Isn’t it all worth the lives of just a few kids?

April 14, 2017

The Chicago Tribune published an article about students at the prestigious Naperville North High School posting a petition demanding a change to the school’s culture which aggressively pushes all students to take AP classes, and pushing the narrative that this is, for the most part, the one true path for all.

For those in education, this shouldn’t come as something surprising.  For most of the past ten years, there has been a major push from so-called “reformers” to get more and more and more kids into college prep curricula, so that 100% of our students can be college ready.  One of my few and biggest bones with the Obama administration is over this … instead of undoing a bad system created in the Bush administration (NCLB), he really doubled down with Race for the Top, which allowed these “reformers” to cause a lot of damage to education.

This completely ignores the wishes of students and parents who may not want that road, or who may choose that road at a more leisurely pace (college is tough … but there is “MIT/Caltech tough” … there’s “Harvard” tough … there’s “University of Illinois” tough, there’s “Western Illinois University” tough, and “community college” tough.  The reformers have largely created an arbitrary measure of “college ready”, and have not accounted for what a lot of people actually want in their education.

However, there is a more sinister and serious influence that has crept in … and this has a lot more to do with money and other arbitrary measures.

If you have gone house shopping in the recent past, and you have, or were planning on spawning, you become interested in the local schools, and a lot of real estate companies will list the local schools rankings on the U.S. News and World Report lists of toughest and best schools.  You might start by asking what expertise U.S. News and World Report has to rank schools.  The answer is that they have far less expertise than a French tire company has at ranking gourmet restaurants, and that should concern you.

This means that the ability for someone to sell their home and get top dollar is at least partially linked in some cases to that list.  In some communities, this has become a monumentally big deal!  If the school isn’t ranked high enough, then homes don’t get sold, or at least don’t get sold for top dollar.  In our community, we had a person run for the school board solely on the platform of getting our school’s ranking up higher for this reason (they lost, but it became a big issue in the local press).

The U.S. News and World Report lists are based predominantly on a single metric of success, and that metric is the ratio of AP tests taken-per-student.  Anyone with any background in humanity should know that this is highly arbitrary, and not particularly useful at measuring the effectiveness at determining how good a school is, because this data is very easily manipulable.  Schools could very simply start mandating that all students start taking AP classes and take AP tests, and that would artificially raise that metric quickly.  In fact, the school I teach at did that last year, mandating all freshmen take AP History (I forget which one).  Our school went from being ranked somewhere around 200th in the country to the top 75 in the country on that useless tanking.  Are we really that good?  I’m not sure where we should have ranked, but we certainly aren’t that deserving now!  More and more our educational strategy is based around “window dressing” to make administrators and the school look good while covering up some fundamental problems that are getting bigger.  The community may not like this, but has a vested financial interest in seeing this continue.

All we need to do is realize that we are screwing our kids over big time in pushing this process on them.  I want our schools to be tough on kids, but I also want to give kids what they need … and arbitrarily tough isn’t the solution to that.  If you read that article, you will see that the Naperville North petition was fueled by the second student suicide related to stress in the past year.

Is this the price we want for high rankings on a useless scale in order to sell the house for a few grand more?  Sadly, we are in a void of leadership that will do anything about this.