What is a good education? When we asked him, professor and educational historian Dr. Jack Schneider said, "A good education raises our expectations, broadens our perspectives, and expands what we know. It helps make us fully human. "
The unfortunate reality is that when it comes to education, at both the K-12 and collegiate levels, "good" has become synonymous with accolades, prestige, and rankings. "Rankings," continued Dr. Schneider, "are rooted in a small number of available indicators, which mostly fail to align with what we value. Moreover, their very design sends the message that we compete with one another to get an education—that's a zero-sum game."
What's scary is that we know ranking for the sake of accolades is a zero-sum game, yet educators continue striving to be ranked "best."
David Yamada, Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School, wrote a blog post discussing how competition to be the best manifests itself at the collegiate level. Higher education professionals know the U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs is a marketing scheme, yet continue to validate its importance.
"They know the U.S. News rankings are problematic," Yamada wrote, "yet they buy into them. Beset by what I call the 'good student' syndrome, they look externally for validation, rather than creating their own markers for evaluating quality and success."
"Good student" syndrome is closely related to what Jerry Z. Muller, author of The Tyranny of Metrics, calls "metric fixation." "When performance is judged by a few measures," Muller wrote in a recent article, "people focus on satisfying those measures, often at the expense of other, more important organizational goals that are not measured. The best-known example is 'teaching to the test,' a widespread phenomenon that has distorted primary and secondary education in the U.S. since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001."
Performance indicators mutated from a way to measure growth into a competition that undermines what's being measured. Why else would we put such an emphasis on standardized tests when research shows that they don't predict success or indicate quality learning?
Additionally, our propensity to categorize and rank education as "good" also ignores the extenuating factors that allow individual institutes and students to be the "best."
The K-12 version of the U.S. News & World Report's college list is the Washington Post's list of the "Most Challenging High Schools," primarily based on the number of AP tests exams a high school's population takes in a year. It costs $93.00 to take an AP exam. The author of the list also asserts that taking AP exams "is a unique measure of the depth of learning." That's highly subjective. CTE experience is also a unique measure of the depth of learning. So is dual enrollment. However, neither of those options have the perceived prestige rankings so often revolve around.
An editorial by David W. Kirkpatrick, Senior Education Fellow at the U.S. Freedom Foundation, points out how "students who come from homes with higher income and better-educated parents do better than students without these advantages by virtue of their background." Kirkpatrick references the distribution of Blue Ribbon School awards in Pennsylvania. Out of the eight schools receiving the award, only one came from a district whose income level matched the state average—the seven other districts all had above-average incomes. They included the two wealthiest districts in the state.
One could argue the better schools are the ones who do more with fewer resources, but that argument also exemplifies the problem with "good" or "better." We still end up emphasizing the competition, not the actual learning. Are students getting a meaningful education? Did it prepare them for college or the workforce? What resources strengthen educational outcomes? Rankings don't answer those questions.
We need to start focusing less on rankings. Equipping our young people to tackle the world head-on isn't a competition. Education is useful if it propels an individual to their definition of success.
Let's return our focus on learning new things, broadening our perspectives, and raising expectations for the future—all of which we can accomplish without a Top 10 list.