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San Francisco-based GreatSchools.net, which put together the ranking of the Best High Schools in America for BusinessWeek, got its start in 1998—during the height of the dot-com bubble.
Unlike most of the other dot-coms that crashed, GreatSchools didn't have large venture capital investments or skyrocketing stock prices; it was a nonprofit Web site with a mission to improve schools by inspiring parents to get more involved in them.
GreatSchools, as it has from the beginning, rates schools based on statewide test scores. (It also displays ratings of schools made by parents and other visitors to the site.) Parents can share ideas using online forums, receive grade-specific newsletters by e-mail, and get access to a library of relevant articles by experts. The group's activities are no longer just Web-only. In low-income areas in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., GreatSchools is leading parent outreach programs and has printed guides to city schools that provide test data and advice on how to choose the best schools.
"Schools get better or worse by the expectations parents express, and that's the way they get better," says the founder and president of GreatSchools, Bill Jackson, a former middle-school teacher.
The Web site now has more than 40 employees, 30 million unique visitors, and an annual budget of about $6 million. Its competition includes school district "report cards" released by state boards of education and information from data companies such as School Matters, owned by Standard & Poor's, a division of BusinessWeek parent The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).
School ratings have grown in popularity, in part, because parents these days have more of a say about which school their child attends. Districts—especially urban ones—have many more schools that specialize in science and other subjects that are open to students from throughout the city.
And schools, as a result, have become more accountable to parents. But many school officials also criticize the ratings, which largely weigh test scores and do not account for extracurricular activities, teacher qualifications, and other factors. The system has encouraged some schools to "teach to the test."
"Parents are being critical consumers as they are with many things," says Richard Flanary, senior director for leadership programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. "They are exerting more of their citizens' rights in terms of wanting to know how schools are performing."
Click here to see the best high schools in America as ranked by GreatSchools and BusinessWeek.
Gopal writes about real estate for BusinessWeek.com in New York.