Choosing the “Right” School (While Seeking Equity)

So I saw a meme comparing the sentence of Felicity Huffman, an actress in the college cheating scandal, to Tanya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar, parents who falsified their addresses to get their kids into preferable schools. While some of the details were inaccurate and related information was more complex than a meme is capable of expressing, the message was clear. There are real inequities in our legal system and those are often a product of societal inequity in the areas of income and/or race. But the fact that these cases exist is evidence of another sad fact that the education system too is inequitable as parents from a broad cross-section of America feel they have to lie, cheat, and fight to get their kid into the “right” school. This raised the question in my mind of whether the idea that we have right schools and wrong schools in a local public education system is an embarrassment? Then I thought, is there such a thing as a right/best school? And if there is, is it best for everyone? And is what makes it right and coveted the same as what makes a school good?

On Equity & Opportunity 

I have spoken about inequity before when I discussed our new Chancellor’s efforts to integrate NYC schools. These issues are at the forefront in NYC which is simultaneously one of the most diverse and most segregated cities in America. The city’s school system reflects that. And across America school segregation is only getting worse.

Gabrielle Carteris in Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990)

So when I see stories of educational inequity like the wealthy illegally bribing their way into Ivy League schools (and USC for some reason?) or more legally donating a new library to help the admission of their legacy child, a system which furthers that inequity, I cringe. I also react in seeing the disparity of only 7 black students being accepted to Stuvesant High School, N.Y.C.’s most selective high school, out of 895 spots. Or there’s when I see parents of less means make every effort (even non-legal ones) to get their kids every advantage. I think I can say this so many years later that my parents did something similar. They falsified our address on forms so my 2 brothers and I could attend a better school 30 minutes away instead of the poorer one nearby. Heck that was even a major plot point of Beverly Hills 90210 at the time where Andrea, the awkward over-achiever, wouldn’t have made it in.

So we obviously believe as a society that some schools are better than others. That’s why there’s such a rigorous application and testing process to get into Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. There are also many who seem to price that privilege at over $50,000 a year. Now whether those schools are really worth that much is something to explore later, but, for now, it is clear that both in terms of social and financial capital we value those institutions above others. But a more pressing question is whether our local public schools should be viewed in the same way. Should some schools get to be winners and others losers? Of course, in general, we don’t want that to be true. But individually many haves and have nots (at least in America) view life as a winner take all sport where pay, possessions, and prestige symbolize victory. Even if we don’t hold so callous a view, we definitely want to give our own children every advantage available and why we may willingly destroy anything (or anyone) who impedes that effort.

Picking the Right School

I will say this is a complex civic issue with no easy solutions on one side and a very personal issue for many parents on the other side. And it’s hard to fault any parent seeking the betterment of their children even if it is at the expense of others.

In a city of a million students with only 15% being white, how much of a role should equity play in our choice for the “right” school?

Those 15% of white students clustered in only 11% of schools, the often top-performing ones. Are those extra efforts by parents part of the problem or just reflective of a larger issue? Should a parent consider the needs of the community or that of their individual child? Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote a poignant feature about her family’s choice to place her young black daughter in a segregated, low-income school despite (or more aptly because of) her level of education ability to provide otherwise. A white teacher similarly chose a poor school because her hopefulness about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase diversity are tempered by her realization that real integration will only be achieved “when white families like (hers) commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods”. Another black parent though looking at the same conditions chose to forego experiments in her local Bed-Stuy schools because she saw the stakes as higher for her black children.

My Decisions

My own decision making process for schools in the city have been fraught with worry over whether the choices I made would negatively impact the futures of my children. While children are far more resilient than most adults believe, it is invariably true that at some point your child(ren) will feel slighted or regretful about a choice you made. Often though that choice is not one you anticipated or even considered meaningful at the time. Even knowing that I couldn’t help but feel a heavy burden in my decisions. So I did what I often do. I researched ridiculously and made my beloved spreadsheets with school ratings from various sources, testing achievements, extracurricular activities, demographics, travel time, and any anecdotes from teachers and students that I could find. My wife made phone calls and went on tours. And based on all of that we created a ranking system for elementary schools eventually for my older son middle schools as well. It was like a job by itself.

Figure 1.2: Lifetime Earnings by Education Level

I made a personal decision that I, as an educator and advocate of the public education system, would make sure my kids went to public school. I don’t judge the parents who choose otherwise for their child based on their situation, but it was important to me. But what about after that? Should I just send them to our mediocre zoned school with a majority Latino population or should we look for other options? Technically my children are of mixed race (due to my wife’s Brazilian heritage), but they look as pasty and pale as me. And I am a fairly well-educated and actively engaged parent that, despite being a teacher, am by no means poor. I have the time and means to take them to museums, zoos, and cultural events. I can pay for their traveling soccer fees and school trips. By those measures my kids will do relatively well regardless of the school they attend. But I still know that better degrees lead to more lifetime earnings and to better well-being overall. So shouldn’t I make every effort to give them that? Who doesn’t want those for their kids?

