Pulling Back the Curtain on Private School Rankings: Secrets Revealed

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Most schools have a love and hate relationship with rankings. When your school is ranked highly, the rankgenerating powers that be are both wise and accurate. When your school is ranked lower than you feel is warranted, or even unranked, a common reaction is to assume bias or incorrect methodology.   Before we pull back the curtain on private school rankings, here are a few items of clarification.

  • There is no singular ranking system that is the undisputed gold standard.
  • Companies that publish rankings are business entities. This is very important! Stay tuned, more on this in a moment.
  • Companies use differing criteria and methodologies to assign rank.

It’s no surprise that we love rankings. Rankings provide quick, easy to process, bytes of information. Various Internet sources indicate that, on average, adults make 35,000 decisions a day. Why wouldn’t we want to give our brains a break and let rankings summarize information for us?

Rankings are also interesting in that they generate opinions and engagement…even hostility. It’s no coincidence that when the ranking giants release annual lists, media outlets explode with articles and commentary breaking down the results.

However, regardless of how tired your brains may be from decision-making, you don’t want to outsource a decision that will directly impact your child’s development. With that in mind, let’s take a peek behind the curtain at the secrets you’re not supposed to know.

Secret #1: The companies that rank schools offer advertising opportunities to the schools they’re ranking.   Rankings aren’t just benign public service announcements; they’re created by profit driven organizations. Companies will contact you for information about your school for an upcoming list, and days later you’ll hear from their sales representative with a “special” opportunity to advertise with them or purchase one of their services.

Secret #2: The methodology used to compile rankings can be highly subjective. The methodology of one prominent private school ranking company gives weight to “[the company’s] parent and student user preferences and industry research.” Vague statements like this allow companies the freedom to sidestep standards of valid statistical reporting. The same company’s methodology also claims to include college matriculation, which is a poor indicator of student success comparable to college acceptance. A student could be accepted to Stanford, the assumption being that his high school can prepare him for a highly selective university, but he may not have the financial means to attend. The inability to afford Stanford should not be a reflection of the strength of the high school.

Secret #3: When you consider how widely private schools vary in mission and purpose, the rankings fall apart.   Private schools cover a broad range of categories: coeducational, single sex, religiously affiliated, parochial, classical, international, college preparatory, Montessori, non-denominational, non-sectarian, learning differences, special needs, and various combinations of the aforementioned. When you start taking different curricular models into account and the range of ancillary offerings, the diversity of options within the private school market becomes even greater. There’s no methodology that can make apples to apples comparisons of schools on such a large spectrum of variety and mission.

So, if rankings aren’t to be fully trusted, what are your options for better understanding the private school market? First, data is easily accessible for you to do your own comparisons of schools. As a family, determine the priorities for your child’s development. Once identified, learn about what schools offer that align with those priorities. Lastly, begin getting outside of the data by considering the school’s culture and community; see the post at Three Important Questions You Never Thought to Ask While Researching Schools for further specifics.

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