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Make School Awards Fair

September 06, 2002

Despite the moaning from some prestige schools, the Bush administration's proposal to change the federal Blue Ribbon Schools awards is both sound and fair. California could bring more sense and sensibility to its own Distinguished Schools program by following suit.

The two wildly popular prizes have become a sort of Academy Award for elite campuses, with administrators and parent volunteers spending hundreds of hours on the complicated applications. Parents love it when their kids' schools win. Real estate agents mention victorious schools to close deals.

It's another question whether the awards mean that those schools do the best teaching. Some fine schools can't be bothered with the time-consuming applications. Many poor inner-city schools lack a cadre of parents with the time and the experience to tackle the application process.

The criteria for winning change with the educational breezes, too. For California's program, it went from being about tests to technology and parent involvement, with several switches in between.

The state recently delivered a blow to inner-city schools by saying that no school could have Distinguished status if it came out below average on the Academic Performance Index, no matter how far it had risen already. Even the API program rewards struggling campuses that improve scores.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige proposes switching the Blue Ribbon award's emphasis away from programs and parent involvement at schools and toward standardized test scores.

States could nominate schools with scores in the top 10%, or schools with many disadvantaged students that had markedly increased their scores. Half the nominees would have to come from the latter category. The simpler, more objective criteria make for a shorter, lower-hassle application.

This proposal makes all kinds of sense. Instead of rewarding an interdisciplinary curriculum that sounds nice but that might or might not help students learn, the new Blue Ribbons would reward results. The Education Department would examine programs at those schools to see what they had in common so other schools might learn from their example.

Many winning schools complain that the Blue Ribbon would lose its cachet if lower-scoring schools without elite programs started winning. They point out, correctly, that there's more to good education than test scores.

It's true that new rules would widen the pool of schools that could shine publicly. But states still would be encouraged to consider educational innovation in nominations--as long as those schools also achieve.

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