Listen carefully when people use the terms “good school” or “bad school”. What they think they mean, and therefore what they think they know, is that they have the data necessary to judge how close students in that school come to maximizing their potential in terms of academic growth.
They don’t know that, I don’t know that, you don’t know that, and no one knows that, unless and until they have a least two data sets. One data set would be as large as possible and would assess as many schools as possible doing all of the statistical work necessary to identify the demographic characteristics which impact on as many as possible significant outcomes. The next would be all of that data on those outcomes from the school being judged. You then have to compare the outcomes the demographic information would predict to the actual outcomes over as many years as possible (especially important if the school has a small population). Then, and only then, can you speak knowledgeably about whether or not that school is “good” or “bad”.
Instead when these terms are used what is really being identified is not the capacity to add value or the failure to do so of the school, but rather the demographic characteristics of the students who attend the school which correlate to better or worse outcomes.
In the greater Springfield area Longmeadow High School has high test scores and an excellent graduation rate. Is it a good school? I don’t know, and you don’t know either. Given its demographics does it over-perform or underperform? I don’t know, and you don’t know either. Commerce High School in Springfield has low test scores and a high drop out rate. Is it a bad school? I don’t know, and you don’t know either. That can only be known if you have all of the relevant data and you’ve compared the outcomes predicted by demographics and the actual outcomes.
Here comes the important question: Does it matter? My answer is “probably not”. Chances are Commerce High School is an average school doing an average job…because that’s what average means, BUT we know who the students are who are struggling in each subject area, and we probably know who the students are which are at risk of dropping out and we have some idea of the research based interventions which can help them. More students are in need of those interventions at Commerce than at Longmeadow. Many of those interventions are costly. Even if we provide all of the resources necessary for as many of the interventions as can be provided the student population of Commerce will still not achieve outcomes equivalent to the population of Longmeadow High School (a fact which is about as meaningless as any I can think of by the way), but their outcomes will improve if resources are provided to do the things which we know tend to work.
The important issue here is this; when we expend resources in ignorance, whether as a society or as individuals, we stand a greater chance of wasting those resources. Moving children from bad schools to good schools might be a good idea. I mean I suppose we could ask the people of Lake Wobegon how we get all of our children into better than average schools, and maybe the headmaster at Hogwarts would know how we get the good teachers in the good schools to teach 2x or 3x the number of students they currently teach and still remain “good teachers”.
Leaving those little conundrums aside, just taking students out of urban districts and sending them to suburban ones takes a lot of money, money which could be used for interventions in the urban districts. In many cases, it also takes the best of the best students out of the urban districts because the type of parents who expend the effort prioritizing schooling by finding out about and following through on what they believe are better opportunities for their children are likely to have children who achieve better outcomes. All this to send students from “bad schools” we really don’t know are bad, to “good schools” we really don’t know are good.
So the next time you hear someone say that some city has bad schools ask them if they know the overall percentage of students on free and reduced price lunch, and the percentage of students who are English Language Learners, and the percentage of students in the district who are transient and how those numbers compare to what would then be the consequent predicted outcomes on standardized test scores, graduation rates, and the post secondary success of the student body. If they don’t have those figures readily available tell them, nicely, to shut the fuck up, they don’t know what they’re talking about.