Sunday, June 14, 2015


Kids, Conscience, and Consciousness

Anyone who doubts the tight connection between test scores and socioeconomic standing is invited to go househunting.

In preparation for the new gig at Brookdale, we’ve put our house on the market, and we’re looking for a place to live in New Jersey.  Putting our house on the market is labor-intensive and emotionally fraught, but elements of it are straightforward enough.  The buying part is more complicated.

We’ve both lived in New Jersey before -- TW spent most of her life there, and I was there for 18 years -- but not in Monmouth County specifically.   We had spent time on the Shore -- it’s where we got engaged -- and had caught a few concerts at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, but we didn’t learn the local reputations of Monmouth school districts.  We’re learning them now, with some level of urgency and with outsiders’ perspective.  With The Boy starting high school this Fall, and The Girl starting sixth grade, we want to make sure they get schools worthy of them.

There’s no shortage of school rankings.  Some of them are done by the state, but the really influential ones are done by a private, for-profit magazine (New Jersey Monthly).  The magazine rankings are as powerful within the state as the US News higher ed rankings are nationally.  As near as I can tell, its power arises from a gap between the desire for information in easily digestible form, and the relative scarcity of information like that.  (In my time at CCM, I remember being told that NJ Monthly penalizes schools that send higher percentages of graduates to community college, even if they subsequently transfer and thrive.  True or not, I remember it a decade later.) and also offer easily understood ratings, though their respective provenances aren’t entirely clear.

As a professional educator who’s relatively fluent in education policy debates, I can rattle off all the reasons to be skeptical of, if not openly hostile to, school rankings.  They’re proxies for economic class.  They reflect standardized test results, which are both narrow and skewed.  They can become self-fulfilling on the extremes, as wealthier people make strong districts stronger, and people with options abandon the districts on the bottom to the people who don’t have options.  I get all of that.

But I’m also a parent of two specific children.  Even granting parental bias, they’re great kids.  I want them to have great school experiences, both academically and socially.  

And that’s where kids, conscience, and social consciousness sometimes pull in different directions.

From a pure parental perspective, the argument for getting into the most high-achieving, “desirable” district we can afford is open-and-shut.  TB and TG are wildly smart kids who will rise to the expected level; I want the level to be high.  That strategy also has the benefit of higher resale value for a house, since other parents make the same calculation.  But it also involves pretending not to know certain things, or deciding not to care about them.  

That’s hard.  I want the kids to know that the world is larger and more diverse than the Honors track in a competitive suburban district.  And while I want my kids to “win,” I also know that the game is rigged in a host of ways.  

In a more perfect world, differences among schools would be differences of personality, rather than quality, and you could just send your kid to the local public school wherever and be confident that s/he would get a great experience.  If that happened, I think we’d see a great leveling of property values.  Those who paid a premium to get into a “good” district could be expected to fight any such leveling, on the grounds that they’d lose the premium they’d paid.  Which, in fact, they would.

In political discussions, we sometimes talk about school quality as if it were a pure win for everyone.  But “good” districts only carry premiums because of the contrast to “bad” districts.  Lose the latter, and the former will take a serious hit.  They can be expected to respond accordingly.

I adopted the “Dean Dad” label years ago to capture the two roles that occupy most of my waking hours.  (“Veep Dad” doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I’ll keep “Dean Dad” as my Twitter handle.)  The two roles are similar in some ways; when I started, the major conflict I saw was logistical.  But in the case of househunting, the two roles conflict conceptually.  I want to make a point, and I want to do right by my kids.  

Ultimately, I’d like for us not to have to choose.  That’s the world to work towards.  

Thank you for an insightful post. I just wish there was more open discussion in the media of how the game is rigged in a way that takes people who work very hard to educate the most disadvantaged students and demonize them when those disadvantaged students don't make progress that is deemed to adequate enough.
Thanks for sharing your inner conflict here and on the more national stage of your IHE blog. I'll also add that I'm glad to see that your kids are at good "transition" ages (entering 6th and 9th grade) where a jump to a new school would have happened anyway, although the break with one group of friends will be hard.

