What "Best High Schools" in the U.S. Reveal About Ideal High School Class Size #utpol

Based on our latest intel, the sweet spot for ideal high school staffing ratios hovers right around 16.41 students per teacher.

US News and World Report released their rankings this week of the "Best High Schools" in the country.* After evaluating more than 21,000 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, schools were awarded gold, silver or bronze medals based on "state proficiency standards and how well they prepare students for college." The American Institutes of Research (AIR) paired with US News to conduct much of the analysis.

The methodology used for selecting this year's cream of the crop included three steps:

  1. Determine whether "each school's students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state."
  2. For those schools making it past Step 1, determine "whether the school's least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state."
  3. For those schools making it past Steps 1 and 2, judge schools nationally on "college-readiness performance – using Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test data as the benchmarks for success, depending on which program was largest at the school."
After all was said and done, California triumphed as this year's leading performer, with 27.8% of its eligible schools earning gold and silver medals. (Congratulations!) Other state rankings can be scrutinized here. Note that my home state, Utah, garnered zero Gold Medals and finished in 31st place against other states.** Upon learning that Utah's top contending school ended up in 652nd place nationwide, I publicly lamented that "in Utah, we get what we pay for."


Nevertheless, this painful competition (for some) between schools and states can be an important learning experience for all. In spite of John Hattie's claim that class size has relatively little positive impact on student achievement, I continue to believe that large class sizes bring detrimental consequences that impede the success of schools. This year's display of "Best High School" rankings beautifully illustrates this fact.

Through my Utah-centric lens, I decided to dig a little deeper through the data published by the US News report. Upon analyzing the Student:Teacher ratios advertised for most schools in the report, interesting patterns emerged. Accordingly, in the US News report:
  • The top scoring 2,290 schools were ranked. These schools earned Gold and/or Silver medals.
  • The mean Student:Teacher ratio for Utah's twelve ranking schools was 23.
  • The mean Student:Teacher ratio of the 651 schools scoring higher than Utah's top InTech Collegiate High was 16.41.
  • Of those 651 higher-ranked schools, only 17 had Student:Teacher ratios higher than Utah's mean of 23.
Do an additional seven students per teacher really make that much difference? Ask any core teacher to give you their take. Ask me, and I'll tell you it's clearly time for Utah to spend more on education. Our high schools (still) need smaller class sizes! Obviously there's more to improving student achievement than meeting ideal staffing ratios; but when it comes to competitively preparing students for college on a national scale, it appears to be an indirect requirement.***

To me, if second place is no place, then six hundred fifty-second is just that much worse.


* School Administrators should ACT NOW! If your high school is nationally ranked, you may display a "U.S. News ranked" badge on your school's website. The Best High Schools badges are available as FREE downloads!

Apparently, this whole "online badge" thing works now for credentialling schools, too!

** This methodology exemplifies the kind of scrutiny under which Utah schools will soon be subjected, given the contract recently negotiated between the Utah State Office of Education and the American Institutes for Research (AIR). I guess I'm ready if you are.

*** There were 49 states and the District of Columbia participating in the US News analysis. Why weren't any Utah schools in the top 50? Am I naïve to think we should be able to compete? Am I wrong to think that we'd even want to? The classroom teacher in me hates so much of this entire scenario that I'm sick that I've even written this post.

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