School Choice

Do Parents Know How To Choose the Best School in NYC?

It’s school application time in New York City!

Parents of four-year-olds are taking advantage of every to advantage to prep them for entry into public Gifted & Talented programs, private schools, and the hybrid Hunter College Elementary.

Parents of 5th graders are wrestling with the convoluted process of middle-school admissions. Meanwhile, 30,000 8th graders took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) this past Saturday, while a total of 70,000 are ranking all other public schools before the December 1st due date.

When I consult privately with families at all levels, the question I inevitably get is, “What’s the best school?”

I ask them to define what “best” means to them.

For some it’s rigorous academics. For others it’s high test scores, stellar exmissions, a supportive peer group, great arts, a commitment to social action, community service, diversity, small classes, teachers with advanced degrees, physical safety, and so on.

Last week, a new report suggested that parents are looking at the wrong things when choosing a high-school via the citywide choice process. That they care more about who attends a school than its intrinsic quality. That smart students attract parents more than smart schools.

The study charges that parents are more likely to pick a school that admits high-achieving kids and graduates high-achieving kids rather than a school that admits weaker students but raises their performance level.  (The same taunt was leveled at Harvard over 200 years ago; the author of a biography of John Adams sneered that Harvard accepts good students and graduates good students.)

My oldest graduated last June from NYC’s top SHSAT high school. I found the curriculum spotty (freshman biology, in particular, is a disaster), and the teacher quality fluctuating from excellent to a teacher who told my son, “don’t think, just tell me what’s in the book.” The most consistent value-add that I trumpet to other parents is the peer group.

This school was filled with hard-working, ambitious kids who never allowed my son to slack off or, even more importantly, to assume he was the smartest in the room (hat-tip: Hamilton). The Department of Education’s course content would have been the same at any other high school, and so would the mixed bag of teachers. Peers made the difference.

Obviously, not all families want the same thing from a school. Except the cited study posits that they should. The researchers speculate about why parents would make such bad choices  (i.e., in disagreement with the authors’). And they come up with the usual bugaboos: biases and racism. (For those playing along at home, my son is African-American. His dad attended the same school in the 1980s. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s kid attends it now.)

Last year, newly minted MacArthur Genius Nikole Hannah-Jones caused a stir with her New York Times Magazine piece, Choosing a School For My Daughter In a Segregated City. She explained how she sent her daughter not to their local zoned school, but to a school further away, one that was 91% Black and 90% free lunch. She did it for political reasons (technically, the same reasons why white parents avoid the school, only in reverse). Presumably, the study’s authors wouldn’t approve of her choices  either, since she wasn’t choosing the most “effective” school, but employing other factors.

When the NYT’s piece originally came out, I tweeted how it was a perfect example of parents taking advantage of choice to select the school they think is best for their child.

I was promptly smacked down by Ms. Hannah-Jones herself: How dare I suggest she believed in school choice!

Since then, she’s stated, “(I)f the neighborhood that… white parents live in is white, they want neighborhood schools. If the neighborhood school that those parents are near is black, then they want choice.”

The word “choosing” is in the title of her own article. She talks about visiting four different schools before making up her mind. If she didn’t believe in choice, she would have sent her daughter to her zoned school, no matter what. (Maybe, like Matt Damon, she means she doesn’t believe in it for other people?)

To quote my favorite philosopher, the theme song to the 1980s sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes:

Well, the world don’t move

To the beat of just one drum

What may be right for you

MAY NOT BE RIGHT FOR SOME (emphasis mine)

School choice allows families to decide what matters most to them. Sometimes, yes, even in the face of what experts and geniuses (and those judgy other parents on the playground) dictate should matter most to them.

That’s why I always answer their most-commonly asked question this way:

“The best school is the school that’s best for your child.”

What do you think?

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