So with my charts and tables and desire for their best interests I decided to have my 2 sons test into the city’s gifted and talented program. They, by benefit of having me as their dad, easily got in which gave my wife and I more choices something that most parents wish they had and that most school systems don’t ensure enough of, hence the desire by some for charter schools. But those are fraught with a number of other issues.

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We took school demographics into account and ended up sending both of our sons to a school that was larger than we initially wanted, but it was strong academically, had an active PTA, offered many activities, and had a diverse population(50+% Hispanic 35-40% Asian, 6-10 black and similar with white students). Actually it was technically considered highly segregated based on the city’s ranking system. The school had only 5-6% white students which is why it gets that designation. Too few white kids makes it segregated which makes some sense, but it perhaps is also a flawed metric when Staten Island, the least diverse borough, has the highest percentage of highly integrated schools (3 demographic groups with 15% or more of students and 1 of those must be white). Diversity important because I wanted my children exposed to a variety of cultures and ideas but also because research shows that desegregation can drive learning gains for students of all races.

My kids have done well there and have generally had amazing teachers. The only racially related issue I recall had to do with kids wondering about the spots on my older son’s face since they were unfamiliar with freckles. No great trauma there. Now my older son is in middle school and we went through a similar process again. There were tests, visits, interviews, charts, and questioning other parents. Eventually he got into what I believe was his top choice, Scholars’ Academy, which is well-regarded public school in my district that is open to students citywide (a rarity). It’s considered highly integrated but that again is because it has more white students than his previous school (about 40% white and 20% each black, Asian, & Hispanic). It is both a high school and a middle school and the academics and programs are incredible and challenging to such a degree that my son struggled to keep up early on.

Given my son’s current achievements I’m happy to have had him go there and I believe he needed the extra challenge. But wouldn’t most other students without his other privileges benefit from the same ? I haven’t cheated. I’ve sought my sons’ betterment while also considering my values and the well-being of the surrounding community. But I still question whether I’ve done enough or maybe I did too much. Should have kept him in poorer schools for the sake of others which would have required me to play a more active role in school leadership and the PTA? The fact that they were in such a good school actually allowed me to be a lazier parent and focus on other things since these schools help shoulder the burden. It’s great for me that I had that option but many don’t.

A Better Way To Choose

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Recently New York City leaders have proposed multiple ideas to address the system’s inequity and the highly segregated schools. The mayor ran only public pre-k hoping to address early defecits. Our new Chancellor’s efforts to integrate NYC schools have invigorated some and infuriated others (mostly those who currently attend top schools). The ideas have included a proposal to set aside 25% of seats in top DIstrict 3 middle schools for poor students who scored low on state standardized tests. Even more controversial was a proposal to alter admissions for specialized high schools. Many Asian parents, whose children make up the majority of the schools’ populations balked at the talk of change. I get that. Poor kids who go to wealthy high school have greater social mobility.

Originally these schools that have popped out Nobel prize winners have allowed many students in poverty to get opportunity. In the past the schools had a largely poor immigrant population with many Jewish students. Now it is a place where many poor Asian students have practiced their tests for years to get in. But only 7 black students this year? Why is that? Well it would seem there are few that take the exam because few schools are informing black students or preparing them for the exam. The efforts to rectify this are noble, but any focus on economic levels will likely only have modest impact as many of the Asian students are poor and would likely still be accepted. And while neighborhood/school quotas may prove effective at changing the demographics they will certainly meet with opposition and may ultimately lead to white flight or at least ‘bright flight’ which would eventually lead to greater segregation.

A History of Inequity

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It’s hard to see how a school system could become more integrated even with bussing or quotas since it reflects a city that is already incredibly segregated. And there is a long history of that. Robert Moses literally wove his racist ideology into the very design of the city. Racist housing policies have created separate entrances and areas while even the current administration was famously sued for violating the Fair Housing Act. Long Island has a long history of racial animus and it baffles me how a public figure like Bill O’Reilly, a man with many other issues, could constantly claim fairness because he worked hard to rise from his working class origins in Levittown all the while never realizing the town was literally built on racist origins.

