For Too Many Parents, 'Good Schools' Still Mean 'White Schools'

This post is part of a two-part series on what it means to be in a "good school." Read the second part here on how "good schools" should reflect the diversity of our country.
When my family moved from a suburb of Salt Lake City to a small, rural community in Southern Illinois, my parents faced a choice—where to live, which would determine where my younger brothers and me would attend school. Ultimately, they landed in the epitome of suburbia: on a home at the end of a cul-de-sac in a burgeoning subdivision. Our new home also lay within the attendance boundary of Freeburg Community High School. My parents said they chose this neighborhood because of the “good schools.” While incredibly intelligent people, my parents had no experience in education. I have no idea what indicators they used to determine whether Freeburg High was a “good school.” Though I felt I received an adequate education as a student, I was curious as to how Freeburg has been performing since my graduation in 2009. Shockingly, it’s not as “good” as my parents were led to believe.

My School Wasn't Doing Great

Based on 2016 test scores provided by GreatSchools.org, only 12 percent of Freeburg students are proficient in math and 29 percent are proficient in English. Both are lower than the state averages of 17 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Astonished by these results, I asked my parents what informed their decision to choose Freeburg High over other districts. They said they mostly relied on what people in the area told them. But if Freeburg High is seeing results below the state average, why do so many believe it is a good school? Out of curiosity, I dug deeper and compared Freeburg High to the other major local high school, Belleville-East. The results were astounding.

The schools were performing at significantly different levels, yet Freeburg High was known as the “good” school. With my interest piqued by the difference in standardized test scores I decided to dig a bit deeper and examined the demographic information.

Belleville-East had a drastically different student body. Less than half of its students identified as White, which is notable considering the town is almost 70 percent White. And yet Freeburg was colloquially known as the better school, even with Belleville-East having scores that are more than double Freeburg’s performance. Granted, Freeburg High did have some ratings higher than Belleville-East. Freeburg had a higher graduation rate, average ACT score, and AP exam participation rate—measures that parents and families are more familiar with. However, these same measures— graduation rate, ACT score and AP exam participation—are all highly correlated with income levels, which more matches the student population of Freeburg. While we shouldn’t draw an explicit causation between the student body and the local’s perception of school performance, the data certainly suggests a correlation. And with public schools becoming increasingly more segregated since Brown v. Board—with communities of White middle-class families even opting to secede from their districts to avoid desegregation—this correlation seems, well, uncomfortably likely to be front of mind for many families in my hometown. In this case, the White, middle-class students are actually receiving the worse education, based on the standardized test scores. Yet, Freeburg High’s continuing reputation as a “good school” speaks to the strength of implicit bias. Some might suggest this is just a problem facing “less woke” areas of our country—even going so far as to contend the White, liberal utopias of larger cities face no such problem and this issue of academic disparity will soon be resolved by the actions of parents within these areas. They would be sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, even in these “ good-hearted urban liberal parents” are further perpetuating the segregation of public schools. While we can put faith in parents for acting in the best interest of their own children, I have yet to be convinced in the most well-intentioned parent will not change their behavior for the improvement of education for all students. So if we cannot rely on parents, then who can we put our faith in to solve this problem? School districts, you’re up.
Sean Worley has worked in urban education for the last five years as a high school science teacher and instructional coach. He started his career with Teach For America in Sacramento, California, but now serves his community in Washington, D.C. Sean received his master's in education policy from American University.

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