Dear Parents

Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead

Every teacher has probably experienced, at least once in his life, the sinking feeling of being misunderstood by the parents of the students he teaches.  Maria Semple, television writer and novelist (and former aspiring teacher) has sketched the possibility so perfectly here it needs no further introduction.

 

 

Dear Mountain Room Parents

(From the New Yorker)
 
Hi, everyone!
The Mountain Room is gearing up for its Day of the Dead celebration on Friday. Please send in photos of loved ones for our altar. All parents are welcome to come by on Wednesday afternoon to help us make candles and decorate skulls.
Thanks!
Emily
Hi again.
Because I’ve gotten some questions about my last e-mail, there is nothing “wrong” with Halloween. The Day of the Dead is the Mexican version, a time of remembrance. Many of you chose Little Learners because of our emphasis on global awareness. Our celebration on Friday is an example of that. The skulls we’re decorating are sugar skulls. I should have made that more clear.
Emily
Parents:
Some of you have expressed concern about your children celebrating a holiday with the word “dead” in it. I asked Eleanor’s mom, who’s a pediatrician, and here’s what she said: “Preschoolers tend to see death as temporary and reversible. Therefore, I see nothing traumatic about the Day of the Dead.” I hope this helps.
Emily

Dear Parents:
In response to the e-mail we all received from Maddie’s parents, in which they shared their decision to raise their daughter dogma-free, yes, there will be an altar, but please be assured that the Day of the Dead is a pagan celebration of life and has nothing to do with God. Keep those photos coming!
Emily

Hello.
Perhaps “pagan” was a poor word choice. I feel like we’re veering a bit off track, so here’s what I’ll do. I’ll start setting up our altar now, so that today at pickup you can see for yourselves how colorful and harmless the Day of the Dead truly is.
Emily

Parents:
The photos should be of loved ones who have passed. Max’s grandma was understandably shaken when she came in and saw a photo of herself on our altar. But the candles and skulls were cute, right?
Emily

Mountain Room Parents:
It’s late and I can’t possibly respond to each and every e-mail. (Not that it comes up a lot in conversation, but I have children, too.) As the skulls have clearly become a distraction, I decided to throw them away. They’re in the compost. I’m looking at them now. You can, too, tomorrow at drop-off. I just placed a “NO BASURA” card on the bin to make sure it doesn’t get emptied. Finally, to those parents who are offended by our Day of the Dead celebration, I’d like to point out that there are parents who are offended that you are offended.
Emily

Dear Parents:
Thanks to their group e-mail, we now know that the families of Millie and Jaden M. recognize Jesus Christ as their Saviour. There still seems to be some confusion about why, if we want to celebrate life, we’re actually celebrating death. To better explain this “bewildering detour,” I’ve asked Adela, who works in the office and makes waffles for us on Wednesdays, and who was born in Mexico, to write you directly.
Emily

Hola a los Padres:
El Día de los Muertos begins with a parade through the zócalo, where we toss oranges into decorated coffins. The skeletons drive us in the bus to the cemetery and we molest the spirits from under the ground with candy and traditional Mexican music. We write poems called calaveras, which laugh at the living. In Mexico, it is a rejoicing time of ofrendas, picnics, and dancing on graves.
Adela

Parents:
I sincerely apologize for Adela’s e-mail. I would have looked it over, but I was at my daughter’s piano recital. (Three kids, in case you’re wondering, one who’s allergic to everything, even wind.) For now, let’s agree that e-mail has reached its limits. How about we process our feelings face to face? 9 A.M. tomorrow?
Emily

Dear Parents:
Some of you chose to engage in our dialogue. Some chose to form a human chain. Others had jobs (!) to go to. So we’re all up to speed, let me recap this morning’s discussion:
—Satan isn’t driving our bus. Little Learners does not have a bus. If we did, I wouldn’t still need parent drivers for the field trip to the cider mill. Anyone? I didn’t think so.
—Ofrenda means “offering.” It’s just a thing we put on the altar. Any random thing. A bottle of Fanta. Unopened, not poisoned. Just a bottle of Fanta.
—We’re moving past the word “altar” and calling it what it really is: a Seahawks blanket draped over some cinder blocks.
—Adela will not be preparing food anymore and Waffle Wednesdays will be suspended. (That didn’t make us any new friends in the Rainbow and Sunshine Rooms!)
—On Friday morning, I will divide the Mountain Room into three groups: those who wish to celebrate the Day of the Dead; those who wish to celebrate Halloween; and Maddie, who will make nondenominational potato prints in the corner.

