School Quality Can't Be Separated From Students (and Parents)

One of the key differences between those who favor educational 'reform'--that is, those who view education primarily as a personnel issue--and those that oppose it is how each group thinks good schools come to be. Consider this by Matthew Yglesias, an education reform supporter (italics mine):

School funding inequities are obviously unfair, and I think we should get rid of them. Still, local governments are a distinct minority of school finance these days. It's also difficult to point to very clear correlations between per student funding and school performance. What's more, a school full of poor kids probably needs many more resources to succeed than a more affluent one. Most of all, though, I think this in many ways gets the problem with edu-localism backwards. It's not so much that the richest communities can buy themselves the best schools as it is that the richest parents can buy themselves houses wherever the best schools happen to be. This is part of what drives me crazy about debates around charter schools and "choice" in the United States. Every prosperous family in the Washington, DC metro area is exercising public school choice when they decide where to live. And competition between suburban jurisdictions to attract affluent residents and raise property values is an important force in the competitive delivery of social services. It's only poor people who just get stuck living where they can afford to live (i.e., someplace with low-quality services) and going to whatever school happens to be there. You need to either increase the number of high-quality schools or else increase the capacity of existing high-quality schools. Otherwise, well-heeled parents will use their financial clout to buy access to them, and poor parents will be stuck with the schools they can afford.

The italicized part is very telling.

According to Yglesias, schools are entities to be purchased: you can buy an 'Astor Martin' school, a 'Mercedes' school, a GM minivan school, or a busted out twenty year old used Yugo school. The primary determinants of a school's quality in this model are the staff (teachers and administrators) and the facilities and resources. If you believe this, and add that there are a fair amount of studies that suggest that spending has a modest overall effect on test scores*, then the obvious result is that we need better teachers (not that we couldn't always use better teachers, but, once you remove schools with lots of poor kids, U.S. students, believe it or not, excel).

Those of us who don't view reform/teacher management** as an unqualified good thing view schools very differently. A key--the key--determinant of a good school is the student body (along with their parents). As I described in "Do Parents Choose Schools or Student Bodies?", students are a major contributor to performance:

For example, a population with fifty percent of children below the poverty line (which tragically is the case in some areas) will have, a score of 209 with a 95% probability of being between 197 - 219*. A population with only two percent of its children in poverty should have a score of 254 with a 95% probability of being between 231 - 274.

This isn't to say that individual students can't over- or underperform. And population[s] (states or schools) can defy expectations: at the state level, Massachusetts scores twelve points higher than it should. Demography may not be destiny, but it is a heavy burden.

In the above example, there is virtually no way the poor population will ever appear as 'good' as the wealthy school, even if the poor school does a better job of educating its students--that is, getting them to achieve more than they should based on their socioeconomic status. Even if you compare a school with a ten percent poverty rate (half the national average) to a school with a two percent poverty rate, only a quarter of the time will the 'poorer' school perform better.

The point is when parents are choosing schools based on test scores, they are not necessarily assessing school quality, but child poverty. The educational system that they're leaving might stink too, but there is a massive conflation going on here. Even if they don't think they're doing so, families who are moving in order to secure a better education are, to a considerable extent, fleeing 'undesirable' student bodies.

In Massachusetts schools, the effects of poverty are even stronger than they are nationally, especially for science education outcomes.

School quality is inseparable from a school's students. This isn't to say that teachers have no effect (they do), but study after study shows that they have a limited effect (and the value-added testing methods have serious methodological problems). It's the environment students live in that is the largest determinant of student performance--and, despite claims to the contrary, we can do something about poverty (having a maximum employment policy, if nothing else, would lift millions of students out of poverty).

As long as 'progressives' rely on a model that acts as if school quality is an external characteristic and not an emergent property derived from students, parents, and, yes, teachers, we will be stuck combating foolish 'reform' efforts.

*I think many of these studies haven't separated out the components of spending (not all spending should affect test scores), but I'll accept the argument for now.

**When education reformers start getting serious about curriculum and pedagogy, then I'll view their concerns as more than personnel management.


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Home counts more than reformers want to acknowledge, in ways that are not always obvious:
1. Kid comes home from school, hits TV
2. Kid stays after school to get some extra help from teacher in math. Parent picks up kid at school. Conversation about math follows on way home.
Parental resources count here. Parent either has time, or makes time to get kid at school. School is a priority.

During my 20 years of coaching two sports, every day I stuffed my truck (always had Supercab Fords) with as many kids as would fit and made sure they got home safe. If a kid had a ride coming, we stayed around until the kid was picked up. Safety was a priority.

Because I was a coach and taught older high schoolers, I had a "Breakfast Club" of kids getting extra help. If a parent brought a kid to school at 6:15 I told that kid "Your parents love you very much." I arranged for kids with cars to pick up a gang on the way into school, until state law forbade it. I tried to get my poor kids rides with parents ( I was always amazed at how much parents would help someone else's kid).

It was no secret to teachers how kids got to be successful. If they had the brains and the drive, they had a chance. But if they also had the resources to allow them to exercise their drive, they were unstoppable. Just this morning the newspaper had one of my former students (a sharp math kid) in jail for robbing two older ladies in a parking lot. This kid had bragged(?) to me as a freshman that his dad was a drug dealer. I read the paper feeling I had failed him. Ouch.

I suppose that's one good thing about Clark County School District, which serves Las Vegas and surrounding communities. It's the 5th largest school district in the nation. Because the district serves the entire county, parents in Rich Neighborhood can't buy themselves better schools than parents in Cracktown. We have high performing schools where most of the kids qualify for free student lunches. However, we do also have more than our fair share of "failing" schools under NCLB standards (hard to tell a kid he needs a good education to make a lot of money when he sees neighbors and relatives making good tip money at the casinos). There are problems here, certainly. But at the school level, inequality of resources is not an issue.