The “Top 500 Schools in America,” or “The 500 Whitest and Wealthiest Neighborhoods in America”

So your high school made Newsweek’s list of “Top Five Hundred Schools in America.” You saw it on facebook and shared it with your networks.

Sharing that Newsweek link felt good, right? Hooray for my alma mater! We got ranked in the top 500 by Newsweek! You probably didn’t think twice about sharing that link. It’s understandable–we love to share articles that celebrate things we care about.

But I ask you to please stop sharing it. Or please, before you do, be aware of what you’re sharing.

Rankings like the Newsweek piece exist to honor inequality. Using rankings that celebrate testing culture (ACT/SAT scores, AP courses) and property tax base (counselor to student ratio), these rankings can more effectively be identified as simply a ranking of really wealthy, white neighborhoods around the country.

Take, for example, the importance placed on test scores in these rankings. You know what test scores measure? The greatest correlation that has been found for test scores is the emotional state of the test-taker, according to David Rose at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Not understanding of the material. Certainly not competency. Emotional state. In fact, simply reminding a student of their race or gender prior to taking a test has been shown to lower test scores in female and minority test takers.

Consider other factors as well: counselor to student ratio makes up 10 percent of the ranking. And which schools are more likely to have high numbers of counselors? Ones that can afford them. Counselors are some of the first to go (along with any arts teachers) when schools lose funding, because the teachers of math, science, and reading are too important (irony alert) to the student test scores. So a poor school who can’t afford to maintain counselors because it places a premium on test scores, which don’t do anything to help kids learn, but instead reinforce stereotypes about their race or gender, which causes mental distress in students, which is unable to be dealt with or addressed because the school doesn’t have any counselors.

Lastly, of course, is enrollment and graduation rates. Getting to school in my white, upper middle class neighborhood was never a problem. I lived one block from my school and literally could walk home for lunch (where, by the way, I got a sandwich made by my mom, who was able to stay home because my dad made enough money to support the family). Meanwhile, schools in Chicago are shut down and kids get to walk through a number of gang neighborhoods to get to school. Of course, they have safe passage people to help them, unless of course, the safe passage workers get stabbed. Those passages are there to help every school in the city, though, right? How, exactly, are schools in neighborhoods where students have to make decisions about whether to attend or risk major injury supposed to be able to retain students? And what sacrifices are they supposed to make to their own curriculum to redefine “attendance” and “graduation requirements” so as to accommodate for students who, through no fault of their own, literally can’t make it to school on consecutive days? Regardless, enrollment and graduation rates tell us little more than which schools serve populations for whom attendance at school isn’t a life-or-death question.

So what is the impact of the dissemination of public rankings that prioritize the markers of privilege in schools?

First of all, it encourages white and wealthy flight from schools with great potential and, frankly, are doing just fine. Why live in an integrated, multi-class neighborhood with a solid school when you could move to a school that is “ranked in the top 500 by Newsweek?” What parent wouldn’t do everything they believed they could to help their kid, and if Newsweek is telling them that one of the best schools in the country is two towns over, why wouldn’t they use their means to get their kid into that school? Parents with the financial and social capital to move have already made that decision. The US is already well into an era in which schools are becoming re-segregated and lists like this can only increase the speed by which this happens. This, of course, will further the deterioration of public schools in middle and lower-middle class neighborhoods, removing the tax base and impoverishing these schools further.  The schools will then see numerous interventions from local and state governments who place an emphasis on test scores and, due to the budget shortages, eliminate counselors and the arts, and the wheel spins on and on…

And what happens to those wealthy and white kids? Well, these kids will be under pressure to perform at their new “Newsweek ranked” school by their parents who desperately hope that they get into a “Newsweek ranked” college, so these helicopter parents will pressure the student to succeer,  fear failure, never encounter anything that’s not going to be on the test and, potentially, to develop mental health issues.

Of course Newsweek gets all the clicks they can hope for, so they’re happy. We white and wealthy alumni, proud of our privileged schools, our own privilege, and without thought to the real reason why we come from “Top 500 Schools,” happily and without consideration share these rankings with pride. In the time it takes to click on a link and share it on facebook, have been given less than 60 seconds of pride and enjoyment, but perpetuated a system that does nothing more than further the inequality that many of us claim to abhor. Meanwhile, kids of all races and classes are made to suffer from a system that, for over 50 years, hasn’t figured out how to meet their needs.

So, before you click “share” on that article, just take a minute and think about what you’re sharing and what you’re promoting.

And then,


Don’t do it.


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