How Not to Pick a School

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, February 4, 2007

We are a white, middle-class family. Our children attend our neighborhood public school, Mount Vernon Community School, two blocks from our house in Alexandria. The student body is 55 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black and 19 percent white. More than 60 percent of the children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. More than 40 percent speak a language other than English at home. And the test scores, while passable, aren't among the school district's best.

It's a school with the kind of statistics that can so unnerve some white, middle-class parents that they move to mostly white areas -- or spend tens of thousands of dollars on private schools.

Last week, I held the PTA open house for parents of prospective students. I posted the announcement on our neighborhood e-mail group list. I received some enthusiastic responses from people who know parents with children already at the school. And I also got this one: "We are in the process of starting the research. I am plowing through the state website with the test results now so I will see how this school compares." The writer mentioned two other schools she was considering, schools with more white kids and higher test scores.

She didn't come to the open house.

I think I know why. Few middle-class whites will say it openly, though many whisper it over their back fences: They fear that their children won't receive a good education at such a school. Perhaps they'll be with rough kids. Or the teachers will spend all their time disciplining unruly students. Maybe the instructors won't be as good as the ones at more homogeneous schools. And, most damning of all, they assume that their children won't be academically challenged at a school with such a demographic profile.

I first heard the whispers when my husband and I began searching for a kindergarten when our son was 4. I was at a playgroup with him one day and asked the other mothers about the local public schools. An awkward silence fell. Then one mother spoke up, almost reluctantly. "Don't you know?" she asked, as if perplexed by my naivete. "If you're white and you live in Alexandria, you send your kids to private school."

But such assumptions are wrong. And there has been plenty of research to prove it.

The mania brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act has turned the pursuit of higher test scores into a sort of Holy Grail. And it's hard not to buy into it. The media publish test scores and list schools from top to bottom, reserving adjectives such as "prestigious" and "world class" for those with the highest scores. Real estate agents publish links to school Web sites and tout high scores.

I bought into it, too. After my husband and I bought our house in 1997 and I saw the neighborhood school's test scores published in the newspaper, I began to think about moving, as a number of our neighbors with young children had. And we didn't even have kids yet.

If there is one useful thing that has resulted from No Child Left Behind, it's that for the first time, the government requires schools to track and publish test scores broken down by racial and ethnic group. And the numbers show something interesting: white kids, on average, score about the same in all subjects no matter what school they attend. Education researchers have found that it's not race or ethnicity at all that best predict how a child will perform on a test: it's socioeconomic status.

Research has found that schools have an enormous impact on academic achievement for poor students. But for middle-class kids -- regardless of racial and ethnic background -- schools tend to matter relatively less, because parental influence matters so much more. To take the two extremes, it is hardly surprising that a middle-class child who has been read to often, taken on trips to museums and is surrounded by books and talk of college from an early age will score better on tests than a child living in a crowded apartment with non-English-speaking parents who work multiple jobs, or a child experiencing the often chaotic and hopeless environment of intergenerational poverty.

"Test scores are an indicator. But what are they an indicator of? The education of the parents and the wealth of the community. They're not an indicator of how good the school is," said Gary Orfield, an education researcher with Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. "People move their kids from the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs on the belief that it's going to help their test scores a lot. But being in schools with kids of different backgrounds with low test scores will have no impact on middle-class scores. And it could have a positive impact -- fostering an understanding of society, being able to collaborate effectively across racial and ethnic lines. That's the tragedy."

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