The Best

For about 20 years, my family spent Independence Day with the Boston Pops. Each year, they would give a free concert on the Charles River Esplanade complete with the orchestra, special guest stars, and fireworks. Attendance varied widely depending on the weather and the guest artists, but could be anywhere from 200,000 – 500,000 people. The concert is free and open to the public.

Let’s say you want to go to the concert, and you want to get a decent seat where you can see the performance on a Jumbotron and hear pretty well. To do that, you should probably plan to get there about 4 hours before the concert starts. After that, it gets very crowded and difficult to find a good place to watch the show.

But what if you want to see the actual stage? The area directly in front of the stage is called the oval, and it seats about 10,000 people. To be in this elite group, in the best 5% of the seats, you have to get there early. Most years, arriving 8 hours before the concert is a good rule of thumb. If you’d rather be close enough to be on TV, you should plan on 12 hours ahead. That should get you within about 50 feet of the stage. Of course, this means sacrificing your Independence Day to get these seats. You’re not going to barbecues or parades. You’re not hanging out at the beach or by the pool. You’re waiting in line for concert seats for the whole day.

But what if none of that is good enough for you? What if you want to sit in the front row, right in the middle? What if you want the best seats in the house? To get those, you have to be first. Being first has a cost. In this case, that cost is about 47 hours. I know that from experience. In all the years I’ve gone, I’ve always been among the first four people to stake out a spot, and I’ve always been friends with the other three.

The cost used to be 22 hours. The problem is that there are two groups of crazy people, and they’re trying to beat each other. So every year, you have to be there earlier to be first.

To get those seats, we have to sacrifice other things. We miss the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at the old state house. We have never seen the USS Constitution turnaround cruise. We skip most of Boston’s historical re-enactments and Independence celebrations. We have to be in line for seats. There are tradeoffs. There’s a cost to being first.

When we look at the latest school rankings from USA Today, we can’t help but compare ourselves to others. Revere is ranked #964 nationally, #35 in Ohio, and #3 in the Akron metro area. Our scorecard is 94.6. That’s pretty good. It’s not as good as my previous school, but it’s a lot better than my alma mater. If it were July 4, we’d be arriving a little over 8 hours before the concert starts. Those are good seats.

By USA Today’s measure, this is a good school. It’s not the best school. We do pretty well in math and reading proficiency. We get dinged on graduation rate (primarily because we keep ungraded special education students until they’re 22 years old). There’s room to grow in college readiness and college curriculum breadth. Some of the shortcomings come from being a relatively small school. Economies of scale can limit opportunities. But there’s certainly room to grow.

If we put in some serious effort, and focus on initiatives that will improve our score, we could probably get into the top couple percent. In the concert analogy, that’s good enough to get on TV. We can (and should) put some initiatives in place to improve in the areas that are dragging us down.

But we have to be careful how far we take this. Why aren’t we in the top ten in the state? Can’t we get into the top 100 nationally? Why should we settle for the top 2%? This question came up at one of our strategic plan meetings this spring. A group of about 45 stakeholders was in the room. “Are we sure we want to be in the top ten?” someone asked. Are we willing to devote the resources necessary to raise our scores on these measures? Is the goal of getting students to pass four AP exams more important than challenging them to act intentionally to benefit their community? Should we focus on becoming an International Baccalaureate school, or will our students benefit more from learning to adopt a learner’s mindset and persevering in a climate of ambiguity and changing priorities?

This isn’t a linear path. We’re currently #35 in Ohio. It’ll take some concentrated effort to get to #25. But getting from #25 to #15 will be a lot harder, and #15 to #5 will be an order of magnitude more challenging. We’re not going from 8 hours to 12 hours anymore. We’re going from 12 hours to two days. And at the same time, we have to recognize that the schools that are #45 want to displace us. Ranking is a zero-sum game, and for us to go up, someone has to go down. It takes a lot of work just to stay where we are.

Competition is good. It motivates us to work harder. Our egos love the bragging rights that come with higher rankings. But if we allow ourselves to be defined by our ranking, we should make sure that the ranking criteria align with what we want our schools to be. Because raising our score will be all-consuming as we get closer to the top.

In the end, we decided to focus more on the core competencies we want our graduates to have than on our ranking. Most of those competencies don’t align well with the USA Today criteria for ranking schools. So while we have a few initiatives that will hopefully improve our ranking, explicitly focusing our attention on climbing the USA Today list is less important than other things we want to do.

After 2019, we decided to stop going to the July 4 concert. Two decades is enough. As it turned out, the pandemic forced the event to be canceled in 2020 and moved to Tanglewood in western Massachusetts for 2021. But we weren’t going to attend, even if it had continued. There are other things we want to do. We want to have other experiences. By taking the myopic focus off this one thing, we made room for new traditions. This year, we’ll be in Williamsburg for Independence Day. Next year, we’ll do something else.

Our schools, likewise, probably won’t be among the top 10 in the state. But by letting that go, we can focus on the competencies that are more important for our students, and better prepare them for more than being at the top of some list.