A frequent question in house hunting, How are the schools?, seems to carry a lot of weight. Newsweek just posted its new top high schools list, and once again, my high school made it. The question is, Does it really matter? Is it more the school, or is it the student? You hear about the driven students who push hard and make it out of deplorable and unthinkable situation, but those are few and far between. It is common sense that it easier to succeed when you have the opportunities presented to you. I know people who went to my high school who fit this to a tee. Granted, a large portion of my graduating class was incredibly intelligent, passing 4-5 APs with ease and getting into many of the top schools in the nation. I remember reading the senoir issue of the Arrow and looking at the map of where people were going to college. We were scattered from coast to coast. It seemed unheard of not to go to college at my high school. It tended to be ingrained in your psyche since childhood. Those not getting into their faves tended to settle for the local CSU or enrolling in the transfer program at the JC. I went to SSU up in norcal, and there is a local JC here that feeds into SSU. It seems a large proportion of the local high school population had been encouraged to go to the JC first. At home we made fun of people whose college plans had been to start at the JC and not use it as a fallback plan. They were going to MIT (mommy I tried) or Kraproom (Moorpark spelled backwards, and as it is farmland, it did smell!). What would have happened if you had sent the Santa Rosa students to my high school and us Warroirs to Santa Rosa? Would we have ended up at a JC, or would we still be scattered across the country? I know it has a lot to do with your family influence, but how much did it affect us to have teachers and administrators pushing us to take more AP and Hnors courses because they look good to colleges? To have teachers telling us at 15 and 16, to go to the local JC and take those GE classes that AP's don't cover while taking 7 daily classes and participating in as many extracurriculars as we can? To have coaches pushing you to the highest levels to pull in the big recruiters? To have extracurriculars, so time consuming and "important" that academic teachers were ok with the select groups leaving for a week to go to a competition somewhere else in the world?
To determine the top high schools, they take the number of seniors taking at least 1 AP or IB and divide it by the number in the graduating class...is that really how we should be measuring excellence? Why is the focus on test taking? I was one of the "brilliant" children, as they liked to put it...They skipped me a few grades, had me take advanced classes, but they never asked me what I wanted! If I was so brilliant, shouldn't I have had some say in what was going on? They wanted the kids with good test scores to keep moving up, putting us in the classes with the "better" teachers, never mind that we were taunted and teased because we were younger and had no friends in this class. How much did I learn from this? Nothing, except to hide that I knew how to do the work. If the experience of my childhood taught me anything, it was to do no more than the minimum to stop drawing attention to yourself. You pass with a C the same as an A, and what does your GPA matter to you if you know how much you can actually do!
Don't judge our American high schools on test scores and test taking percentages! These results are skewed and unreliable. Why not measure the safety of the high school? Whether or not students are encouraged to explore outside educational experiences to enhance what they are passionate about, rather that just to supplement what they are missing? Why not look ask the students whether they felt prepared to go be an adult and live on there "own", whether in college or the real world? Its great to offer the oppurtunity to travel to places and compete, or look at human cadavers as a 17 year old, but what happens when you graduate? The next morning you go to the pancake breakfast, say goodbye to your friends of the last howevermany years, and walk into the world, no longer a kid. But are you an adult? If you went to one of these top high schools, most likely not. You can study with the best of them, but when does the freakish knowledge of every part of the human body, or the ability to analyze the greek classics, in greek, come in handy in any place but the academic world?
So, we end up with the following conundrum, strive to be the best on the list and turn out incapable robots, or actually teach what you need while making sure the students have life experiences and fall further down the list each year? We need to find this balance!