Newsweek versus Hinsdale Central

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In a recent letter sent to Newsweek and printed in both the Darien and Hinsdale/Clarendon Hills versions of The Patch (find it here), Hinsdale Township High School District 86 superintendent, Dr. Bruce Law, protested the omission of Hinsdale Central High School from Newsweek’s list of the top high schools in the country.  Law also argues that Hinsdale South High School—which came in at #415 out of 500 in the rankings—should have been ranked higher. (The Chicago Tribune has also run a story about this.)  Although it’s understandable that any superintendent of any high school in the country left off the list would be upset at the slight, Law should know better than to argue about anything as bogus as a list claiming to determine a high school’s quality, especially in relation to other high schools.

Even though Law does rightly point out that “no thoughtful person thinks news magazines’ rankings are a way to judge the worth of schools,” he then states that these ratings are important to many people (Are those people, then, not “thoughtful”?) and attacks Newsweek as making a mistake in leaving Hinsdale Central off the list, the second year in a row that this “error” has occurred.  Unfortunately, he never provides any evidence of problems in the way the rankings were tabulated; apparently, we have to accept his word that Central belonged on the list.  Newsweek, in fact, does offer statistics and explanations of its methodology. (This article provides an overview, and there is a much more detailed analysis embedded near the bottom of the page.)  As a retired teacher who evaluated hundreds of research papers over thirty-three years, I’d have to grade Law’s letter way down for making unsupported assertions.

That’s not to say I don’t agree that Central is an excellent high school. Having worked in District 86 for twenty-five years (in the English Department at #415 Hinsdale South), I know first-hand the superior quality of the teachers, the dedication of support-staff members, and the excellence of the students in this school district.  If anything, South has always felt slighted over the years, considered the ugly step-sister to Princess Central.  And don’t for a second believe that I would try to use the flawed rankings of Newsweek to claim that South has now surpassed Central.  Central is and has been a fantastic high school, setting an Illinois record of eight IHSA state championships in the 2014-15 school year (which you can read about here) and having over thirty National Merit Semifinalists announced just last week, to cite a couple of its many recent accomplishments.  That makes it even more unfortunate that Law is complaining about not being on some stupid list that everyone should recognize as nonsense.

Because it is a fool’s errand to try to figure out how good a school is based on the data Newsweek uses.  The six “indicators of College Readiness” Newsweek chose were as follows:  College enrollment rate (weighted as 25% of a school’s total score), graduation rate (20%), Advanced Placement tests taken compared to number of students in the school (17.5%), weighted ACT/SAT composite scores (17.5%), student retention (or dropout) rates (10%), and counselor/student ratio (10%).  Those statistics combined for the “absolute” list that received all the publicity and on which Hinsdale South was ranked 415th.  There was another list created based an analysis of the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the school who performed above state averages for similar students, as well as those other six metrics (neither District 86 school made that list).

None of those statistics are meaningless, but arguments could be made for many others as well—advanced education of teachers, class size, extra-curricular opportunities, and technology availability are all measurable areas which could have been considered.  (And that’s not even getting into how they determined the percentages each metric was worth—student/teacher ratios aren’t even on the list, but counselor/student ratios are worth 10% and are equal to dropout rates?)  Probably the key metric that was overlooked would be the progress students made from their first day of freshman year to commencement senior year.  Standardized tests could be used to come up with some number for that, and I would argue that statistic would be a better way to attempt to determine a school’s effectiveness rather than how many kids took AP tests, whether or not they did well on them.