Another major issue is that the funding for schools are often directly tied to local income and housing taxes. This will be inherently unequal because areas of wealth will then automatically have access to more resources. Solutions to this could include educating some children outside of their district or by adopting more statewide or national funding. These too can be fraught though as any redistribution of taxes is only as successful as the ability to collect them. And while taxes could be simplified, right now it is often those of means who are most easily able to shirk that burden That means areas of

Our current Chancellor who comes from Houston by way of San Francisco similarly sought integration there. After the city lost a lawsuit from Asian families, San Francisco schools sought to emphasize school choice through a lottery system to alleviate segregated schools. It seemed like it may have been mildly effective at first, but has since seemed to falter. Part of it is about transportation issues, but it also has to do with an inequity of information. When making school choices seems like a full-time job, the parents unaware or already working double shifts to feed their kids sometimes as a nanny raising more affluent kids has little time to give to discovering all that information. Early access to language is key, but that’s difficult in homes of people who are less educated, less affluent, or unable to spend more time with their children. So no one solution is perfect and it all has to begin early but that shouldn’t excuse us from doing anything or neglecting the children who have already suffered in the current system.

Is There a Right School?

With all the talk about New York City’s High Achieving High Schools and Ivy League schools as the “rights schools” I wonder if that’s so. Is Harvard a better school than Howard? Our first African-American president Barack Obama attended Harvard, but many successful black people swear, like current presidential candidate Kamala Harris, swear by the quality of life and instruction they got at an HBCU that was essential in providing an environment conducive to their growth. To have that insular community experience in a world that is anything but was necessary for them to hone their gifts. In another sense a school like Galudet may be a more “right school” for a deaf student. Is Harvard an elite school because because of the quality of instruction, the connections to wealthy and established communities, or because it’s where already high-achieving people go? And would those high-achievers still succeed if they went to the Tufts, the University of Rochester, or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (all still top 50 schools)?

And even if we concede that Harvard (or Princeton, Columbia, or MIT) is the best? Should local public schools be modeled the same way as wealthy universities? Would it be the best school even with a more diverse student body? If not, then I would argue that maybe it never was the best school. Maybe it had great students, but is a school that can maintain high achieving students the best or instead one that takes high-needs low-achieving students to relatively high-achieving levels the best? I would argue it’s the latter. And is equity even possible when studies show that quality of instruction at high school is less of an indicator of future success than the wealth of those attending the school.

Now it is true that many of the massive specialized high schools offer a number of opportunities, but their sheer size makes it easy for students to get neglected who aren’t self-regulating. That may be an argument against allowing student’s with lower test scores or an argument that the schools are less exemplary than their image would indicate. The testing for the schools became an obligation in 1971 to prevent further inquiry when segregation was first looked at in the schools. But maybe these schools wouldn’t be such an issue if a more equitable effort was made to include advanced math and science courses in all other high schools where the overwhelming majority of students have no access.

On Equity Vs. Equality

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There is the well-known image comparing equity and equality. Lisa Nielsen wrote a compelling piece on accessibility and inclusion that made use of it. We see all of these kids who want to watch the baseball game, but some are at an inherent disadvantage due to a lack of height and the equal resources (a wooden box) doesn’t alleviate the issue for some. Then equity is demonstrated through each with a box according to their size. Now it’s a simple visual, but there are many issues people take with it. Some call it Marxist and feel that it’s theft to have a game that is put on a great cost for the profit of owners and players is being anti-capitalist to require free viewing for all. But we don’t decry the Americans with Disabilities Act that builds ramps for people in wheelchairs but that also let people with strollers and carts take advantage of them as unfair or un-American. Others draw attention to the height differences as somehow connoting that the participants are inherently unequal and it should instead people of equal heights standing on slanted ground would more accurately represent inequality.

The story of the “Desperate Housewife” and “Aunt Becky” do show the reality portion that image to be somewhat accurate. The wealthy may speak publicly of justice and equity and housing for the poor as long as it doesn’t affect their kids or their property values. I guess the anger when these stories come out when we see the haves having even more. Not only that but they, either through Ayn Randian-philosophy or just feelings of personal superiority feel entitled to demand more from a world already tilted in their favor. And they, being the “amazing people” they are should get it whether the system allows it or not. Meanwhile you have other mothers looking to break a hole in that baseball fence to find some way of bypassing a system set up top make their kids fail. They inequity is infuriating to anyone close enough to experience it.

No we can never have equal outcomes because there is not always equal effort. Some people are faster, stronger, smarter, more diligent, or more greedy. But we can strive towards equal opportunities. So maybe everyone won’t pedal the same path or end up at the same destination, but we should be able to give them all a bike that works for them and the training on how to use their individual means of transport to get to the destination they desire.

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