A blue ribbon for everything but education

Debra J. Saunders

10/2/2000 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Since 1982, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded some 4,000 schools Blue Ribbons because they are "models of excellence and equity." The feds boast, "The Blue Ribbon nomination package pulls together what is cutting edge in education today." One problem: As a study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., found, Blue Ribbon's cutting edge can be the edge of mediocrity. Brookings examined awards given in 1999 to 70 schools in seven states and factored in students' socioeconomic background. The study found that only 19 schools scored in the top 10 percent for students in their socioeconomic grouping, while 17 schools -- about a quarter -- scored in the bottom half. Tom Loveless, the author of the Brookings study and a former Harvard professor, got interested in the program while he was a teacher in Sacramento in the 1980s. His school put a lot of effort into winning an award. The experience left Loveless with nagging doubts about the program. "No one's really asked questions about it before," Loveless noted. "It's a feel-good program. It has given awards to something like 4,000 schools and no one has really taken a hard look at it and asked if the schools getting these awards are teaching kids reading and math and academic subject matter." In his study, Loveless found that the Blue Ribbon folks were most interested in making sure that schools have a politically correct focus, but not necessarily in mak ing sure that students were learning what they need to know. The application for elementary schools asks: "How does the culture of your school support the learning of all its members and foster a caring community?" "How does your school promote a healthy peer climate among students?" "How is your school organized to provide for differing student academic needs within the school's goals, priorities and curriculum?" "In what ways do your teaching practices support student-initiated learning?" "How does the school engage its internal and external stakeholders in leadership and decision-making?" Those questions set off my Educrat Alert: They're about process, not results. The Blue Ribbon focus is not on whether kids are learning, so much as whether local educators ascribe to the same philosophy as federal educrats. The 20-odd page questionnaire asks a great deal about schools' approaches to education, and only one question on test scores. Brookings found that some states -- such as Pennsylvania -- showed more interest in achievement than others. Loveless was surprised that three Michigan schools located in wealthy neighborhoods made the list, even though the schools scored below average for their family income. (Maybe federal educrats figured that the middling schools needed an award more.) In California, 12 of the 39 Blue Ribbon schools were in the top 10 percent, 9 percent were in the bottom half. Brookings found that the Blue Ribbon program "encourages self-promotion and all-out campaigns for the award." Really wanting the award is key. Which makes it somewhat akin to a mail-order diploma. If you want it, you can get it. Then hang it on the school wall to assure parents that this is a good school. The department could not tell me before my deadline how many people work for the Blue Ribbon bonanza. A spokesperson did say that the program "was never designed to just be an academic achievement award." Face it. With the department's emphasis on culture and caring and peer climate and student-initiated learning, these Einsteins don't really think the schools were designed to be academic achievement institutions.