December 23, 2002

December 23, 2002 | Commentary on Education

ed122302: Finally True Blue

The Blue Ribbon Schools Award is a big deal among many in the education establishment. Even real estate agents give it a lot of credence. After all, housing prices have been known to jump in neighborhoods where schools have won this prestigious award.

Too bad the prestige is mostly hype. Many of the more than 4,000 schools that have won the award since 1982 don't deserve the honor. Meanwhile, schools that do deserve the recognition never apply.

Consider San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, Calif. This 2001-2002 winner is wealthier than many schools. Less than 1 percent of its students qualify for the federally funded lunch program. But average reading scores for San Ramon Valley were between the 64th and 67th percentile on the Stanford-9 national exam. That's well above the median state and national scores, but hardly noteworthy considering that schools as wealthy as San Ramon Valley usually score around the 80th percentile.

Far more worthy of recognition is Kelso Elementary School in Inglewood, Calif. Kelso has the same state level ranking as San Ramon Valley, but there, nine of every 10 students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch. Kelso scores more than twice as well as many schools with a comparable student body. Last year, average math scores were in the 80th percentile. Schools with similar populations usually score around the 28th percentile. In other words, Kelso not only out-performs other low-income schools, it fares better than many schools in wealthier areas.

But don't look for Kelso to be a Blue Ribbon winner, even though the award is supposed to give top-notch schools the recognition they deserve. Kelso, and many other deserving low-income schools, simply don't apply.

Why? For starters, the application process alone is enough to discourage any school, low-income or not. Last year's application form was 25 pages long. By the time the process is finished -- and all supporting documentation attached -- applications can be measured in inches, not pages.

There are other problems, too. The award criteria place little emphasis on student achievement. Instead, they reward schools for "process" and "programs" without weighing their effectiveness at improving student performance.

This isn't the best way to measure excellence. Some schools spend more time preparing the holiday program than teaching kids to read -- and it shows. USA Today recently reviewed Blue Ribbon schools in 10 states and found that about half these states independently had classified at least one "Blue Ribbon" winner as an under-performing school.

But things are changing. Under changes established by Education Secretary Rod Paige, any future Blue Ribbon school must meet one of two criteria: Its student achievement has to rank among the top 10 percent of the state's schools, or if it's a school where at least 40 percent of students are either low-income or speak little English, it must show a significant improvement in test scores.

Paige also required that the award be given more frequently to high-performing, high-poverty schools -- ones that are in the top 10 percent of all schools in the state and have a significant number of low-income students.

The application process is changing, too. Now the forms can't exceed 10 pages. And schools no longer may nominate themselves for the award. Instead, states will be required to identify their high-performing schools. With a less time-consuming more achievement-focused process, the program may give Kelso and other schools like it the national recognition they deserve.

The new approach will give all schools the opportunity to demonstrate that their students are learning and to describe how they're doing it. The Blue Ribbon Schools Award will have rigor and meaning. It will be about improved reading scores, not real-estate markets. And its prestige finally will be deserved.

Megan Farnsworth, an education fellow at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), is a former curriculum specialist and bilingual teacher at high-poverty schools in Burbank, Calif.

About the Author

Megan Farnsworth Education Research Fellow
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education

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