July 2009

You are what you eat

Ever wonder where maraschino cherries come from?  The sickly sweet, almond-flavored ornaments don’t grow on the tree that way.

They don’t taste that way in nature, either.  Actually, they’re much better right off the tree, minus the artificial red or green coloring and various assorted chemicals.  They’re very sweet, just like the larger black cherries, but with a flavor all their own — almost with a hint of banana or something.

These luscious treats are dumped in a pit (the one I’ve seen is about the size of a motel swimming pool) filled with a brine of alcohol or sulfur dioxide.  The color is bleached completely out, then they’re dyed and artificially flavored.

I haven’t eaten a single one since I saw how they’re made.  I do, however, enjoy the real thing.  This afternoon, I skipped lunch to save room for fruit as I picked in the orchards.

My two weeks on the farm is at an end, but as always, I wish I could live this way more of the time.   The fresh air, exercise, and fresh foods are inherently healthier, but too often so hard to obtain in the hustle and bustle of ordinary life.

As summer comes to a close, I’m going to try to incorporate more of these things into our lives.

The truth is out there

Over the past week, there was a guest column and a couple of letters to the editor (all from the same page of talking points, not surprisingly) alleging that our school system has been in decline under the direction of our Superintendent.  I would link to it, but I’m not inclined to assist in the publicity efforts of a small group of women whose sole goal is to get rid of our school system’s CEO.

At the Board meeting last night, data was presented that shows, rather definitively, that in fact the opposite is true: by a variety of measures, we’ve made significant gains.  Impressive gains, even.

The graduation rate is up.  TCAP scores are up.  The average ACT score of ORHS students is up.  And yes, the number of students taking AP classes is up.

Our challenges are far from over, but it’s clear to me that we are on a path of achievement, and that we have the right leadership in place to accomplish set goals and objectives.

School Rankings

For the last month or so, the subject of school rankings has been a hot topic in Oak Ridge.

Last month, we learned that we didn’t make the Newsweek ranking, where we’ve enjoyed a spot for the last several years.  A bit later, we learned that we do actually qualify for the ranking, but didn’t get the paperwork in on time.  Somewhere between the two, there’s been a lot of talk (and ink) about whether the Newsweek ranking is a valid measure of quality, and whether it matters.

Like most things, the truth is in the middle.

Yes, the rankings do matter to a lot of us.  Businesses use them to recruit top staff, realtors use them to sell homes in Oak Ridge, and those of us with children at the high school take some measure of comfort in knowing that the high standard of academic performance remains so.   From this mom’s perspective, if a significant percentage of the kids at the high school are taking college-level courses, it surrounds our own kids with a kind of positive peer pressure to do well.  To study.  To put academics ahead of some of the other high school social distractions.

On the other hand, is the Newsweek ranking a realistic measure of quality?  Well, yes and no.  It measures the ratio of AP tests taken to the number of graduates in a given year.  It doesn’t measure the number of tests passed, nor the number of classes taken, so it’s subject to some skew: some kids take the AP courses, but don’t take the test.  The $83 fee to take the test may be something of a barrier, particularly if a student knows that that particular course won’t count toward their intended major.

If you want to measure the quality of the AP program, you’d count the scores acheived on these AP tests.  If you just want to measure how many students are exposed to the rigor of a college-level course, you only have to count the courses taken, not the tests taken.

Even so, counting anything to do with AP tests is only one measure.  It’s important to a lot of us, but it’s still only a snapshot of one component of a good high school education.

There are other rankings, certainly.  US News does one that Oak Ridge has never been on (that I know of), but that one predominantly measures how well minority subgroups perform.  To me, that is even less accurate as a reflection of overall quality than the Newsweek ranking based on AP tests taken.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve given considerable thought to the idea of rating high schools, and how one might devise a ranking sytem that really means something across the board.  To do so, I think you’d have to be able to measure one thing:  how well does this school prepare students for the next step in their lives — whatever that step may be?  At ORHS, most students go on to college.  Some enter the military.  Some enter vocational training, and others enter the workforce.

So, how would one accurately measure successful preparation for that variety of paths?