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Volume III, Number 6, June, 2005

Newsweek's Education for Dummies:
Simple Ideas
Simple Strategies
and Simplistic Thinking

The national obsession with simple tests and simple measures of educational excellence is simple-minded.

Because of an untested faith in the power of tests to fix schools, we are cheating the children and missing the point of education.

Not content to damage the disadvantaged children in our poorest neighborhoods and schools, some extend this simplistic thinking to our supposedly best and brightest, rating schools on simple measures that have little to do with quality.

Would you rank the quality of gas stations based on the percentage of cars buying high test at each station?

Newsweek's rating system for schools makes just as much sense.

Newsweek just released a list of the "100 Best High Schools" in the USA based on a single, simplistic, misleading statistic. Read the Newsweek article online by clicking here.
Quoting from the article . . .

Newsweek's Best High Schools List uses 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.

It boggles the mind to watch a leading publication mislead the American public about schools in such an irresponsible manner. There is little truth behind the rating system. While many good schools may make it to the top 100, there are other schools that do not belong at the top and many that have fallen from grace who actually do a better job with students.

It is a false ranking and bad journalism.

Does anyone honestly think that you can judge the quality of a high school by this simple ratio? Newsweek does not even look at whether the students do well on these tests. It's enough to sign up for the test. Success on the tests would have more to do with quality than mere enrollment.

Newsweek does not consider the percentage of students performing well on the tests. Under their system, a school with lots of students taking AP tests is doing well without demonstrating competency. It is a system that rewards a school for testing but ignores learning and results.

Newsweek does not consider the percentage of students failing to graduate as seniors. Under their system, a school with lots of students taking AP tests, doing badly on them and dropping out of school could rank at the top of the list since a school is actually penalized under their ratio for graduating a high percentage of seniors. As the percentage of graduating students declines, the Newsweek ratio improves. A high school is rewarded under this simple-minded scoring system for a high attrition rate.

This is not rocket science. It is simple math. And Newsweek has indulged in "fuzzy math." It has reduced a complex challenge to a very simple and wrong-minded matter of test enrollment.

Quoting from the article . . .

Although that doesn't tell the whole story about a school, it's one of the best measures available to compare a wide range of students' readiness for higher-level work, which is more crucial than ever in the postindustrial age.

This is a false claim. Newsweek's ratio tells us nothing about the students' readiness for higher-level work. Their scores on the tests might tell us something about readiness for higher-level work, but Newsweek ignores that data.

Quality in a school is best measured by looking at several dozen factors. Enrollment in demanding classes is only one indicator of quality, one that cannot capture the essence of a school and is easily manipulated by those who care more about icing than cake. A school can open up lots of slots for demanding classes without actually creating student performance.

Taking Mental Short-Cuts

Smarting in the same week from its retracted Koran/toilet story, Newsweek compounded its failures by publishing what amounts to an educational "virtual reality" story. This ranking of schools has little to do with quality education. Anyone who buys Newsweek's definition of high quality schooling would consider a BIG Mac a gourmet burger and MacDonalds a fine dining establishment.

Newsweek is promoting what amounts to a fast food approach to school improvement and has taken a fast food approach to scholarship and journalism.

Quoting from the article . . .

The Goal: Never has high school had to do so much for so many. NEWSWEEK unveils the top schools across the country and suggests what others can do to make the grade.

Read the article for yourself and see if you can find any significant advice. Despite the claim above, Newsweek fails to offer any solutions or strategies in this article other than increasing the number of AP and IB tests taken.

With the repeated publication of this flawed, misleading ranking of high schools in recent years, Newsweek and the authors of this system have indulged in quick and dirty journalism. They give false praise to schools that do not deserve recognition while ignoring and downgrading schools that have done a much better job of promoting student success.

Responsible journalism would identify the key indicators of educational quality and do the serious research that would identify those schools truly educating students, but Newsweek has found a cheap way to create a stir, a simple-minded yard stick to compare schools. Ignoring issues of veracity and validity, Newsweek goes for the vivid headlines, the sensational list and the dramatic story, stooping to a tabloid level of reporting unworthy of a great magazine.

The Traits of a Great High School

We know the traits of a great high school and we know how to measure whether a school is delivering on those traits. Collecting the data is costly but possible.

Newsweek took unethical shortcuts.

To compare high schools in a responsible manner, we would look at the factors in this diagram:

It is easy to see why journalists might take the quick and dirty route. It is cheap. But the ranking that results from Newsweek's false measure has little to do with reality and does an injustice to the high schools of this land, many of which were rated poorly by Newsweek's simple-minded measure.

Education for Dummies

Schools in this land face a crisis as simple-minded reform measures abound and ignorant folks push agendas that will damage this generation in serious ways.

Real reform is hard work. Transformation of student performance requires patience, skill and a high level of customization. Sadly, the fashion of the day is fast food education, the quick fix and teaching by recipe and script. When the media contributes to the fashion by offering the kind of simple thinking promoted by Newsweek, the prospects for real reform are weakend.

Fix our schools? Newsweek's advice is simple . . .

  • Test harder.
  • Test more.
  • Test more often.
  • Lift the bar.
  • Act tough.
  • Use tougher tests.

What is missing here?

  • Capacity building.
  • Program building.
  • Effective teaching.

© 2005, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
Volume III, Number 4, April, 2005