Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Similar Schools" And CSU.

I've been spending some time working with Google's Public Data Explorer and the CSU data for California's high schools.  As I was tweaking the XML, a question popped into my head -- I wonder how the kids at the highest ranked "Similar Schools"  to Sonoma Valley do at CSU?
Infogram available at

By way of explanation, back when the Similar Schools rankings came out in May, I did a bit of digging into the California Department of Education's database to find out which schools are considered most "similar" to Sonoma Valley High, that also happened to receive high rankings.

Two schools within 20 places of Sonoma on the School Characteristic Index had 10's on the Similar Schools ranking, but both have less than 200 students.  So, I instead turned to those that were ranked a 9, that had a demographic profile roughly similar to Sonoma. There were three -- Etiwanda High, Eleanor Roosevelt High, and Paloma Valley High. All three are located in Southern California.  They all have ~2,000 students.  And they all do well on the Statewide ranking as well as the Similar Schools ranking -- they're 8's on the first, and 9's on the second.

At this point, I shouldn't have been surprised by the data, and I suspect my regular readers won't be, either.  Sonoma Valley's kids were the lowest ranked in the group in 1995.  But by 2004, Sonoma Valley's performance surpassed all of the highest ranked "Similar Schools." (Sonoma Valley would go on to pass all the nearby private high schools the following year.)

Since 2005, Sonoma Valley's graduates aren't just outcompeting the students from the neighboring private high schools. They're also outcompeting the students from the highest ranked "similar" public high schools.

Image available at
The more I look at the data, the more I wonder about the applicability of James Scott's concept of legibility to our community's understanding of its school system. It can be hard to appreciate all the subtleties of the social dynamics of a diverse district like Sonoma Valley. The understandable inclination may be to come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what the schools ought to be.  But our public schools seem to produce students that are gritty and resilient --  that have the vitality of a natural forest.  It may be that there are benefits to be had from the walled gardens of "elite" private high schools, and the orderly monocultures of shiny big-box megaschools in exurban Riverside or San Bernardino County can be superficially appealing. But the "scientific forests" James Scott studied eventually underwent ecological collapse, while the complex and confusing reality of the "illegible," natural forests produced pretty good results -- worth remembering when considering the performances being turned out by the graduates of Sonoma's school district ...