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Blue Ribbon Schools: What Are They and Do They Work?

By Lauren Bailey*

The Blue Ribbon Schools program was established in 1981 by the U.S. Department of Education to honor and distinguish schools throughout the country that have achieved high levels of academic performance. The program names the Blue Ribbon award-winning schools each year, seeking to set a standard of excellence for all schools throughout the United States. The purpose of the award program as defined by the Department of Education is to publically honor high achieving schools, to set a comprehensive framework of criteria for school effectiveness, and to facilitate communication among schools throughout the country. While the goal of this program is noble and certainly worthwhile, many questions if it is actually effective in promoting educational excellence among schools throughout the country. Before we can judge the program's effectiveness, we should take a look at the eligibility criteria the Blue Ribbon program distinguishes for schools.

The Blue Ribbon award program recognizes both public and private schools throughout the country for their academic excellence. These schools are nominated by each Chief State School Officer (the CSSO), the Department of Defense Education Activity (the DoDEA), and the Bureau of Indian Education (the BIE). It is delegating from these state parties that determine if the candidates for their states meet the minimum requirements that are established by the Department of Education. The nomination criteria for public schools rely heavily on state assessment testing. Nominating bodies look at the achievement of the school's students compared to all other schools in the state and results for student subgroups from disadvantaged populations. Because private schools are not required to complete statewide standardized testing, the nominating criteria for private schools differ some from public ones. Non-public schools are judged based on the achievement of the school's students on nationally recognized tests as opposed to state-mandated ones as well as by how strongly the disadvantaged students within the school rank on these tests in comparison to their fellow classmates.

It is these criteria that have some people questioning the effectiveness and even accuracy of the Blue Ribbon award system. While awarding high achieving and improving schools is in no way frowned upon, many feel that using standardized test results to determine a school's eligibility is a mistake. While schools who's test scores distinguish them as "high achieving" may very well be exemplary schools, there are likely many schools with suffering test scores that also provide an exemplary education by a different set of standards. The argument boils down to the age-old debate over the worth and effectiveness of standardized testing to educate and assess our young students.

While the criteria for the Blue Ribbon Award system may be challenged, the impact the awards have on schools and their student population is undeniable. Schools with Blue Ribbon achievement become selling points for local realtors, business partners are easier to come by for these schools, and financial assistance and volunteers are more abundant. The Blue Ribbon distinction becomes a selling point for schools in a way that can really stand to foster a school's educational abilities and effectiveness.

There are numerous testimonials of students who are inspired by their school's Blue Ribbon achievement and staff who are reignited by the distinction. These are absolutely all positive things. I doubt any of us will argue that these Blue Ribbon nominated schools don't deserve some recognition for their accomplishments. Positive academic achievement should be recognized and rewarded. However, I think many feel that the prestige that accompanies winning a Blue Ribbon award may detract from the more important picture. While we should reward and celebrate our educational successes, we should not detract from schools that are struggling. We need the volunteers, financial assistance, marketing ploys, and so much more to be brought to our lower ranking, challenged schools. The Blue Ribbon distinction is a wonderful testament to academic success, but attention needs also to be brought to our country's schools that are struggling but still striving.

(*)This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, who regularly writes for online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: blauren99 AT gmail DOT com.

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