In Praise of Mediocrity: Tattered Blue Ribbons at the Department of Education

June 1, 2001

Note: The journal Education Matters changed to Education Next with the Fall 2001 edition.

Since 1982 the federal government has recognized more than
4,000 exemplary schools through its Blue Ribbon Schools
Program. From the program’s inception, Department of
Education officials declared that it would not merely single out
the highest-achieving schools, but would also recognize other
forms of excellence. Putting aside this expansive view of
excellence, how do Blue Ribbon winners perform on tests of
reading and math achievement? Perhaps they are not the
highest-scoring schools in each state, but surely they must be
near the top or at least score above average.

In a study first reported in the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Report on American Education in September 2000, we compared the test scores of Blue Ribbon schools with those of an average school in several states. To simplify matters, we confined our analysis to achievement in reading and mathematics. The results were eye-opening. We found that approximately a quarter of Blue Ribbon winners are indeed high achieving, scoring among the top 10 percent of schools after adjusting the scores for students’ socioeconomic status. However, an equal percentage of Blue Ribbon schools scored below average after making the adjustment for students’ socioeconomic status. The remaining schools, about 50 percent of Blue Ribbon winners, scored above average, but not extraordinarily so-above their state’s mean, but well short of the 90th percentile.