded middle. Many average rankings misjudge creative classrooms, talented teachers, and astounding student opportunity.
As a parent, don’t make the average mistake.
—Craig Hochbein, assistant professor of educational leadership