Tuesday, April 27, 2010

School Districts v. School Excellence

Having grown up in an urban area, not known for its public schools (though there were some famously good ones), I was never exposed much to the concern with school districts that is familiar to most people. When we decided that we needed to move out of our home in Center City Philadelphia (aka downtown Philly), there were no obvious geographical specifications. All of our family on both sides live in other states; we had friends in every direction; and work and commute related factors were important, but not decisive. Since we’re crazy, we looked at a LOT of houses-- we must have seen about 130 houses in person during our quest; we’d regularly see 10 houses in one day (with two kids in two), and we looked at a wide range of suburban areas outside Philly. One of the things that often came up—with brokers, friends, and others-- was “what a great school district” a given house was in—and this was true for a bunch of places.

Now, I am a total sucker for educational concerns, and I care about the formation my children get from their earliest years, but after a while I started wondering—what does a great school district mean, exactly? Back when we were looking at houses, I did a little investigating into this…and now I’m trying to re-discover the criteria, but it’s not so easy to find out exactly what factors go into determining the coveted designation of a “great school district.” I have some questions (as usual) about what the label tells us and how useful it is. My husband grew up in a school district that is considered one of the best in New York State; he went to public schools K-12. While he thinks of himself as having received a fine education, there is nothing about it that particularly impressed him (I went to Catholic school K-12, so I can’t comment here). When we were looking at houses, my husband considered the school district issue primarily from a financial angle, as an indicator of house value. Basically, he explained, a good school district generally helps keep home values more stable. Highly-ranked school districts suggest that the area is in a decent socio-economic situation. Fair enough: I can see why realtors selling houses would talk about school districts to all buyers if that’s the case.

But what about the schools themselves? From what I’ve been able to figure out, the rankings indicate things like the percentage of children who are considered advanced for their grade level and the percentage of kids who are proficient—all judged by standardized tests. Standardized tests can be useful in their way, but many people—especially educators—are wary of them. It looks like the offerings of AP courses and other high level courses factor into the designation. But what does this really tell us? It seems much more likely to tell us about the neighborhood: how much money the parents have, and whether the parents are invested in the kids and are pushing them to succeed. There tend to be higher expectations on kids from affluent families: parents and others are more likely to think that their kids need to be educated through college and to make that possible from the get-go. Most parents who really care about education and can afford it get tutoring or other special help for their children; they help them to do well in the subjects that don’t come naturally to them. And it’s useful—especially but not only when figuring out where to live--to know what the community is like; is it supportive, and so forth. But the topic of “school district” sounds like it’s about the schools…when I’m not convinced it is. Seems to me, if you want to know about the schools, you need to visit them. What should you look for? There’s the rub!

Class size is a pretty obvious one—but doesn’t always tell you as much as you might think (Montessori classrooms, which I respect tremendously, tend to have a pretty big group of kids, yet run marvelously IMO). So what tells you that something is a great school? What *are* the measures?

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