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
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
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
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.
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.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire