Americans love rankings. Indeed, they are one of the top 10 reasons the Internet is so popular.

But while no one takes seriously “The Ten Best Videos of Turkeys on Attack” or the “Top 10 Funny Dog Videos on YouTube,” the various school rankings published each year are watched closely.

Not all of these rankings are created equal, however, and even the best of them are only useful if looked at in the right way. Otherwise, they only reinforce the shallow way in which schools are compared, and get in the way of the progress that is necessary to make sure all students have a shot at success.

Last week, U.S. News & World Report released its national rankings for high schools, and Maine did well, placing seventh overall, up from eighth a year ago. In addition, four Maine schools ranked among the top 500 nationwide, and 12 landed within the top 1,500.

U.S. News uses graduation rates and state test scores as well as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exam scores to formulate its rankings, which are as well-regarded as these things go. For the first time this year, the publication even attempted to account for variables such as income and race.


But it should be acknowledged that the rankings do not show that Maine has the seventh-best schools in the country. Rather, they show that the state’s schools perform comparatively well on those metrics, which is not necessarily the same thing.

The rankings also do not show how the schools that did well got that way, which is the key question for building an educational system that creates mature, curious students and prepares them for all the challenges of the workforce.

Instead, the rankings tell us what we already know – that, for the most part, communities with significant financial resources, such as Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth, all of which were ranked in the top 350, score the highest in the categories used for these kinds of broad rankings.

That’s the same conclusion reached by the state’s own school report card ranking system, put in place by the LePage administration.

The rankings don’t say much, though, about what kind of student each school produces, whether they are tenacious and engaged, and excited about coming to school, or whether they largely go through the motions, yet do well because of other factors.

Schools in wealthy communities score well in large part because the students come from well-off families, and get all the privileges and advantages that implies – more parental involvement, extra help outside of school, a warm, safe and hunger-free place in which to do homework.

But most people only see the ranking at a superficial level, so they attribute the ranking entirely to the school itself. That draws more wealthy families to the school district, pushing out others and reinforcing the geographic and economic isolation that plagues schools in Maine, and all over the country.

The more wealthy families a district gets, the more resources it has for teacher pay, facility upgrades and the like. Rich schools get richer, and poorer schools get poorer.


The rankings become helpful, though, when we dig deeper into the metrics to find the schools that outperform their destiny, so to speak. We can then ask ourselves why those schools are successful, and how those successes can be duplicated elsewhere.

There are many more schools with demographics similar to Madison Area High School than to Cape Elizabeth, for instance, so it’s worth exploring why Madison scores so well.

And it’s far easier to analyze the innovative work getting results at Casco Bay High School in Portland than it is to replicate the wealth found in Falmouth.

The news that Maine high schools are outperforming others by some measurements is good, as far as it goes.

But the better news is that some schools are doing great things despite inherent, seemingly intractable circumstances, and that’s something we can definitely learn from.

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