It’s that time of year again — some anxious parents tour schools, wondering what the heck they should be looking for, others don’t even realize tours are a thing. It’s all become tragically consumeristic rather than democratic. A few things to think about that might help you navigate it all:
First and foremost: schools are best understood as complex communities, not single numbers.
Standardized tests map directly onto socio-economic background, so when you look at GreatSchools.org, what you are mostly learning is what the socio-economic background of the students’ tend to be at that school. (The kid my school goes to, as an example, is ranked a 1 out of 10, i.e. the worst score possible; this number means nothing to any of us who show up there Monday through Friday and have real learning and growing experiences.)
Some schools do better teaching kids to excel on those tests, it’s true. You need to think through how much you care about that and/or want to be a part of a school community that prioritizes those tests. I don’t believe those tests are a good measure of whether kids are learning and I feel strongly about making sure kids, especially kids of color and those from low-income backgrounds, are learning in the school community that my family is a part of. That’s why I serve on the “school site council” (the group that determines where to spend discretionary funding; it’s made up of parents, teachers, and school leadership.)
So, what are some other ways to assess a school community? I find Jack Schneider’s framework hugely helpful:
Think “inputs” — what goes into a school to make it great. These include: teachers and the teaching environment (eg. how long have teachers and leaders been around?)+ school culture (Do the kids feel like they belong?) + resources (How involved is the surrounding community?)
And think “outcomes” — what you can measure and see to know a school is great. These include academic learning (which we oversubscribe on, as a society, right now) + character and well-being (Do the kids seem joyful?).
Another crucial thing to know: a wide variety of studies, some of them decades long, have determined that kids of color and those from low-income backgrounds do better when they go to integrated schools.
The outcomes are long-term and overwhelming: they get better scores and grades, they are more likely to go to college, they’re even more likely to live longer. That’s all from Children of the Dream by Dr. Rucker C. Johnson.
And on the flip side, white and privileged kids do not do any worse academically or holistically when they go to integrated schools.
As Nikole Hannah-Jones so often says, there is nothing magical about white kids. They bring resources wherever they go — financial and social — and that helps all kids.
Is integration a magic bullet for public education? No. But it would go a hell of a long way, and coupled with equitable schools funding and high-quality preschool, our society would be transformed. I have a lot of control over one of those things (where I send my kid to school), and I’m advocating where and when I can on the other two.
As Thurgood Marshall said so many years ago:
“Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.”