It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I'm referring not to Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton whom Dickens wrote about in A Tale of Two Cities, but instead the state of American high schools.
This is the conclusion to be drawn after a dizzying couple of weeks in the spotlight for high schools. First, Time magazine highlighted the dropout problem in its April 17 cover story, "Dropout Nation." Then three weeks later, Newsweek's answer was "America's Best High Schools: The Top 100."
I'm always interested to see how the mainstream media portray schools and their problems and successes, so I sat down and dug into both magazines. Given that they seemed to take opposite sides, I expected to find vague generalizations, specific examples mistakenly used to represent the whole, and basically something I could complain about.
But that wasn't the case. The dropout problem talked about extensively in Time really does exist, as you all know. Some of the familiar problems were mentioned in the story, such as the inability to accurately measure the problem, given many states' different methods of counting dropouts. The magazine explored how some states deny driver's licenses and work permits to dropouts. Time even went overseas to investigate how Germany keeps its dropout rate below 10 percent. (Nearly six in 10 graduates there earn three-year training contracts from private companies.)
As you probably know already, Newsweek's annual list (stretched out to the top 1,200 high schools online at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12532678/site/newsweek/) aims to identify "the schools that do the best job of preparing average students for college." The ranking criteria are simple, but certainly open to debate. Newsweek takes the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school and divides that number by the number of graduating seniors.
By this count, the Talented and Gifted School in Dallas was a runaway winner. Here, every student takes an AP class and one student highlighted in the magazine will take 16 such courses before she graduates.
The other reason I look at education stories is quite simply to make sure District Administration remains ahead of the pack. Sure enough, just as the magazine has been writing about obesity and the food sold in schools long before the mainstream media got a hold of the issue (since July 2003, in fact), we ran a cover story in February about high school reform ("Subject to Change," page 34) as well as an in-depth look at the AP boom in April ("Rigorous Expectations," page 58). This issue contains another look at the dropout problem with "Graduation Woes" on page 34.
So what's to be learned from both these magazines and the issues they tackle? I'm afraid there's no easy answer. If that sounds like a cop out, it's really an important realization. The Time story told of many efforts being started or continued to get the nation's dropout program under control. Newsweek highlights many different ways that high schools across the country are preparing students for college and more.
In a day where it seems educators have decided that individualized instruction is the goal, the same principle applies to the management of schools. Do what works, do what makes sense and don't be afraid to take a leap of faith to test out a theory. After all, who would have thought that starting a novel with an 84-word sentence as Dickens did, would end up working?