What makes a high school great?

The cover story of Newsweek‘s May 8 issue is “America’s Best High Schools: The Top 100 And the Public Elites.” Authors Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert had to pick some standard to rank schools to come to a conclusion; the one they picked was “By dividing the number of AP and IB tests taken at a school by the number of graduating seniors, we can measure how committed the school is to helping kids take college level courses…But many schools not on our list are also challenging students in innovative ways – proof that the national experiment in high-school education is just beginning.” The standard Kantrowitz & Wingert chose may be worth arguing with, but that is another discussion.

Some of the “innovative ways” the schools they describe use are programs designed to “Create Good Citizens;” “Celebrate Liberal Arts;” “Prepare for Work;” “Help Boys and Girls Succeed -Separately;” “Emphasize Science and Technology;” and finally, “Reach Out to Everyone.”

My response to the “innovative ways” the featured schools have implemented is that what those schools have really done is set priorities. It is good that they have the freedom to do so and it is good that they have success. I don’t believe, however, society as a whole can choose one set of priorities over another. We cannot have people prepared to make money who will unfortunately not be good citizens because they went to a high school without that theme.

Regarding the schools that encourage excellence in science and technology, those schools are helping our country to stay competitive, so hats off to them. But again, we cannot have brilliant scientists who are not good citizens.

Hats off to the Newsweek authors for recognizing the distance education high school (for providing access to education for students who work and students who are overseas) and Street Schools for providing a second chance to students who previously failed at high school.

Many hundreds of American high schools are now trying to maintain all those priorities day in and day out: preparing good citizens for careers in science, technology, government, business and more. In fact, many students are already working – a lot, too much – and it is one of the biggest challenges to the challenging courses we would like to offer them. I am drinking some juice right now that I purchased an hour ago at my local supermarket. In the store, I chatted with students who I saw yesterday morning at the SAT’s, some of the same students who were there when we took down the decorations at the prom last night.

It is tempting at times to look at the actions of today’s teenagers and compare them to our own actions as teenagers. I am not sure I could have kept up with some of these kids. After their shifts in dairy today, they somehow need to go home and open their books.

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