The New York Times had an interesting piece on the NAEP exam and the analysis of its results. In it there was a link to a report by the Urban Institute in which the author explains how and why state policies may impact student outcomes. The report takes as its point of departure the idea that raw test scores are essentially meaningless unless and until the raw data is analyzed through the filter of student demographics.
Certain states are singled out as having the appearance of delivering a high quality education to their young people, but in truth the favorable demographics of the students they educate masks shortcomings. Conversely there are states whose raw scores appear to represent a failure to deliver quality education to their young people, but which actually do a fantastic job of overcoming demographic difficulties. The section of the report entitled “Do States Matter” concludes with a quote from a researcher saying “[A]nyone who follows NAEP scores knows that the difference between Massachusetts and Mississippi is quite large. What is often overlooked is that every state has a mini- Massachusetts and Mississippi contrast within its own borders”. That has been the message of the entire thread on education here at the Rational Urbanism blog: apparent quality and actual quality can differ greatly.
(As a side note, Massachusetts ranks #1 in both apparent and actual quality. I think a better analogy might have been Connecticut and Texas)
Another point made somewhat relentlessly here on the blog was referenced in the report as well: the student is over 12x more important than the classroom teacher at explaining differences in educational outcomes, and 20x more important than the school or school district.
To personalize this a bit, here is a picture of my stepdaughter with her entire third grade class:
People are paying a whole lot more to live in communities with “apparent” good schools. Are they good schools? To be honest, no one has published the in depth analysis that would prove or disprove the claim, they just know that the raw scores are good. If my wife and I did that we would have to spend easily twice and perhaps three times more on housing than we currently do (and so doing still live in a smaller, lower quality home) and that would have enormous knock on effects.
For example, LuLu knows that we will buy any standard book at any cost if she wants to read it. At the bookstore the answer is always “Yes!” and that attitude has led to a child who has found a variety of types of books in which she is interested. If we were to spend more than the $1,000 a month we spend now on mortgage/property taxes/insurance and if we needed a second car, we might have to cut back on book purchases, drama classes, theater tickets, concert tickets, and museum trips for LuLu. All to pay for a “better education” which might not be a better education.
15 children in a classroom with a qualified teacher and a highly motivated well prepared student; I think, as with my older daughters, LuLu will do just fine.