Two recent articles on education, one in Newsweek, the other in Education Week, are emblematic of much of what is wrong in American education and society, although this is not the intent of either article.
The Newsweek (May 16, 2005) article is entitled, “The 100 Best High Schools in America” – as if such a calculation were even possible. As Newsweek acknowledges, there are now 27,468 public high schools in America (so we see right off the bat that the 100 best excludes private and parochial schools). Their criteria to determine the 100 best? Well, it is a ratio: “the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken by all students at a school in 2004, divided by the number of graduating seniors.” Yep. That’s it.
Tests taken. Not even the ratio of tests passed with a given level divided by students. (Some readers may recall my railing at this a year ago and may wish to skip the next paragraph or two.)
So right off the bat the process is flawed. Once again, we find quantity as the yardstick with no effort to measure, much less define, quality. What then might be some better criteria to measure our success in our public high schools?
How about a ratio of the number of entering ninth graders compared to the number graduating four years later? How about the number of those graduates enrolling in two or four-year colleges the following fall? How about the number of those ninth graders who graduated from college within eight to ten years? If we need to quantify criteria for success, these suggestions seem better than the ratio of tests taken to the number of seniors.
In reality, the real marks of a successful school are probably not measurable but are almost palpable at a given school. Such marks would include the passions of the students for community service and action, the love of learning exhibited by the students, the spirit of care, respect, and kindness present in the school atmosphere, and the social-ethnic-cultural-international diversity at the school. These are the measurements that matter, and silly lists of 100 schools as in the Newsweek article simply reinforce inappropriate and trivial assessments of what matters in education. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry said it well: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The second article (Educational Week, August 10, 2005) entitled “A Leg Up,” chronicles a new phenomenon: “summer camps for students to prepare for the SAT test.” Yep, SAT camps. Not hiking, community service or Boy/Girl scout camps. Nope. SAT camps. Ten days of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. camp filled with practice tests, vocabulary seminars, lectures, etc… during the summer. The goal: to give some kids, those who can afford the $2,250 fee for ten days, “a leg up” on the SAT tests. So the well-to-do have found yet one more way to convert what was once designed as a standardized aptitude test into a test of privilege. Even though the for-profit company running these camps (six of them in 2005 at campuses in California, Massachusetts, and New York) brags that it offers financial aid, we learn that only 5-10 percent of the participants receive some level of aid. The majority pays the two grand and enhances their chances of admission to the colleges of their preference.
Meanwhile, in the inner city public schools, students receive few such personalized services. At a recent meeting of Mayor Villaraigosa’s Education Council, a number of inner city students spoke with the Mayor, virtually all of them lamenting the inadequate number of college counselors on campus— a 500 to 1 ratio being common.Consequently, while the well-to-do spend their $2,250 for SAT camps and even more thousands of dollars during the school year for other SAT prep services such as Kaplan or The Princeton Review, the inner city kids try to compete on yet another un-leveling of the playing field. Perhaps next year when Newsweek offers its top 100 schools it might consider different criteria that look at success in a more meaningful way.