Where are the “Good Schools?”

When I tell people that I teach about education and education politics, I quickly hear their observations and misgivings about their communities. This often sounds like, “We bought our house before kids, and now we realize our neighborhood school’s test scores aren’t very good.”

Or, people express understandable concerns about the cost of living in the towns with the supposedly “good schools.” I love getting the question, “Where are the good schools?,” and I get it often.

The Home Advantage

At the end of the day, most parents who ask the question, “where are the good schools” are already doing many things in their typical parenting that are academically advantageous for their children: waiting to have children until they’re a little older and done with school, raising children with another adult co-parent, reading to -and reading in front of – their children.

Those home benefits, or what Annette Lareau calls the “Home Advantage” far outweigh some of the perceived risks of staying in or moving to a community that has less-than-desirable test scores in comparison to other area schools. (More on this in later posts.)

School rankings aren’t all equal

Despite this, people get a little…crazy… and start checking school rankings on websites like US News and World Report‘s best schools list or Great Schools. These rankings are generated based on a number of factors – chief among them are mean standardized test scores for a community.

One thing we all remember about means is that a few very low scores can really skew the mean. One other fundamental question to keep in mind is, “Is doing well on a standardized test really an indication of the type of intelligence I hope for my own child to exhibit?” It may be, but it’s still a worthwhile question to consider.

So, if you’re looking at these rankings to make decisions about where to raise a family, keep in mind that ranking methodology matters.  I like the group Niche‘s ranking metrics because they treat economic and cultural diversity as an asset in their methodology … because going to school with children from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds isn’t just an asset for all developing children, it is necessary for becoming a functional, thinking adult.

Other ways to determine school quality

Having said all that, I fully endorse the drive-by school check.  You can learn a lot by a school and by the level of parent involvement by how fresh the annuals look in the garden beds and how many parents linger at drop off and pick up. I think “parent-lingering” is a good measure of a positive community and high social capital (if not the presence of a lot of mama-gossips).

We drove by several elementary schools in several different towns before we settled on the town we chose.**  If you want to get deeply into it, check out state statistics on per pupil expenditure (usually direct correlation to the property tax rate) and there are a few other measures that are public information that I would direct you to if interested. A good one is average teacher salary, another is the student teacher ratio, and the number of average years the teaching force stays. Higher teacher attrition can often signal poor administration or weak social capital. Many of these stats are listed on the Niche site so that’s one-stop-shopping.

**This is a luxury that not everyone can exercise. Still there is much you can do to support your child’s education no matter how your community schools “rank” on these metrics. More on that in later posts as well.

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