Dear Mountain Room Parents:
Today I learned not to have open flames in the same room as a costume parade. I learned that a five-dollar belly-dancer outfit purchased at a pop-up costume store can easily catch fire, but, really, I knew that just by looking at it. I learned that Fanta is effective in putting out fires. I learned that a child’s emerging completely unscathed from a burning costume isn’t a good enough outcome for some parents. I learned that I will be unemployed on Monday. For me, the Day of the Dead will always be a time of remembrance.

Happy Halloween!
Emily

Are Teachers “Too White”?

There are few educational policies more lauded than the twin but different aims of “equity and diversity.” Who would be opposed to that?

Probably no one, at least in the broadest terms.  But for those of us not deemed “diverse,” those of us white and male, a rigorous policy of hiring equity in hiring might make getting a job a lot harder.

According to a recent article by Louise Brown in the Toronto Star:

The Ontario Ministry of Education has told school boards this year to make equity a focus in hiring.

“It’s critical students see themselves reflected in their teachers and principals,” said Education Minister Laurel Broten. But Queen’s Park will not force boards to track the race of teachers, so it’s unclear how boards will show they’re making progress.’

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has asked members to indicate their racial background since 2002, but a scant 5 per cent check off the “racialized” box and that number isn’t going up, which makes president Sam Hammond suspect the number is too low. Still, the union runs outreach programs in schools to encourage a broader range of students to consider teaching.

“We don’t mirror the student body, yet that’s what we need. It’s so important that students have appropriate role models,” he said.

The Toronto District School Board does ask teachers to indicate their background, and about 35 per cent of teachers hired last year were visible minorities, as were 30 per cent of those who were promoted, said Pardeep Nagra, the board’s manager of employment equity.

“Principals are the true stakeholders of equity because they’re the ones doing the hiring,” said Nagra. “I meet with principals and remind them that every single hire they do is important.”

The implication is clear: in order to redress the balance, most new hires should reflect the communities present in the school.  In the GTA, where most students aren’t white, it might mean that to follow the guidelines, few (if any) white teachers would be hired – at least for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps there is no place for a white male like me in public education – or, more properly, only a few spots.  But any process that rests on race is worthy of re-examination.

Of course, there are lots of tired, old arguments opposed to these kinds of policies – often originating in the US a generation ago with affirmative action programs.  And some of them have merit, I think.

After all, if the logic goes that teachers who are of a different background than their students are in some ways inferior, then classes or schools should be structured along racial lines – does one South Asian teacher represent all peoples of South Asia? Are races so reducible?  Would this policy entitle a rural school to avoid hiring visible minorities?  If not, why not?

But a better critique: what evidence exists to suggest that race is a key indicator of quality in teaching?  Would we ask that our doctors have our ethnic or racial background?  Isn’t good teaching just good teaching, regardless of race?

Teacher Burn Out

Teachers, like any group of workers who regularly confront humanity, suffer from the threat of burn out.  They fret and stress to the point of wanting to quit the career.  They look longingly at other fields of work and daydream about retirement.  Not all teachers, but many. Legions.It could be, like some have suggested, that teachers have unrealistic views of what any profession can take from you.  People say that lawyers and doctors are worked harder and longer than teachers do.  And the vacation time teachers get leads many to argue that they’re just whining.

