The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget our political squabbles. In education, parents already matter.

Mothers and fathers don’t need campaign ads to pick the right schools for their children

Parents and students walk to the new Harriet Tubman Elementary School on the first day of school in Gaithersburg, Md., in August. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)

The current debate over schools puzzles me. Much of the talk is about the need for more parent rights and more parent choice. Some people fail to recognize that parental decisions are at least as, if not more, important than anything else going on in schools these days.

Parents want their children to acquire skills that will pay their bills and develop resourcefulness to handle tough times in their lives. Parents look for schools with good teachers who can help with that.

Most make their school choices based not on their politics but on what is going on in those classrooms. The alleged lessons on race and sex that are being debated don’t matter to them as much as progress in reading and math.

Decades of educational research show that increased achievement in our schools is tied to rising living standards. The fact that parents have been working hard, doing better financially and supporting school improvements helps explain significant gains in U.S. learning from 1971 to 2017, according to researchers M. Danish Shakeel and Paul E. Peterson.

The pandemic has set that back, but there has been no decline in parental eagerness for good teaching. Mothers and fathers will demand that schools recover the gains lost and won’t rest until that happens.

Do you think our schools are worse than ever? You’re wrong.

Parents often gravitate to schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, where average test scores are high. But that focus on nice suburbs overlooks what is happening in communities on the other end of the income scale.

The largest and one of the most academically successful public charter school networks in the country is KIPP. It began in 1994 with 49 students in one elementary school classroom in a poor part of Houston. Today, it has 120,000 students, 88 percent of them low-income. The similarly high-scoring IDEA public charter network began in 1998 with 75 mostly low-income students in Donna, Tex., near the Mexican border. That network now has 80,000 students, 87 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.

How did those students get into those great schools? Their parents enrolled them. Mothers and fathers recognize that KIPP and IDEA are among several charter networks, and some regular public schools far from rich neighborhoods, distinguishing themselves academically.

The parent grapevine has spread the word. Parents have similarly had much to do with significant growth in the number of high schools that embrace the high standards of the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs, revolutionizing the way we teach teenagers in this century.

When I started in 1996 measuring participation in three-hour-long AP and IB exams, much tougher than standard high school course finals, I found only 1 percent of American schools had the equivalent of at least half of their 11th- and 12th-graders taking at least one AP or IB exam. In 2019, that number had risen to 12 percent, in part because many neighborhood high schools have thankfully stopped barring average students from the invigorating challenge of those courses and tests.

Research indicates that even students who fail AP exams are better prepared for college than those who take regular high school courses. A 2013 study by College Board researchers Krista D. Mattern, Jessica P. Marini and Emily J. Shaw, based on a sample of 678,305 students in Texas, found that “regardless of what score was earned on the AP Exam(s), students who took an AP Exam were more likely to graduate [from college] in four years or fewer than students who took no AP Exams.”

The power of AP has meaning for a recent educational controversy — the effort to change the admission system at the nation’s most selective public school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va. Some parents have protested Thomas Jefferson’s switch from heavy emphasis on entrance test scores to evaluating students with a qualifying GPA and course load on “experience factors” such as socioeconomic background.

I noticed something odd about parent behavior in that school district. It was never explained by the people demanding that Jefferson stick with selective tests. Less than 20 percent of students applying to Jefferson get in. You would think if the school were as exceptional as many say it is, the parents whose kids were rejected would be complaining about that.

Very few of them are. Instead, they send their children to the county’s neighborhood high schools, happy in the knowledge that those campuses have the same AP classes Jefferson has, or the IB equivalents. Jefferson seniors sometimes take courses above the AP level, but students in other schools have to wait only a year to get those courses in college. The teachers at the other schools appear to be just as good as those at Jefferson because the magnet school has no special requirements for its staff.

Jefferson students also have no advantage in getting into selective colleges. In fact, because competition among Jefferson seniors for Ivy League acceptance is so intense, and because brand name colleges like to get students from a wide range of high schools, it is easier to get into Yale or Cornell if you are a great student attending a school other than that super magnet in Northern Virginia.

Students that good are going to get into a fine college anyway. Which takes me to the big education story of the moment, the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of lawsuits asking that it end admission practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that challengers say give Black and Hispanic applicants a better chance of admission than Asian applicants.

Those two universities are highly ranked because so few people get into them. The most recent admission rate at Harvard was 5 percent and at UNC 25 percent. Such exclusivity excites our species. We are tribal primates obsessed with pecking orders. Many of us believe attending the choosiest schools leads to greater success in life.

That’s wrong. Read Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger’s paper “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College.” It shows that graduates from lesser colleges who happen to have character traits such as patience and perseverance are making just as much money 20 years later as Ivy grads.

Also notice we don’t have mobs of American parents of any ethnicity banging on the doors of the Supreme Court to let their kids into those two famous universities. They may not have read all the research, but they know instinctively that you do NOT need to have attended a brand name college to realize your dreams. They figured this out when they noticed many of the best-paid and most powerful people at their jobs went to lesser-ranked undergraduate institutions.

How does a high school full of low-income kids become best in U.S.?

Here are the five top companies on the Fortune 500 list, in descending order: Walmart, Amazon, Apple, CVS and United Health. I concede the chief executive officer at Amazon went to Harvard, but the Walmart CEO went to the University of Arkansas, the Apple CEO went to Auburn, the CVS CEO went to Boston College, and the United Health CEO went to the University of Nottingham. I was unfamiliar with that last school, so I looked it up. It was no surprise to learn it is in England, near Sherwood Forest.

Despite what you see in political fliers, we have much parental involvement and parental choice in schools. Most American parents, rich or poor, are doing a fine job supporting schools that in most cases are preparing students to contribute to our thriving economy. That is one reason so many people in the rest of the world want to move here.

Our parents care more about what is happening in our schools than campaign slogan writers do. We should thank parents for that and listen carefully whenever they, not ambitious politicians, tell us something they know would make our schools even better.