School Choice

There's a Difference Between a 'Good' School and Choosing Whiteness and Wealth

It’s nearly summer, and while for most that means the end of a school year, for many it also means transition. Preschoolers transition to kindergarten, elementary students to middle school, and middle schoolers to high school.

With transitions come decisions and, thanks to funding formulas that largely equate access to quality education with where one lives, parents often use these periods of transition to decide on where to settle, or re-settle, their families.

When this happens, particularly for young-ish White progressives like me, the choices we make for our children run the risk of being at odds with our values. Indeed, back when I was deciding what school district to choose for my family, my values of diversity, social justice and anti-racism seemingly ran headlong into getting a “good” education for my children.

But that whole idea of a “good” school can oftentimes simply be code for a school that serves a rich, White community, particularly when these “good” schools get high ratings on websites like GreatSchools.org.

GreatSchools is a treasure trove of information for the family searching out the right school for their children, but it also has the potential to incentivize self-segregation, particularly if parents equate a “good” school solely with overall ratings and test scores.

Here’s how.

Let’s look at two real, small town neighboring school districts with one high school apiece, and let’s call them District A and District B.

Here are their high schools’ overall ratings and their test score ratings.

If I’m a parent who sees these ratings, and only these ratings, then it’s a no-brainer. There is little, if any reason to choose District B over District A, and there is substantial reason to choose District A over District B.

But test scores can be deceiving and there are other measures of academic achievement. Let’s take a look at graduation rates and college readiness.

There is a lot to unpack here.

Graduation rates, SAT scores, and SAT participation rates are relatively comparable, but there is a fairly huge disparity in what students choose to do after graduation.  

What could this mean? Why would District A’s students go to colleges and universities to pursue their bachelor’s degrees at nearly double the rate of District B’s students, more than half of whom go on to pursue their associate’s degrees? Judging from the similar graduation rates and SAT scores, this may not really be about academics.

Let’s first take a look at relative wealth by comparing poverty rates, property value data and median household income.

Now things are getting clearer. In all likelihood, especially since graduation rates and SAT scores are relatively similar, the disparity in four-year college attendance has little, if anything to do with academics or quality education. There is a disparity, however, in AP courses, with 63% of District A students taking an AP course versus 31% in District B, though it is questionable how impactful these differences may be.

Given the disparity in household income, the difference in four-year versus two-year college attendance is likely about what a student can afford, especially since the local state university costs $28,000 even for a commuting student, while the local community college costs less than $10,000.

One could even argue that going to the community college is the savvier, wiser decision.

But let’s go deeper. Who exactly are these students?

Now, we have a far clearer picture of whom these districts serve.

District A is a wealthy, homogenous district, a bubble of White privilege wherein nearly all students have the financial ability to go on to attend a four-year college.

District B, by comparison, is a relatively diverse district, both in terms of race and socio-economics, charged with serving students from different backgrounds, different cultures and different needs. And still, nearly all students not only graduate, but go on to pursue post-secondary education.

The point is that if families trying to find the “good” school solely look at overall ratings and test scores, then “good” really means wealthy and White. If a family had only looked at District A’s overall rating, for example, they would have chosen a profoundly segregated space for their children and done so because that’s where the “good” schools were, when in fact District A could really be simply where the rich White people are.

But, if we look deeper and realize that education is more than test scores, but is also about embracing difference, learning from other cultures and finding value in diversity both racial and economic, then our values do not have to be sacrificed for “good” education, particularly since District B, while by no means perfect, but due to its diversity, academic success, and cost of living, may be the better choice after all.

Which would you choose? And perhaps more importantly, why?

Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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