An important part of the U.S. Department of Education, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes outstanding public and non-public schools. In identifying several hundred outstanding schools annually, the program celebrates school excellence, turn around stories, and closing subgroup achievement gaps. The Award is both a high aspiration and a potent resource of practitioner knowledge.
For 35 years the Department has bestowed this coveted award on more than 8,500 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.
And yet they share some core elements of effective schools. 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. Faculty are supported by mentoring and professional development and have time to coordinate their work. Data from many sources drive adaptations to support every student. Families and educators work together in trust.
Using standards of excellence evidenced by student achievement measures the Department honors high-performing schools and schools that are making great strides in closing any achievement gaps among student groups.
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. At the same time, Bell also originated the Distinguished Principal Award to recognize the critical role school leaders play in effective schools. This award has been renamed the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.
The program is supported through ongoing collaboration with the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Association for Middle Level Education, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Award Categories and Nomination Process
“Exemplary High Performing” schools have their state’s highest high school graduation rates and the highest achieving students (the top 15%) in English and mathematics, measured by state assessments.
“Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing” schools have made the greatest advances (top 15%) in closing subgroup achievement gaps in English and mathematics over the past five years, measured by state assessments.
Non-public schools are recognized as “Exemplary High Performing” if their student achievement in English and mathematics is among the highest in the country (top 15%), measured by state assessments or nationally normed tests.
Public schools are nominated by 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). At least one-third of public schools nominated in each state must have student populations of at least 40% students from disadvantaged backgrounds. All public schools must also meet their state’s annual measurable performance targets. The Council for American Private Education (CAPE) nominates non-public schools, including parochial and independent schools. A total of 421 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.
The Impact of National Blue Ribbon Schools
The Award’s effect on schools and communities is powerful. As one principal recalled, “The National Blue Ribbon begins a process you cannot stop.”
Many National Blue Ribbon Schools find they attract new business partners, financial assistance and volunteers. If school choice is an option, numbers of student applications soar. 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 and school summaries (https://nationalblueribbonschools.ed.gov/awardwinners/)/ National Blue Ribbon Schools are frequently profiled in the Department’s newsletters and journals as well as the Doing What Works project https://dwwlibrary.wested.org/ of the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences.
* 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.