What ‘Good School’ really means
December 28, 2012, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I was recently reminded again of my hopeless befuddlement over the entire concept of ‘Good Schools’. I was in a conversation about places to live and I mentioned maybe moving from to [city in a county that always shows up in top-10 or -20 of ‘wealthiest counties’] to [other city a couple miles away in the same county & closer to work] wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

What was the response?

“No, no, you don’t want to live there! The schools are much worse. Much better where you are. Or you could move to [top 5 wealthiest county].”

Again: same county!

The more I think about statements like these the less I am able understand just what the heck ‘Good Schools’™ is supposed to mean. I mean, tangibly.

I know that I’ve never sat down and studied this whole issue of ‘school quality’ before deciding to live somewhere (because I’m a terrible parent, clearly), but I’m pretty sure that if I randomly sat in on like a third-grade class in a school in the ‘Bad Schools’ area I’m talking about vs. one in the ‘Good Schools’ areas, I wouldn’t be able to notice a dime’s worth of difference. Group activities to work on xeroxed worksheets. Random art on the classroom walls. Stuff about how recycling is good. Reasonably-energetic and conscientious female or gay-male teacher (aside from some of the older don’t-care-anymore teachers, who can be found equally in ‘Good Schools’). Doing dubiously-useful stuff on computers. Recess. Kid politics.

I know it’s been a while since I’ve been in school myself, but just what are the super-special amazing things going on in the ‘Good Schools’ that make them so ‘Good’? I literally can’t even picture it. Are they learning Algebraic Topology instead of Multiplication in their math class? Are they getting one-on-one editorial and career guidance in writing their first novels, instead of answering ‘compare and contrast’ questions about snippets of abridged versions of, like, Sounder? In science class are they writing turbulence-simulation iPod apps or building quantum computers instead of making posters of The Greenhouse Effect that show a big circular arrow going from the sky to ground and back?

Seriously, if you’re one of these people who believes in this mythical thing everyone talks about called ‘Good Schools’, could you please tell me in specific terms just what in the heck you are talking about?

The immediate answer I suppose is that a ‘Good School’ is just a school that performs slightly better (like 99 percentile instead of 97-98) on some boring aggregate statistics such as Average Class Size or Average Test Score Increase From One Year To The Next. Again, I have never actually bothered to look at such things (again: terrible parent), but I can totally imagine that the Average Class Size where I live is, like, 23.7 whereas in the Bad School place 3 miles away it’s 24.4. And similar for Test Score type measures.

The problem is, if that’s what people have in mind with this Good School/Bad School obsession, that’s just retarded! Seriously, you’re going to decide where you live based on some average statistics about schools you read somewhere? Averages are nice and all, and I can understand if the differences people are talking about were huge and material, but above some baseline threshold surely the idiosyncratic/personal attributes of your own kids, yourselves, your family life, etc., would dwarf any such Average Effect Of Schools. I mean, as long as the schools are above some baseline, why sweat it? That just strikes me as a totally silly and disproportionate way to make decisions about things.

Yet everyone seems to! Or at least, they talk as if they do. And I don’t actually think all those people are stupid. But I do think the ‘23.7 vs 24.4′ model of the Good Schools/Bad Schools paradigm doesn’t add up. There is no way that can actually be the motivator. So what is it then?

To be frank, I think it’s just race. A ‘Good School’ is a school that has only a few non-Asian minorities; a ‘Bad School’ is one with noticeably-many of them. All these test scores and class sizes people pretend to be dwelling on (which make little sense on their own as important highly-sensitive measures of School Goodness) are just interpreted by parents/homebuyers as proxies for race. Probably correctly, too, more or less. In any event, there is often no other way for parents to get access to the data they’re really interested in, so it’s just as well to be using these stats. In fact, I may go ahead and look them up myself now.

13 Comments so far
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Race and class. I went to a white but prole-heavy junior high school, and wouldn’t want to inflict that on my kids, either.

Comment by Callowman


Comment by Sonic Charmer

[…] Sonic Charmer is not afraid to ask the hard questions. […]

Pingback by DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » What “Good School” Really Means

As a male teacher (didn’t know I was gay, but hopefully I’ll start dressing better now) who has taught in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools, there are a few differences. When I taught in a good school, I spent time teaching math, science, history, and language arts. In a bad school, I spent most of my time teaching kids it’s not okay to swear at adults, you probably shouldn’t try to stab your friends with a pencil, and someone looking at you funny is not a reason to freak out and refuse to work.

