This spring a series of ranking lists for U.S. high schools once again set the news media abuzz. The three most prominent rankings released were compiled by U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and The Washington Post.
Among these three news outlets, only The Washington Post attempted to rank private schools in addition to public schools. The Post’s list placed Webb in the top 10 private schools in the nation. Webb was the top boarding school to appear on their list. Of course, we at Webb took great pride in this national notoriety, but we also realized that the ranking criteria used was (as are all of them) remarkably reductive and simplistic.
One only need look at the U.S. News and World Report phenomenon at the college level to see how unintended consequences of such rankings can lead to distraction and flawed goal-setting in higher education. What started out as a project to objectively rank colleges and universities according to like-criteria including incoming SAT scores, admission selectivity, endowment levels etc., has now morphed into a national obsession. College and universities, rather than focusing their resources and efforts on deepening their individual distinctive qualities as learning institutions, are now consumed by keeping or improving their “ranking.” These unintended consequences could hardly have been foreseen years ago when U.S. News launched this initial effort.
Similarly, the federal mandate No Child Left Behind had unintended negative results as well. While not a ranking per se, NCLB attempted to quantify school success largely through national test scores. Few could have seen that this would lead to the stripping away if arts and co-curricular classes and even a rash of state-wide cheating scandals still being investigated today.
While many have asked me about this The Washington Post article and how we might “use it” to promote Webb, I have been extremely cautious about doing so. To me, the true measure of our success is so much more than a ranking of this type. Just as in U.S. News and NCLB, my fear is that, by subscribing to this game we will begin to chase the wrong goals. Rather than focusing on our mission of graduating honorable leaders who will go on to lead lives of service and true meaning, we will chase our tails by encouraging more and more students to take courses that are most easily comparable to a national norm. Furthermore, while we take great pride in and continue to build a robust academic program, it is my belief that the entire Webb Experience, from classes to Peccary trips, athletics to the arts, chapels to leading in the dorms, is what we need to foster and strengthen over time.
To me, the ultimate measure of our success rests with our alumni. As a 90 year-old institution, we now have a firm track record of Webb and Vivian Webb alumni who are living out the educational qualities we seek to instill.
In this spirit, I hope you will enjoy this edition of WEBB, which does a fine job of illustrating the breadth of our curriculum and the care in which we take to ensure each student finds her or his voice as they strive to lead a life of purpose. In particular, I hope you will take good notice of our article “Innovators, Disruptors and Entrepreneurs.” This article does an excellent job of highlighting one key measurement of the Webb Experience, that of graduating innovators – people who are capable of thinking creatively, collaborating effectively, communicating meaningfully, and solving problems. To me these are far more relevant skills than AP scores and SAT averages and the like.
When reviewing Webb’s history and its curriculum, it becomes clear that we are a school community built to produce innovators. Almost a century ago, Thompson Webb visualized a world class boarding school in the middle of nowhere, and based on that vision, bought an abandoned, dilapidated campus sight unseen with no money down. What better example of an innovator than he? And today, as I interact with our students and our alumni around the nation and world, I see innovators all around me. They are 14. They are 91. They are in all walks of life: medicine, business, film, education. And they all enjoy a spirit of learning that comes from a place that looks way beyond the test scores to measure its success.