The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program honors public and non-public elementary, middle and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where students are making significant gains in academic achievement. A vital part of the U.S. Department of Education, the program identifies and disseminates knowledge about effective school leadership and instructional practices. The Award is both a high aspiration and a potent resource of practitioner knowledge.
A National Blue Ribbon Schools flag overhead has become a symbol of educational excellence recognized by everyone from parents to policy-makers in thousands of communities. In its 31-year history, the Department has bestowed this coveted award on some 7,000 American schools.
National Blue Ribbon Schools represent the full diversity of American schools: public schools including charter schools, magnet/choice schools, Title I schools, and non-public schools including parochial and independent schools. They are urban, suburban, and rural, large and small, traditional and innovative, and serve students of every social, economic, and ethnic background.
At the same time, they share some key qualities. Their leaders not only articulate a vision of excellence and hold everyone to high standards, they stay close to the real action of teaching and learning. Mutual respect and trust run deep in their cultures. The whole school community embodies a sense of collegiality and commitment and members are supported by mentoring and professional development. Data from many sources are used diligently to adapt teaching and learning to support every student. Families and educators work together in partnership.
Using standards of excellence evidenced by student achievement measures and research-based indicators of school quality, the Department celebrates high-performing schools and schools with a high percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds that significantly improve whole-school test scores and student subgroup test scores.
National Blue Ribbon Schools are honored at an annual awards ceremony in Washington, DC, where each receives a plaque and flag to signify its exemplary status. These schools serve as examples for other schools throughout the nation and details of their achievements are shared on the U.S. Department of Education’s website.
The National Blue Ribbon School Program was the brainchild of the second Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, named by President Reagan. Best known for commissioning the study of American education that resulted in A Nation at Risk, Bell created the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award in 1982 to bring public attention to the best schools in the United States and to facilitate communication and sharing of best practices within and among schools. The program is supported in this effort through ongoing collaboration with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Schools are recognized in one of two performance categories:
“Exemplary High Performing” schools are among their state’s highest performing schools, as measured by state assessments or nationally normed tests.
“Exemplary Improving” schools have at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds* and demonstrate significant progress in improving student achievement levels as measured by state assessments or nationally normed tests.
National Blue Ribbon Schools are nominated by the top education official, the Chief State School Officer in each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). The Council for American Private Education (CAPE) nominates non-public schools, including parochial and independent schools. A total of 417 schools nationwide may be nominated, with state allocations determined by the number of K-12 students and schools in each jurisdiction, ranging from a minimum of three schools to a maximum of 35. CAPE may nominate up to 50 non-public schools. At least one-third of public school nominated by each state must be schools with at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These schools may be nominated as either Exemplary High Performing or Exemplary Improving Schools.
The Impact of National Blue Ribbon Schools
The Award’s effect on schools and communities is powerful. As one principal recalls, “The National Blue Ribbon begins a process you cannot stop.”
Many National Blue Ribbon Schools find they attract business partners, financial assistance and volunteers. If school choice is an option, student applications to National Blue Ribbon Schools increase. Less quantifiably, the Award inspires students: “You have pride, knowing your school worked so hard to reach that goal,” one student noted. The Award re-energizes staff and parents. Teachers describe a renewed commitment to exchanging new ideas with one another. Student pride and staff confidence grow.
National Blue Ribbon School principal and teacher leaders are called on to give presentations at state, regional, and professional meetings about the practices that have made a difference for their students and faculty. District and state educators visit these model schools to learn about promising leadership and instructional strategies.
Selected profiles of schools are featured on the NBRS website and winning applications are posted on the U.S. Education Department’s Blue Ribbon website. National Blue Ribbon Schools are frequently profiled in the Department’s newsletters and journals and on the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences’ Doing What Works website.
* A student from a “disadvantaged background” is defined by the CSSO of each state. At a minimum, the definition must include students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals and may include students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient, migrant, or receiving services under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.