This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Another one of those lists of the best of something click bait since before there was such a thing as click bait came out the other day. This one was a ranking of the nation's best high schools as compiled by the inveterate list-builders at what's left of U.S. News and World Report. Which is mostly list-builders.
At first glance, the Utah part of the list fit right into my bleeding heart liberal echo chamber. Success in education tracks with the wealth of a school's student body. Rich white kids are so much more likely to do well in school than their browner and less-advantaged counterparts.
It is predictable enough that it amounts to the main argument against states and school districts weighing everyone down with round after round of assessment and achievement tests. Just look at the Census data related to a school's neighborhood, and you know which student bodies would benefit the most from extra spending on smaller classes, reading specialists and intensive early-childhood services.
It goes beyond the stereotype of the rich white family with books in the house, high-speed internet at their fingertips and educated parents to monitor, guide and give assistance. People who research this stuff keep finding more and more evidence that being poor is such an assault on the senses, the psyche, the soul, that it deprives everyone in the household of a lot more than just a quiet place to do homework.
A recent piece in The Atlantic, "How Poverty Changes the Brain," by Tara Garcia Mathewson, explains that folks who live in poverty have to be alert and struggling all the time just to stay afloat. The part of their brain that is in charge of sending out warning signals drowns out the part that makes rational decisions, that plans and chooses to give up short-term pleasures in favor of long-term gains.
So disturbed, the brains of adults and children in poverty don't learn as well, don't see a future where things will be better, and get trapped. Quieting that constant car alarm of the mind is more than most normal people can be expected to do without outside intervention.
According to the U.S. News list, the top three high schools in Utah are a relatively small charter school that I'd never heard of and two of the state's more obvious beneficiaries of a wealthy tax base.
Tops on the Utah list, and 238th in the nation, is the Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon. The next two are traditional public schools, Park City High School in Park City, (418th in the country) and Skyline High School in Millcreek (498th nationally).
In support of my thesis, the Utah State Board of Education website offers the following numbers:
Maeser Prep trains a student body of some 630 people. Only 9.4 percent of them are low income "economically disadvantaged," to use the bureaucratic lingo.
At Park City, it's 16.2 percent low income and at Skyline, it's 11.3 percent.
Compare those numbers to, say, Salt Lake City's West High school, where some 58 percent of the students are from low-income households. Or Ogden High School, where nearly 64 percent of the students count as economically disadvantaged. Neither of those schools is even ranked on the U.S. News list. On the Utah state grading system, West High pulls a D and Ogden an F.
Much more interesting numbers come from schools a little further down the list.
The enrollment of low-income students at the charter school called the Salt Lake Center for Science Education 4th on the Utah list is 42 percent. Another charter in Utah's top 10 is the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (aka AMES), where 37 percent of the students are low income.
Those schools may have an advantage in that they are small, between 400 and 500 students, and draw a clientele of pupils who are likely more motivated than average.The biggest anomaly in the trend line I'm drawing is Hillcrest High in Midvale. The Granite School District favorite is ranked 7th in Utah and 783rd in the nation even though a smidge over 40 percent of its student body is from low-income households. And even though administrators and teachers there welcome more than 2,200 students every day.
Hillcrest also looks better on the U.S. News rankings, which measure only graduation rate and college readiness, than on the more detailed Utah state grading system. There, Hillcrest rates only a C.
It all adds up to a depressing picture, one that's different from the one we like to draw for ourselves.
Instead of touting education as a way out of poverty, and blaming those who fail or drop out for their own sorry situation, we may have to pull households out of poverty before we can expect their children to learn.
That means things outside of schools, like higher minimum wages and the kind of access to health care that civilized nations take for granted and which the ruling class in our state and nation seems determined to roll back.
George Pyle, the Tribune's editorial page editor, flew through school so easily that he probably didn't learn anything.