Following my annual rant about the “challenge” index earlier this week, the creator of that listing Jay Mathews posted a comment in response both to my criticism of the index and my crack about him not being a teacher.

I begin every speech reminding listeners that I have never been a teacher, and would last no more than two days in that hard job. What I have been doing the last 25 years is listening to teachers, hundreds of them, as they explained to me what actually works, and doesn’t work, in classrooms. In every case I have shown those stories, and the three books I have done about challenge in high schools, to those teachers before publication to make sure every word is true.

Actually I appreciate the fact that the Washington Post, Mathews’ employer, has a full-time education reporter, even if he’s never taught. So many other outlets either ignore or gloss over the issues and the Post gives education stories major placement in the paper.

However, most of the news media, especially television, call in a doctor when it comes to reporting on medicine. They ask lawyers to be expert witnesses about legal issues. Soldiers are asked about the military.

When was the last time an education practitioner, especially one from K12, was presented as a expert on an education story?

It does happen occasionally but not often.

So in the swipe at Mathews, I’m expressing a frustration that too many education issues are being presented in the media by people with little or no connection to actual teaching and learning.

And then there’s the matter of the “challenge” index itself.

They are the ones who gave me the idea for the Challenge Index, a way to help us break away from the usual way we rate schools, by test scores, which is the same thing as rating schools by how rich the students’ parents are. The index is far from perfect, but it is better than any of the other ways we have tried to quantify high school quality. There are lots of other things that make a good high school beyond participation in challenging courses and tests, but sadly they cannot be easily measured so that befuddled parents can figure out which school might be best for their children. The Challenge Index is such a clear measure, and thus a useful tool, as many parents, as well as many of those teachers who have educated me, have said.

I agree that test scores by themselves are not a good way to rate schools.

But simply adding up the number of tests taken with no regard for other factors is a pretty poor system as well.

Especially since this particular rating system gets a high profile platform in both a major newspaper and by way of a cover story in Newsweek, not to mention the reprints in other publications and TV.

That the index get such major play in the news media is a reflection of the public generally wanting to have everything boiled down to a simple, easily ranked number.

It would be nice if we could extend the debate over the improvement of public education past this kind of simplistic ranking.