The main idea of the first part of this essay was to explain the “income effect” on standardized testing. Of all the demographic factors impacting outcomes on standardized tests, the most significant is parental income. This relationship has been shown to exist not only when the wealthy or the poor cluster, but when they do not. The idea here is not that all rich kids outperform all poor kids on standardized tests, but that because the measurable relationship between parental income and test outcomes continues whether or not the rich or poor are clustered, the academic impact on a wealthy or middle income child attending a school with mostly poor classmates isn’t statistically significant. Therefore the significance to people who live in cities is not that testing simply isn’t fair because the outcomes are linked to wealth in a way which makes people uncomfortable, it is to understand that while parents often choose a community in which to live by “the quality of the school system”, the quality of that system is usually determined by outcomes on standardized tests, and those tests really only tell you how rich or poor the parents are in a given community. Taken by itself, it is not a good measure of the quality of the schools.
The Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts started to make good use of the data from the MCAS (the state-wide standardized test in Massachusetts) by comparing schools and school systems not by raw outcomes on the exam, but by taking what is known about the impact of demographics (parental income and non native English speakers) on standardized tests, and comparing “expected outcomes” with “actual outcomes” the difference being a measure of the “effectiveness” of a given school. In the case of Springfield it showed the schools to be very effective by the way, one of the very best of the urban districts in Massachusetts, and much more effective than many rural districts in the state. In their words:
“In the absence of a methodology to control for the demographic diversity of Massachusetts, listing MCAS scores primarily demonstrates the relative advantage or disadvantage that community characteristics bring to students. Any raw ranking order of MCAS scores reflects district demography much more than it represents anything else. A sorting of MCAS results would tell us more about local real estate values or the percentage of SUV ownership in a community than it would about school quality.”
What I found most interesting about this work by the fairly right wing business think tank The Donahue Institute is that it stopped this work a few years into the MCAS endeavor. To me it seemed that the results they were showing were not the results they wanted or expected, and they most certainly did not fit the narrative that city schools needed major reforms, city teachers’ unions needed busting, and charter schools and voucher programs needed to be instituted, so they just took their data and quietly slinked away.
In any case, from the perspective of parents who care about the education of their children the good news is that you don’t need to over-extend yourself financially to purchase a home in the wealthiest community for YOUR CHILD to receive a good education (the bad news is, if you already did, you’re wasting your money).
There may be actual public schools which are simply “bad”, but it is rare. Polling data shows that individuals, when asked if public education is in crisis in the United States, say “yes”, but, even in the poorest districts with the “worst schools”, they say that THEIR child’s school is not “in crisis”. That the “crisis” in America’s public schools is a media-made crisis at the root of which is a certain political/economic ideology (“Chicago Boys”) which seeks to privatize everything is fairly obvious. The real crisis is a societal one which schools cannot solve, but can only mitigate.