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'Best schools' rankings are meaningless — and harmful, critic says

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay on the education beat for a few more minutes and ask, what makes a school the best? Is it test scores? Is it selectivity? Is it teacher-to-student ratio? For decades, outlets like U.S. News and World Report have been publishing rankings of the nation's, quote-unquote, "best colleges and high schools," taking data points, making a formula and pumping out a fresh list every year. This week, the publication released its first-ever ranking of what it calls the best public elementary and middle schools in America. But critics say this framing is reductive at best and harmful at worst, and it raises the question of why we rank schools in the first place and what benefits or consequences come from these rankings.

Someone who has thought and written a lot about this is James Fallows. He is the author of a newsletter on Substack called Breaking The News and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is also a former editor of U.S. News and World Report, and he's with us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

JAMES FALLOWS: Michel, my pleasure.

MARTIN: So we should say that U.S. News and World Report is not the only publication that ranks schools, but I would say it's probably the most prominent. So I want to start with the question I posed earlier. Why do they do it?

FALLOWS: The reason they started doing it back in the early 1980s under the guidance of a man named Mel Elfin, was because it was a brilliant business strategy. By appealing to the human desire for rankings and knowing where you stand and where somebody else stands, they were able to make a very strong part of their business, which is now basically the only part of their business.

MARTIN: What is the stated justification from these publications? I noticed in checking out these latest rankings, they said they hoped readers appreciated what they called the sophistication - their word - of their method. So what is the public reasoning behind this?

FALLOWS: The public reasoning, as I know well from my years in the in the boiling pot there, is that this was a way you could spread information more democratically and have people from around the world and around the country know about more places from which to choose.

MARTIN: And you don't agree with that.

FALLOWS: Yes. So I think that there's an important distinction here between ratings and everything you could cull as ratings - well things are doing, what categories they fit into and rankings where the basic premise of a ranking is that something is better than and worse than something else. A ranking that purports to tell you whether, let's say, West Point or Caltech or Juilliard is better than the other is, on its face, preposterous.

MARTIN: Well, you also wrote about the fact that - I think many people are familiar with one of the big stories of the year. One of the big education stories of the year has been parents literally buying their kids' way into some of these highly selective institutions through fraud. I mean, obviously there's not a one-to-one relationship between that conduct and this kind of ranking thing, but I wonder whether you feel like that's part of it in a way. This hysteria around getting into these specific institutions is, in part, tied to these rankings, which you say are meaningless.

FALLOWS: So - very much so. And I think the connection would be this - viewed from a distance. The most striking thing about the U.S. higher educational establishment is its variety and its openness. One of the harms of the rankings media is to make it seem as if there were a precise best, next best, third best, fourth best hierarchy and that, as a status good, this was one more thing people could aspire to and, in some cases, could buy. And since one of the metrics that, for a very long time, was quite important in the U.S. news rankings was what proportion of the applicants the college could turn down, it became valuable to the colleges to gin up their applications and so they can seem more selective. And therefore, it became more cherished as a luxury good for people to try to get into these selective institutions. And thus, through indirect paths, we have the Varsity Blues scandal.

MARTIN: So having said all this, having written about all this, having watched all this for years. Now your former publication is doing elementary and middle school rankings. And as the former editor of that outlet, with everything you've seen and written about and thought about over these years, what was your reaction when you saw that?

FALLOWS: My honest reaction was, God save us all. These rankings have already done enough to the higher education ecosystem that, with all the problems public elementary schools and high schools have, they don't need this as well. The public school system in the U.S. has been struggling with the eternal questions of equity - of having property tax differentials not be the main thing that determine students' chances very early in life - and achievement. How can you make sure students are learning what they need to learn? And having a purported ranking system that tells you, this school in one part of Illinois is better than that school in the other part of Illinois is not really helpful. For example, I just learned that my elementary school in Southern California is allegedly No. 2,115 among elementary schools in California, whereas the one my sister went to a few miles away is, like, 600 places better, which is absurd information and doesn't help elementary schools with the very, very hard job they all have to do.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, what do you recommend? As you pointed out at the beginning of our conversation, there is a desire to democratize information in some ways. I mean, people who might need to move across the country and need to figure out where they should live based on, perhaps, where their child can go to school or something of that sort - there is a desire for this information. And as you pointed out, there is this human desire for hierarchy. At least, some people have that. What do you recommend? How do you want people to think about this?

FALLOWS: So I think these rankings are not going away. And I think the answer to the university rankings is essentially to dilute the influence of any one system by having more sources of information. And I should say that a very important step in this direction for now more than a decade has been by another of my former employers, the Washington Monthly Magazine, which has had a constantly expanding range of college ratings and rankings based on not the advantages people have going in but what they learn during their time in the school and how it affects their later public service, the kind of jobs they choose, the ways in which they're able to improve their family prospects. So I think more ratings, more rankings, more expression of the variety that's part of the real openness of American higher education would be a help. And also, don't do this for elementary schools.

MARTIN: That was James Fallows. He writes Breaking The News on Substack and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. James Fallows, thanks so much for talking with us.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.