Any long time reader of Rational Urbanism who is eager for me to get back to my roots will be happy to know that I’m about to repeat an old favorite. Overwhelmingly, when someone writing about urban issues, white flight, gentrification, and topics of that ilk uses the words “bad schools” or “good schools”, they have no idea what they are talking about.
This classic reared its ugly head once again in just the last week when an article published on City Lab referred to up-zoning legislation in California allowing for the creation of multi-family homes in single family neighborhoods “that are near”, among other things, “good schools”.
This is not very difficult to unpack. Data proves that the children of the wealthy tend to be much better prepared to achieve success in education. Where the wealthy have clustered their children will be assigned and attend the same schools, which will receive the appellation “good” because the agglomeration of so many well prepared learners at the same facility will cause the general student body to over achieve. Yes, the community being wealthy, it will also likely dote on the system such that it has all of the bells and whistles of whatever the trends are in education; from top notch athletic facilities to the best internet access, et cetera, but those, according to the data, are not what brings success; that derives from being a school which educates the children of the wealthy.
All of this functions in the opposite manner in schools which educate clusters of the children of the poor, although in Springfield, for example, many of the facilities which the children of the poor attend are newer and have more of the bells and whistles than most suburban schools in the area due to a commitment by the Bay State to urban public schools, and because most of Springfield’s suburbs have not achieved the level of prosperity of those near Boston. Comparing Minnechaug High School, or East Longmeadow High School, to Springfield’s Putnam Vocational, Commerce, Sci-Tech, or even what is now the grand-daddy, (in terms of how long it has been since it was last renovated) Central High School, and not only is there no stark difference in favor of the wealthier suburban school, but the city schools are much more up to date.
That said, Minnechaug, just to select one suburban school out-performs any of the aforementioned city schools in terms of graduation rates, SAT scores, MCAS scores, and any other measure you’d like to choose; so it is a “good school”. As a thought experiment let’s take the just the student body of Minnechaug and exchange it with the student body of which ever Springfield high school you think is the worst of a bunch of “bad schools”. (If you aren’t familiar with the Springfield area you can do the same with similar schools in your region.)
Will the test scores and graduation rates STAY with the buildings and with the faculty and staff, or will they GO with the students? The answer is obvious. So when you read “good school ” or “bad school” no one is talking about the actual facility or the teachers that work there, they are talking about the children who attend the school.
The key issue then becomes will a particular child do better among a group of children who are very prepared to learn if he or she is not, and conversely, will a child who is very prepared for learning still excel when placed among many children who are not? While pointing at statistics, when most parents are very concerned only about their particular child, doesn’t provide as much comfort as one might seek, the data shows that the unprepared child isn’t much helped by being surrounded by very prepared children, and the well prepared do not suffer much at all from being educated with the less prepared. In other words, your child is the most important element of your child’s education and the choice of school is less important than it seems.
As to the terms “good school” and “bad school”, to really know if a school is particularly good or bad one would need to do the very heavy statistical lifting of comparing what we know of demographic realities like family income, and English language learning status and their relation to educational outcomes to see if, when compared to expected outcomes, a school over-performs or under-performs; the former being good schools, and the latter being bad.
My favorite analogy is this: If I regularly take 11 random men off the streets of Belgium and win the bronze medal in basketball at the Summer Olympics over and over, am I a better or a worse coach than the guy who takes an NBA All-Star team and usually wins the Gold? Would an all-star caliber player suffer being coached by someone who has become so good at developing among all sorts of individuals a certain knowledge, understanding, and ability in the game? What about the random Belgian bloke? How much do you think he’d get from the all-star coach in comparison to me if I consistently created teams able to compete at the bronze medal level?
As much as we might want our schools to be a place where every child arrives with an equal chance at success, and as admirable as it is to give the best education we can to the disadvantaged, there is no magic wand which will end the inequality of outcomes in our schools as long as there is, and there will always be, inequality in our society.