I don’t think teachers whine when they feel overworked.  There is nearly no level a teacher could go to feel he had done his job to the fullest; there are always needs left unsatisfied.  Accusations of not-doing-enough linger around every corner.  Coach a team?  You didn’t have enough practices/play my child enough/win enough games.  Run a club?  Haven’t inspired the students to new heights.  Give extra help?  Until all students achieve at the highest levels, you can’t relax.

The difference, I think, between teachers and other professionals are the expectations involved.  Doctors aren’t held responsible for the health of their patients; they are only held responsible for the things directly under their control.  If a doctor tells his patients to quit smoking, follows all the standard protocols, then he’s done his job – and we should feel lucky to have an appointment. Teachers are held responsible for the motivations, dispositions, and psychologies of their charges.  Few blame the lawyer cursed with the unreasonable client – in fact, most pity him.  Teachers, though, do feel the weight of responsibility for the success of each of their students.  And when the efforts of the teacher don’t achieve results, it can be hard to bear.

Perhaps the strain on teachers is increasing; maybe it’s always been this way.  But any career that loses something like ? of its new recruits in the first five years should be reformed.  Do the best teachers stay?  Or just the one’s with the fewest options and smallest imaginations?

I think that the emotional geographies of the school, as people like Andy Hargreaves call it, are central to the mission of school and school system improvement.  Morale and motivation are not peripheral to the mission; in a highly emotive job like teaching, there are few things more important that teachers’ mental states.

If we want to improve schools, one of the levers at our disposal is the happiness of teachers itself.  Ken Leithwood and Brenda Beatty have written about this; I can hardly think of a much more promising area of research and policy.

The Onion on Student Feedback

Professor Deeply Hurt
Professor Deeply Hurt

While it is a joke, and an hilarious one at that, the Onion article above points at a fascinating question in education: should the experts care what the students think of them.

I think the answer is yes, for a few reasons, mainly resting on the idea that to teach and to learn is a social act, one that relies on trust and relationships.  (As I said in one of my first posts, I think it is helpful to think of teachers as salesmen.)  Some high schools, including mine, survey the students to see what they think about the skills and attributes of the teachers.  Of course, some students are unfair, just as some customers are going to be unfair.  And students might not be the best judge of what quality is (what criteria do they use?).  But I think that student-data has to be part of the constellation of information we gather about the effectiveness of our teaching practice.

But as Jesse Eisenber points out, it can be an emotional minefield for the evaluated to read the evaluations – especially on websites like RateMyTeacher.com, where posters have the privilege of being anonymous.  As he points out, even the praise can be tough to take because “no compliment is ever sufficient.”  And for the teacher, it’s even harder as the usual balance of power is upended: the judges become the judged.

Good to Great – Part I: Leadership

Leadership = Humility and Will

Few management gurus have had an impact in educational circles as great as Jim Collins has had.  Following in the footsteps of management profs like Douglas McGregor, Collins seeks to understand what makes organizations thrive.  And many – so many as to suggest cliche – educational consultants, writers, and leaders have turned to Collins for answers on how to build great schools.

His methodology is as good as it comes in management circles – he and his team identified companies that outperformed their sector and the market generally.  Then, they decided to identify factors that these “good to great” companies had in common.  (There are ways to find fault still, though – stock markets don’t always know what’s best; but compared to most management books, it’s an incredibly reliable methodology.)  He writes well, uses compelling evidence, and goes beyond mere platitudes in his analysis; it would be hard to ignore the work.

Not suprisingly, one of the topics explored by Collins is leadership.  Indeed – it’s the first meathy topic he settles on.  And while much of his analysis is familiar (a good leader has a strong will, for example), perhaps his most powerful assertion on leadership is that the best leaders aren’t necessarily the most charismatic; in fact, he points out in the speech below, many of the best leaders seem to have a “charisma bypass.”

Too often, in organizations generally but in education specifically, we turn to the gregarious and the charming to lead us, believing that personality is more important than insight.  Collins counters: “Leadership is not about personality… we should never confuse charisma with leadership.” I would agree, and put it this way: until we prize competence over handshakes and haridos, we are doomed to inhabit mediocre schools.

