Thursday, May 18, 2006

Jay Matthews, Newsweek, and the Use of Language in Myth Building

Jay Matthews and Newsweek get picked on for sure in this NYT edu-op-ed by Michael Winerip. The gist here is that Mr. Matthews, famed and beloved Washington Post columnist, created a ranking system for his 1998 book "Class Struggle" and has found it to be a cash cow. He said of the ranking system, "It's meant to be narrow so people will understand what I'm measuring and can decide if it makes sense. Even if most people disagree, I'm delighted we are having this debate." Matthews, for his part, has decided.

The debate we're having so far isn't much of a debate, well at least not until Newsweek started cashing in on the ratings paranoia haunting the better judgment of everyone from college deans (education school deans included, uh hem), to professors (education school professors included, cough), to the overindulgent, nail driving, misinformed parental hoi polloi. The debate WE ARE HAVING is about what it means to rank high schools and rank them on only one criterion: a ratio of AP tests over graduates. The debate is just beginning really, now that people are taking notice.

The NYT piece highlights some of the more cogent arguments: that ranking schools on the number of AP tests students take without regard to their success on said tests seems absurd; that states using multiple criteria like subgroup achievement and dropout information often assign a middling rank to the very same schools that make the Newsweek top 1000; and, here's the kicker, the language used to describe the list, "Best High Schools in America" is imprecise at best, and at worst insidiously misleading.

Winerip's closer bites without breaking a sweat. Winerip quotes Matthews, "I would have preferred we call the list the most challenging schools, the schools trying to reach as many kids as possible. But I will defend 'Best.' 'Best' is a very elastic term in our society." The promotion and promulgation of "truthiness" continues, ad hominem.


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