But even that “objective” data would scarcely make a dent in assessing how good a high school is.  There are countless more subjective issues that contribute to the graduates who emerge from high schools.  To give you a brief sampling of other factors I would argue also contribute to the quality of a high school:  How diverse is the student body?  The staff?  How tolerant is everyone to differences in race, religion, and sexual orientation?  How tough are the school’s anti-bullying policies?  How many incidents of bullying take place annually?  How often do fights break out?  How many suspensions occur each year?  What are they for?  How many deans are on staff?   Are support-staff wages competitive, or does the district scrimp on paying them, leading to a high turnover and less quality individuals who will be coming in contact with students every day?  Are teacher salaries competitive enough to attract the best candidates?  What are the facilities like?  How often are fire and safety monies spent, and has every concern been addressed?  What’s the relationship between the school board and its teachers?  Any contract problems recently which could negatively impact the “school climate,” which is code for employee enthusiasm?  How do the administrators relate to both the school board and their teachers?  How much money is spent per pupil?  Does the school board find the right balance between fiscal responsibilities to taxpayers and making sure the schools have adequate budgets?  How up-to-date are the facilities and technology?  How many computer labs and/or student tablets does the school have?    What kind of relationship does the school have to local businesses?  How robust are the parent/teacher organizations and the booster clubs?  Are there any mentoring opportunities for student-to-student, student-to-teacher, or student-to-community member?  How experienced is the staff?  What interventions are in place to address at-risk students and how quickly are these students identified?  When new teachers are hired, can the district hire experienced teachers from other districts or do only first-year teachers apply?  How many teachers are rated as “Unsatisfactory” or “Needs Improvement” each year?  Are special needs students mostly included in regular classes?  How many separate classes are there for these students?  Are classes with included students team-taught (with a special education teacher and a subject area teacher in the room together all the time)?  How many special needs students are there?  How big is the special education department as a ratio of total teachers?  How many course offerings does the school have?  How many field trips or special events does a typical student attend over the course of four years?  How well are the art, music, and drama departments supported? Does the school emphasize physical education in a way that encourages students to learn how to be healthy rather than simply putting on a gym uniform?  What is the ratio of junk food to healthy choices in the cafeteria?  Are all students encouraged to join clubs and activities, or do coaches and sponsors fight over only the “good” kids?  How well do coaches and sponsors cooperate with each other so that kids can participate in many activities, rather than being recruited to join a sport/club that more closely resembles a cult?  Does learning about the sport/activity and good sportsmanship take precedence over winning?  How often is the curriculum updated, and are teachers the driving force behind any and all changes?  How often are standardized tests taken, and how much class time is wasted preparing for them?  How many students have substance abuse issues, and how prevalent are alcohol and other drugs?  Of those graduates who go on to college, how well do they do and how many graduate in four years?  What kinds of programs are offered to prepare students for careers that do not require four years of college?  Believe it or not, I could go on and on with many more considerations that contribute to the quality of a high school.

As you look over that lengthy list of questions, you should quickly recognize that it would be impossible to assess all these questions unless you had worked in the high school and school district in a variety of positions for decades, as well as having several of your children attend the school—preferably with one child being gifted, another troubled, and the third special needs.  In short, nobody can determine a school’s quality in any replicable, scientific, objective way, certainly not with a scant six characteristics.  What Dr. Law should be chastising Newsweek over isn’t its lack of recognition of Hinsdale Central, but its amazing chutzpah in suggesting that it has the wherewithal to take a couple of self-reported statistics, crunch those meager numbers, and then come out with a supposedly accurate ranking of the “top” 500 high schools in the country.

And sadly this drivel carries a great deal of weight. Although I have no inside information on what stimulated Law to write this letter in the first place, my guess is that he wouldn’t have done so if it hadn’t been for outside pressure from those indignant that this “important” ranking had somehow missed how awesome Hinsdale Central is.  Other high schools that Central has always been compared to were on the list—Stevenson (82nd overall), New Trier (14th),  Naperville North (58th) and Central (95th), Lake Forest (34th), Barrington (161st), Glenbrook South (95th), Maine South (380th), and Highland Park (263rd) to name a few—so I’m not denying that it’s ridiculous Central wouldn’t be included somewhere with them.  But the more significance we grant these futile attempts to assess a school’s overall worth, the more time and effort we waste trying to measure the unmeasurable, which can have unforeseen negative effects.

At Hinsdale South, for example, there has been a huge push in recent years to get more kids to take AP classes and tests, at least in part because it “looks” better.  Weighted grades—the opiates of public education—have been liberally applied to attract kids to A.P. classes, resulting in virtual open enrollment in many courses that require skills not all students possess.  This winds up hurting everyone as the students who don’t really belong in honors classes motivate teachers to water-down their curricula to accommodate the unsuspecting hordes being recruited, many of whom can’t do the work well (even after the curricular dilution), feeling lost or stupid as a result.  And those who have the skills to do A.P. work can’t progress as far as they might have since the courses’ standards have been lowered.  No one will admit it, but rankings such as those in Newsweek can contribute to dumbing-down courses simply to bolster enrollment.

So these kinds of lists can harm schools which pay too much attention to them by weakening the very courses that make the schools rigorous.  And in the final analysis, that’s much more significant than whether a particular school was gypped by not being included in the top 500.  Dr. Law is absolutely correct when he points out that Newsweek has made errors in creating its list, but the key problem is not the unjustified omission of Hinsdale Central; what’s wrong is that we give any credence to these lists at all.

For more on these rankings and trying to use objective data to evaluate subjective concepts, check out the following articles:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-order-of-things;

http://www.scribd.com/doc/238785187/Newsweek-s-Top-High-Schools-Methodology; and

http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/quick-look-best-high-school-rankings.  For more on how public education can be improved without the use of lists or rankings, see the e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

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