“Good” schools vs. “bad” schools? Look behind the numbers


As I bumped along on the bus earlier this week, I overheard an interesting conversation between two African American women.

It went something like this:

Woman 1:”Girl, I really hope we get into school X.”

Woman 2: “I know right, that would be great. I’ve called and everything but…I don’t know.”

For the hyper competitive DC area, the convo about getting into schools isn’t unusual. Here’s the thing though…

The school they were hoping that their kids can get waivers to attend is the very school my neighbor, who is white and childless, had just warned me about in a hushed voice:

“Oh, you don’t want to send your kid there. It’s a bad school,” she said as we stood at the bus stop and shivered in the predawn chill.

She’s not the only one. A number of my middle and upper middle class neighbors and acquaintances of varied hues have warned us about the caliber of this school.

By some strange fluke of zoning, our choice of suburban neighborhood public elementary schools includes one with higher scores that is less diverse and one with slightly lower scores that is more diverse.

Lots of folks have urged us (read: warned us) to consider the former.

And yet, clearly the two women on the bus knew a different narrative about this school.

So what gives? Why the two different takes?

Those who pooh-pooh the school cite test scores, or rather the blanket score given on such sites as schooldigger.com and greatschools.org.

Here’s what I know as a former education reporter: numbers don’t tell the whole story.

So I poked around.

First of all, Maryland schools already rank among some of the highest in the nation. The state’s assessment is considered rigorous (for the uninitiated, each state has its own assessment and some are more challenging than others…but that’s another post).

For those looking for a better snapshot of performance (at least the kind a test can measure…which is NOT the full picture of a school), I suggest going to your district or state’s department of education and breaking scores down by such groups as gender and race. Look at trends over the past three years. You want to see upward momentum.

For a more objective sense of achievement (again every state has its own assessment and they are not aligned from state to state), check out the NAEP ranking and Education Week’s Quality Counts.

Looking at the “scores”, the school folks cautioned us against for 1st-5th actually has test scores comparable to the best public elementary schools over in neighboring DC…the same schools in predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods people break their necks to get into every year.

Furthermore, when you disaggregate the numbers, minority children at our diverse neighborhood school fare better in reading and math than kids at the highly sought after DC schools.

It turns out that black and brown kids at the “choice” school are actually slipping in achievement. The “choice” school did not meet achievement goals last year for African American, special needs, kids who speak another primary language, or kids on free or reduced lunch. So that means that black and brown parents who rely simply on word of mouth rather than checking the facts out for themselves are sending their kids to a school that, while it looks good when given a cursory glance, actually fails kids who look like them.

Meanwhile, the school we were warned against–the one that has a high black and Latino population–has moved those kids forward at a good and steady clip.The class sizes are also much smaller and the money spent per student is much higher at the diverse school.

So what’s up? Why the bit of whispered caution?


The diverse neighborhood school has a high percentage of children who hail from the neighboring apartment communities and are on free and reduced lunch. More than a dozen different languages are spoken at the school. Many of the teachers are African American and Latino.

To this I say: we should embrace diversity in all forms.

I’ve spoken with PTA parents and teachers at this school and found them quite knowledgeable and involved. I’ve visited the school (which is also my voting polling site) on numerous occasions and found the environment warm and caring. The other “choice” school is lovely as well, but has fewer teachers of color and a less racially and socioeconomically diverse student body.

As I’ve written about in another post, we want to make sure our children are in environments that reflect ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. We believe strongly that this type of upbringing will help them grow up to be more confident and compassionate people.

We have a while yet to decide on an elementary school, but, for those weighing their options, I recommend taking a similar look behind the numbers.

What you learn just might surprise you.


About domesticpolichick

My life is a crazy jumble of sitcom-level domestic hijinks and fast-paced political reporting in the nation's capital. Breastfeeding while doing a phone interview with a senator...yep, I've done it and no, I won't reveal the name. Toddler calling a member of Congress on the cell..yeah, that really did happen. Pregnant in high heels on Capitol Hill trying to chase down a particularly grumpy senator, yeah...that was nuts. But what can I say? I'm just one domestic polichick trying to figure out the work-life balance.
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