In fact, extending this thinking even further, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, argues that those with mental illnesses like depression actually make better leaders than the happy-go-lucky types.

“‘Normal’ nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them,” argues Ghaemi.

“Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control.”

The Intelligent and the Stupid

“There are only two races on this planet-the intelligent and the stupid.”
John Fowles

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”
Bertrand Russell

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
Charles Darwin

The world is filled with organizations running beneath their potential – or failing for years and years. And perhaps no where is this more true than in schooling. Schools can fail, and fail, and fail without respite; well-meaning people leading well-meaning people can produce bad results for a generation or more, cluelessly replicating failure, engineering irrelevant reform projects, all the while wondering why results aren’t any better.

There are lots of reasons why this might be the case, but I submit one not often discussed is this: many leaders are not smart enough. And while I am a proponent of leadership that considers the softer side of managing humans, as I’ve written before, I also firmly believe that there must be a place for the intelligent at the heads of organizations.

That seems obviously true – bright people should lead. But it seems to me that a lot of organizations are led not by the bright and able, but by the gregarious. We tend to value extroversion in our leaders, a bonhomie, that in many organizations tends to produce a leadership-by-confidence rather than a leadership-of-quality.

If So, Why So?

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University devised an experiment to shed light on why it is that intelligent people seem to doubt themselves, and vice versa. In their study, they assessed the general level of intelligence of their study group, and their level of confidence.

The results are fascinating: intelligence and confidence did indeed seem inversely related; the intelligent subjects regarded their abilities as average, while the unintelligent believed they were extraordinary; and moreover, the unintelligent were unable to see their own inadequacy while also failing to recognize ability in others.

In other words, they are not bright enough to realize they aren’t very capable – and assume those who are actually capable, by virtue of behaving differently than they, are actually the unintelligent ones. I think this phenomenon, now dubbed the Kruger-Dunning Effect, is a powerful explanatory mechanism for understanding organizations (and life in general).

David Dunning was interviewed by Errol Morris of the New York Times:

DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.

ERROL MORRIS: Why not?

DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

Hiring – A Legacy of Bad Decisions

While there are many ways a less-than-intelligent leader can endanger its firm, I think at the core of the issue is hiring – leaders tend to hire people who are like themselves. When the leader is less-than-intelligent, less-than-intelligent people get hired and promoted, often creating an inner circle of confident but low-functioning management; this cabal tends to regard good ideas as bad, and bad as good, and they can reinforce each other’s inaccurate view of the world. (A cheap shot: the administration of George W. Bush?)

I’ve written before, the teacher hiring process could be described charitably as silly, but this isn’t a trivial matter – there could hardly be a more important factor in the quality of schooling than the quality of the teacher. According to Ken Leithwood, a professor of educational administration at OISE in Toronto, the second most powerful factor is the leadership of a school.

And I would argue that intelligence is relatively low down the list of criteria for hiring teachers and principals: ideas like “commitment to students” (read: the appearance of caring a lot) tends to win out.  And of course, the right attitude is important (we wouldn’t admire a doctor who seemed completely indifferent to her patients).  But my argument is this: if schooling is something beyond folk art, if it is a profession with technical skills, requiring complicated responses to confusing dilemmas, intelligence cannot be downplayed in any hiring process.

If leaders are blinded by their own lack of intelligence, how can they function well? How do they hire the best teachers? Would they recognize a good teacher if they saw one? If principals’ leaders, too, aren’t that bright, would they even know who the best principals are? Would they define “best” in accordance with reality? How would these less-than-bright leaders even know if their schools or systems were succeeding – would they choose the right criteria?  If they can’t really recognize quality, or its opposite, how will the system improve?  Will they merely embrace one irrelevant reform project after another, or pursue only those that produce results?

Does the Kruger-Dunning Effect, even if it is an academic restatement of an intuitive notion, help explain why organizations can consistently fail – despite the best efforts of well-meaning people?