My suggestion tonight is for you to keep that in mind as you learn more about the student body at your new CC. You will see some schools disproportionately represented in the CC and in either its honors or its developmental classes. See if that matches what the real estate mavens tell you.
The average test scores matter less than whether there will be a peer group that isn't embarrassed to care about school (a peer group that is large enough so that they are not branded as the outsider weird kids too much). And of course, as you know, the curriculum options that the high school can offer, including things such as, is this desirable course offered every year?
Seems late in the year to start house hunting. I think Anonymous at 8:12 nailed it.

Good luck.
It turns out that I know lots of people in public education, at all levels (first grade, college, high school, third grade, etc.). All of them send their kids to private school. They are not without conflict about it, but they don't want their kids to experience the environment they have to work in. They see first-hand how the kids do in their own schools.
Nicoleandmaggie struck a chord with me. My ex-wife was a schoolteacher in the Baltimore public school system, and she sent our daughter to a private school. I guess she knew how bad the school system was, and wanted to avoid our daughter from having to face the same challenges that the students in the Baltimore public schools have to deal with. I suspect that many aspects of the Baltimore public school system were not unlike those described in the TV series *The Wire*.

I am of two minds on this question. I can see why parents would want to keep their children out of the public schools if they can afford to do so. Unfortunately, this sets up a two-tier class system, with the elite being able to send their kids to high-quality private schools, but people of lesser means are forced to send their children to public schools, some of which have severe challenges with drug problems, gang activity, homelessness, and regular violence. But I went to a public high school, and if I do say so, I didn’t turn out too badly. Admittedly, my mathematics background at the public school that I attended was rather poor—I didn’t have access to trigonometry, analytical geometry, or calculus, and when I went to college I was competing with kids who knew differential equations. But at that public high school, I was forced to deal with kids from cultural backgrounds quite different from mine, and this experience was valuable to me in teaching me how to handle a diverse population.

Hi DeanDad, thanks for the blog. It's an important topic to me and my family. My children are going into 9th & 11th grade next year in Cherry Hill, NJ. They've been in the Public School System from the beginning. Both have carried A's throughout. The curriculum has always been challenging for both of them. My daughter has had zero issues and things seem to come rather easily to her. My son on the other hand has a Learning Disability that with it comes an Individualized Education Program (IEP). From the very beginning it has been a constant struggle of staying on top of the teachers and even the administrators to follow his IEP. Unbelievable really, if you consider that the IEP is a legally binding document that they sign and are bound contractually to follow. There seem to be no ramifications for teachers who don't follow the IEP. A slap on the wrist from the Admins and Principles and that's it. We've been forced to employ an advocate to help with our fight because internally they could not discipline those teachers for breaking the law. Sorry I didn't mean to go on a tangent there. I guess my point is that when picking the school, be sure to look into what kind of support they have for children with a learning disability. Otherwise, whether public, private or parochial it can be a total nightmare.
I think there is a big difference between (a) avoiding a miserable public school (one in which your kids will not be challenged and will not find a good peer group) versus (b) finding the very "best"/"most challenging" school experience. Any parent with resources to do so will pick (a). But (b) seems to rest on a number of dubious assumptions, including that a school's level of challenge and resulting success can be mapped in a linear fashion, with all school either better or worse, and that this metric corresponds to aggregate standardized test scores.

In my own experience, I went to a not-overall-exceptional, large Midwestern public high school, and my husband went to an elite private school. We both have enjoyed comparable levels of "success" in life (measured by academic status and career achievement). And I started college both well prepared (my high school had a small handful of outstanding teachers) and also raring to go in a way that my husband, coming from a more elite and challenging high school experience, was not.

In other words, your kids will be fine, but I don't think you can predict which experience will be better just by looking at a magazine ranking.
(12:12 anon again): and, my husband's much fancier school was a miserable social experience, for reasons that had nothing to do with their attitude toward academic achievement, which was very positive, and everything to do with the negative consequences of over-privilege. We have done what we can to shield our own kids from that circumstance. We found a public school that is very diverse (few White like us, but otherwise a good mix of race and class) and challenging (even though the test scores are nowhere near as high as a place with kids from wealthier families). No regrets so far (our kids are in elementary school). But our goal is decidedly not to get them into the "most high-achieving" district.
Ocean Township
I was under the impression that the ONLY thing test scores reliably correlated with was home pricing. That's why the Georgia teachers were punished so severely; they were trying to create uppitiness.

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