First Person

Voices: Good high schools — choice and opportunity

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that families should be informed about the quality of high schools and student outcomes when choosing where to send their children to school.

Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.
Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.

Most parents want their kids to go to college. A poll released last week by Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that nine of 10 black families want to send their kids to college, and half of those also want their kids to get advanced degrees. Among Latino families, 95 percent of respondents to a 2009 national poll said they view sending their children to college as an ‘essential part of the American dream.’”

Yet parents in Denver are not consistently demanding the schools that will put their kids in the best position to attend college.

Perhaps there are misconceptions about school quality — or the persistent belief that students can succeed regardless of school. Many families see big high schools like Lincoln, Kennedy, East, Thomas Jefferson, Bruce Randolph and North as providing opportunities for all students, regardless of race, class or ability. Families believe that some of these schools may not work for some, but that their kid has a fair shot if they work hard and go to class. After all, the Harvard poll mentioned above found that fewer than 5 percent of respondents thought their child’s school was “poor.”

The fact is that for most students the numbers tell a different story. Only four African American students (3 percent) from East, nine Latino students (3 percent) from Lincoln and three Latino students (3 percent) from Bruce Randolph are likely to get a bachelor’s degree — not great odds.

Perhaps many parents know they are sending their kids to mediocre or bad high schools, but just don’t have better options. The fact is that while the number of high-performing high school seats in Denver is growing there are very few open seats (most are filled at the sixth grade for the good 6-12 grade schools). DSST schools, one of those high performing high schools had only eight open seats for the ninth grade and zero for the 10th grade (all of the other seats were filled in the sixth grade or with existing families!). Regardless of whether parents understand the quality of their school choices or have good options, most parents and kids in Denver aren’t in schools that would put their kids in a position to succeed in college.

How to choose a good high school?

Despite the high demand for poor schools, any realtor can tell you that plenty of parents of all colors and races know that getting into the right school will stack the cards heavily in their child’s favor. Hardly anyone is surprised to hear that school consultants are now commanding thousands of dollars to help parents get their kids into the best schools. So what is in their black box?

Some observations from the lists-
• Rich Colorado ski towns have some good high schools (Telluride, Aspen, Crested Butte, etc.)
• Charter high schools are disproportionately good (Peak to Peak, DSST, Vanguard, Liberty, Classical, etc.)
• You don’t have to live in a million dollar house to go to a good public high school, but it sure helps (DSST, Kiowa, Buena Vista, Swink, DCIS, East, etc.)
• Some districts (Denver, Boulder and JeffCo) have good high schools no matter how you judge them.
• Suburban high schools can be good, but it is surprising to see how many that have good reputations do not show up on these lists.
• Good high schools can be found in rural, suburban and urban communities in Colorado.
• There are no good high schools that serve a percentage of low-income students above 47 percent free/reduced lunch, and few above 25 percent free/reduced lunch.
• Colorado, as a whole, does not do very well on national high school comparisons. Once again, the Colorado Paradox comes into play. We import lots of college-educated adults but do a relatively poor job educating our own kids.
• You can get a good high school by selecting students for achievement or the arts (D’Evelyn and DSA).

It’s no great secret. There are three good ways to evaluate public high schools on paper (the next step is visiting them, taking a look at the boys’ restroom, and asking hard questions of their staff). Like looking for a car, it’s a good idea to look at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver because both provide a helpful lens for understanding the virtues of a particular car.

When looking at high schools, it is a good idea to use multiple tools. Here are three good ones.

  1. Colorado School Grades:  Ties schools to state ratings, taking into account student growth.  The School Grades’ website also allows a user to easily compare schools and rank them on the state’s measure.  The problem is that this high school growth metric only measures growth from ninth to 10th grade.  We need a metric for the growth from entering to leaving high school.  This ranking is heavily weighted to TCAP scores and ACT scores but does not account for pass rates on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams (unlike Newsweek or the US News lists).
  2.  Newsweek: Heavy emphasis on AP/IB offerings and course taking (30 percent). Only 10 percent of score goes to AP/IB pass rates with no adjustment for student population in terms of poverty.  Not surprisingly, schools serving the most wealthy students get the highest rankings, so this ranking is more reflective of the school community wealth than the power of a school to support student learning.
  3.  US News and World Report:  US News contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop a fairly complex methodology that begins with an analysis of whether the school under or over-performs relative to the average student in the particular state. If the schools over-performs, there is an additional analysis of AP/IB participation and performance.  Please see the technical appendix for more details here.

The ranking tools are much better than they were a decade ago, but still have room for growth. For example, we should be able to find out how students do once they leave a particular high school. How many were prepared for college? How many went? Where? How did they do? We have the ability to answer some of these questions now because we are tracking students as they move between high school and college, though school rating tools haven’t yet incorporated this (complex) data.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive and elite high schools do track college matriculation data. It’s big part of any marketing for Brearly, St. Pauls or Spence. The college matriculation metrics for these schools measure the percent of graduating class accepted to “Ivy/Stanford/MIT.” Notably, they do not measure number of students that attend local community college, or even schools like CalTech or Amherst. The schools have a clear goal. The Forbes top 20 private schools have an “Ivy/Stanford/MIT” acceptance range of 20 percent to 40 percent. Do we really still believe that wealthy kids are naturally smarter than poor kids?  Someday soon it would be nice to see what these same numbers are for the best public schools in US.

We’ve said it so many times before that we won’t beat the dead horse here. We do need more good seats. We realize not every parent has the option of buying a house across the street from Bromwell. (By the way, one way to level the playing field would be make every quality seat available through a lottery so that not just rich families living in the Country Club neighborhood have access to schools like Bromwell.)

Still, we parents must continue to use smart tools to evaluate and choose the best high schools because, ultimately, policy-makers and education entrepreneurs will respond to our demands. If families continue to say ‘we’re pleased with the status quo’ by choosing the lowest performing schools, low performing schools will persist and results will be predictable. The dream of nine of 10 parents will continue to be just that.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.