What We Have Got Here is (a) Failure to Communicate

I’ve recently been reading and hearing (from some engaging and entertaining presenters) about something called “nonviolent communication” – a way of understanding the basic underlying emotional interactions of communication.The general idea is this: when we communicate, our emotions play a large role in the success or lack thereof in any interaction.  We tend to get defensive, angry, hurt and snippy when we talk with others – especially as teachers, work that I’ve said before is highly emotional labour.  The land is filled with staff meetings burdened with hostility – the people with the arms crossed at the back of the room, angry, disengaged, and muttering.

I can’t imagine something more worthwhile to the process of improving any organization that relies on any interaction – like schools – than the improvement of communication.  The quantity of human productivity lost to bitterness and frustration must be worth billions to any national economy; and school that ignores bad communication must lose capacity.

Nonviolent communication, though not originally devised for corporate productivity, has been applied to a variety of organizations.  In its basic form is quite powerful, and probably most of us do it all the time, even if we don’t articulate it that way.  It rests on two elements: feelings and needs.  We “feel” because we “need.”  I might feel frustrated at a poorly-organized staff meeting because I need clarity and purpose.  You might feel angry at a colleague who dismisses my work because you value reciprocity.  And so on. This way of thinking is an acknowledgement that we are emotional creatures, that communication is often bedevilled by emotional reactions, that those emotional reactions are driven by underlying beliefs, values or needs, and that articulating this whole mess openly might make us all happier, less defensive, and more productive.

It sounds overly lotus-eating, impractical, highly granola, but I’m not so sure.  I think even the most cynical type would acknowledge that the spectrum of emotional responses in organizations is a major impediment to organizational health.

It’s cliched to say that under anger is hurt.  But unless we address the subteranean feelings, and accept that people are highly emotional creatures, it is unlikely that we can get the best out of them.  If we accept that as teachers we need to address our students’ emotional states before we can have them learn at peak performance, why should we behave differently towards the adults in the room?  If happy teachers teach better, shouldn’t we do our best to make sure people are happy?

If You Pay Peanuts, You Get Monkeys…

Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari wrote recently about “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” in the New York Times.  They begin with an observation about blame:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Very, very true.  We do not blame most professionals for problems outside of their direct sphere of influence.  Let’s use an analogy closer to home than soldiers in Afghanistan: when we go to the doctor and she tells us to quit smoking, or lose some weight, and then we ignore her advice, few would say the doctor had ‘failed us.’  If we then sadly die of a heart attack weeks later, no one would blame the doctor.

Eggers and Clements Calegari argue one solution to the problems of our education system is to pay teachers more.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the average weekly pay of teachers (in the US) in 2003 was nearly 14% below that of workers with similar education and work experience,” pricing them out of home ownership in 32 US major metropolitan areas.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again.

All teachers – like all professionals – are in favour of higher wages.  Luckily, teachers in Ontario do fairly well: the top salary for teachers in a secondary school will be something like $94,000 in the fall.  And perhaps there is a connection between teacher salaries and student success: the most recent PISA data from the OECD has Ontario ranked near the top.

But if anyone wants to pass a raise, I doubt too many in the professsion would object.  Taxpayers, on the other hand…

Can We Legislate Good Parenting?

This week, Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog on the New York Times asks a question as old as social reformers: can we legislate good parenting?

She begins with a hypothetical quiz:

1. A third grader in Florida is often late for class. She tends to forget her homework and is unprepared for tests. The teacher would like to talk to her parents about this, but they fail to attend parent-teacher conferences. The teacher should:
a) fail the student.
b) fail the parents.

2. A middle-school student in Alaska is regularly absent, and his grades are suffering as a result. The district should:
a) fail the student.
b) fine the parents $500 a day for every day the student is not in school.

3. A California kindergartener has been absent, without a doctor’s note or other “verifiable reason,” 10 times in one semester. The district should:
a) call the parents.
b) call the district attorney and have charges brought against the parents.
The answer, under state laws that have been proposed (No. 1), or recently enacted (No. 2 and No. 3), is “b” on all counts: If a student is behaving badly, punish Mom and Dad.

