NEWS BLOG: Getting the wrong message from school ‘report cards’

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It was good to see Michael Winerip's column in yesterday's New York Times, on media compilations of "best" schools. Several national magazines do these lists. So do lots of local newspapers.

As Winerip notes, the lists are popular - and they are powerful. "Nobody in his right mind would take these lists lightly," he writes. "Property values rise near best high schools. Parents will fight to the death for best high schools. Best teachers and best principals want to work in best high schools."

That might be fine if the lists really did tell us which schools are "best." Instead, as Winerip says, they tell us which students and which communities are "best."

The list Winerip focuses on Newsweek's, a survey that includes regular public schools, magnet schools, and charter schools. The characteristics of the "winners" in the Newsweek assessment show us exactly what's wrong with this kind of list.

Most of Newsweek's top 50 have selective admissions criteria; not everybody can get in. Eight of the 50 are charter schools, and the two best charters are Arizona schools with a disproportionately high percentage of Asian students, a disproportionately low percentage of Hispanic students - and "no children who qualify for subsidized lunches or who need special education," Winerip writes.

The others on the list are suburban schools, in areas with higher than average family incomes.

Coincidentally, yesterday my e-mail brought a notice from the Rochester Business Journal, announcing its 2012 "RBJ Schools Report Card." RBJ's annual publication provides extensive data about schools and school districts throughout Monroe and Ontario counties: taxes, budgets, student demographics, graduation rates, student achievement....

The Report Card, RBJ's promo piece says, "is helpful for families who are new to the area and those looking to move."

Yep. And my hunch is that it has the same effect that similar publications have: it convinces many readers that from it, they can draw conclusions about which schools and which school districts are "best."

I'm not picking on RBJ; RBJ doesn't bill this as a list of "best" schools. And all of this information is available on the New York education department's website. RBJ simply compiles it in an easy-to-read (and easy to compare) format.

Yes, the information is important for families. I consulted Chicago school stats when our daughter and son-in-law were deciding which neighborhood to move to as their children approached school age.

But we need to draw accurate conclusions from lists like these. They don't give us a picture of where the best teachers and principals are. They give us a picture of growing segregation - economic, and yes, racial. They give us a picture of a large group of children being walled off together, separated from children whose families have more money and a better education and whose school districts have more resources.

Read the lists. Think about what you're seeing. And then you might want to wrestle with this fact: this is a national problem, and we still haven't figured out what to do about it.

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