In a good school, when I called parents about behavior, their students improved. In a bad school, their parents told me it was my job to teach their kids how to behave in the seven or eight hours a day I have them.

In a good school, I had support from my Principal, and was pretty much free to teach how I wanted as long as a I hit the core requirements. In a bad school, I had to teach from materials based on the standardized tests, because we were constantly on the edge of losing funding.

In both schools, I had colleagues who were excellent teachers, okay teachers, and crappy teachers. There were people who cared about the kids, and people who were there for the paycheck. The biggest difference I’ve seen is in parent support, and I honestly can’t even blame them, because so much of it is correlated to income. If I was a single parent of four young kids with two jobs, which was not uncommon at one of my schools, I probably wouldn’t show up for conferences either. And it’s not like there weren’t uninvolved parents and difficult kids at the ‘good’ school, but ere we’re so many fewer of them, I actually felt like I could spend the time to help them. I don’t know how to begin to solve this problem.

Yes, the differences between schools in any places someone with means is likely to live are usually negligible and don’t really matter. But the differences between schools in a nice suburb and an inner city? Different planets.

Comment by Mark

I hear you, but I would say you’re talking about a different dichotomy than the ‘Good School/Bad School’ people seem to have in mind when they scrutinize, like, average class sizes (or whatever) in two cities in the same blue/wealthy county.

It’s interesting that you’re also talking primarily about how the parents of students in a school behave. All well and good but notice, that is not an intrinsic *property of the school*, it is a property of those *parents*. You can’t reason from those parents to “therefore, it’s a Good School!” There is nothing necessarily great or good that “the school” itself is doing to cause that parental behavior. It’s just a school in a ‘good’ (read: non-prole, non-heavily-racial-minority) area. Which of course goes right along with what I (and Callowman above) am saying.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

BTW I actually have total sympathy for working parents who say ‘it’s the school’s job to teach them how to behave’. The law insists on these kids being sent there for 8 hours/day till they’re 18. That’s a freaking long time – basically more than the parents get them on a weekday – and if the school system isn’t doing anything useful with them in all that time, it really doesn’t speak well of such a policy does it?

I am also opposed to homework and ‘more parental involvement’ largely on the same principle. What the heck can’t they get done in 8 hours at school that they need to be sent home with ‘homework’ to do and/or silly things for the parents to sign or ‘family activities’ their teacher insists on?

Comment by Sonic Charmer

I agree with you on most of those points. Having taught in both, I don’t really think its anything in particular that the schools are doing that makes them successful, which is why school centered solutions don’t really work. And yes, homework is mostly ridiculous. I do my best not to assign it, but you’d be surprised by how many parents complain if you don’t.

Comment by Mark

Haha…that’s because they want to make sure their kids’ school is a “Good School”! :-)

Comment by Sonic Charmer

Hats off to you for posting in this hostile environment, Mark. I am very encouraged that there’s a public school teacher out there who’s reactionary enough to be reading this site.

Comment by Callowman

[…] always on the lookout for research to support my half-baked ‘good schools = less non-Asian minorities in the school’ theory (please read that link before getting mad, I’m not putting this forth as a matter of […]

Pingback by What correlates with ‘good school’? « Rhymes With Cars & Girls

[…] I’m talking about their home values. What, more than anything else, drives up home values to ridiculous, bubblesque proportions? Simple: lots and lots of competition and demand from other elite types whose worst nightmare is having to live in the ‘wrong’ area, with ‘bad schools’ (wink). […]

Pingback by Open-borders immigration is a selfish position that helps the rich get richer | Rhymes With Cars & Girls

[…] sure. ‘Good schools’ is largely a euphemism for social class. You want to be in a neighborhood where your kid will be in a ‘good school’ because of […]

Pingback by Kling on ‘good schools’ | RWCG

[…] What’s that got to do with how ‘good’ the school actually is? (Unless of course by ‘good’ you mean something else entirely.) […]

Pingback by Yglesias, totally disinterestedly, complains that you have to be ‘rich’ to get your kids in ‘good’ public schools | RWCG

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