Of course, on the one hand, the idea is absurd: it seems a stretch to prosecute parents who do not follow the government’s guidelines for failing to supervise their schooling.

Though, it does suggest a few things. One, that the public might be ready to accept that the actions of schools are only partly responsible for either the success or failure of a student to thrive. (Some studies have suggested that a school’s effect is in the range of ? the total schooling effect – socioeconomic factors play a large role, for example). Also, it might suggest that the power of the state, even in an era of conservative government, is used to intrude on the values and actions of families, in this case, for the purpose of raising ‘better children.’ It might very well be an extension of the argument that we all have a right to the best possible start in life – if our parents do not provide it, the state should step in and correct the situation. If we would punish parents for neglecting them, perhaps we could include the definition of neglect to include not checking their homework? A stretch, perhaps. And what happened to parental rights? What about parents whose ideals differ from those of the bureaucratic overseers? In the current model, the anti-establishment types can muse sardonically about the value of homework, or the nutrition police, and everyone can turn a blind eye.

Getting back to socioeconomic factors, Dinne Ravitch, professor at NYU, quoted in the piece believes poverty is the root cause of these imperfect parents. She feels that educating parents to do the right thing is more suitable than punishing them for failing to do so. There is a lot to recommend that thesis. But the solution? More parenting courses? Make them mandatory? And what do we do if people don’t take them? Even granting the idea that the state has an interest in the family lives of children (in this case as it relates to schooling), how can the state best ensure parents comply (with what is the flavour of the current era)?

Fraser Institute Rankings

It’s that time of year again – the time when a young man’s fancy turns to love. Also, the time when the Fraser Institute, the Canadian conservative think-tank, releases it’s report card on Ontario schools.

The ratings are developed using EQAO data – the public data from the yearly gathering of scores on a series of standardized tests aimed at assessing the literacy and numeracy of Ontario students. Specifically, the Fraser Institute takes the following into account in its rankings of schools:

(1) the average level of achievement on the grade-9 EQAO assessment in academic mathematics;
(2) the average level of achievement on the grade-9 EQAO assessment in applied mathematics;
(3) the percentage of these grade-9 EQAO assessments in mathematics that did not meet the provincial standard;
(4) the percentage of Ontario Secondary School Literacy Tests (OSSLT) that were not successfully completed;
(5) the difference between male and female students in their average levels of achievement on the grade-9 EQAO assessment in academic mathematics; and,
(6) the difference between male and female students attempting the OSSLT for the first time in their rate of successful completion of the test.

Also, they attempt to factor-in socioeconomic status by layering census income data overtop. They generate an ‘expected score’ based on average income, then see where the actual is.

The final result looks like the one below, the data table for a high school not far from me:

 

 

 

 

 

 

While teachers, and academics, often decry the Fraser Institute for these rankings, I’m not so sure they’re a bad thing. I grant that the idea of ranking schools is nearly impossible – what criteria do you choose? does the criteria translate into student experience? is the result just middle-class parents hunting for the best schools leaving the rest for the kids below? What about the things not measured – like extracurriculars, or school climate? Malcolm Gladwell has written about the silliness of college rankings in the New Yorker:

The U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” guide is run by Robert Morse, whose six-person team operates out of a small office building in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Over the years, Morse’s methodology has steadily evolved, and the ranking system looks a great deal like the Car and Driver methodology. It is heterogeneous. It aims to compare Penn State—a very large, public, land-grant university with a low tuition and an economically diverse student body—with Yeshiva University, a small, expensive, private Jewish university. The system is also comprehensive. Discusses suicide statistics. There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution, so the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality—and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.

All good points. But on the other hand, data exercises like this one tend to keep us honest. This is hardly a definitive report, and only the foolish would treat it that way. The ranking aspect might be misguided, but the collection of data might just be of interest to parents. And what profession, especially one with such public importance as schooling, should be shielded from scrutiny and debate – even if it does happen to come from the right side of the spectrum?