How Not to Pick a School
By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, February 4, 2007; B01
Washington Post

We are a white, middle-class family. Our children attend our neighborhood public school, Mount Vernon Community School, two blocks from our house in Alexandria. The student body is 55 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black and 19 percent white. More than 60 percent of the children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. More than 40 percent speak a language other than English at home. And the test scores, while passable, aren't among the school district's best.

It's a school with the kind of statistics that can so unnerve some white, middle-class parents that they move to mostly white areas -- or spend tens of thousands of dollars on private schools.

Last week, I held the PTA open house for parents of prospective students. I posted the announcement on our neighborhood e-mail group list. I received some enthusiastic responses from people who know parents with children already at the school. And I also got this one: "We are in the process of starting the research. I am plowing through the state website with the test results now so I will see how this school compares." The writer mentioned two other schools she was considering, schools with more white kids and higher test scores.

She didn't come to the open house.

I think I know why. Few middle-class whites will say it openly, though many whisper it over their back fences: They fear that their children won't receive a good education at such a school. Perhaps they'll be with rough kids. Or the teachers will spend all their time disciplining unruly students. Maybe the instructors won't be as good as the ones at more homogeneous schools. And, most damning of all, they assume that their children won't be academically challenged at a school with such a demographic profile.

I first heard the whispers when my husband and I began searching for a kindergarten when our son was 4. I was at a playgroup with him one day and asked the other mothers about the local public schools. An awkward silence fell. Then one mother spoke up, almost reluctantly. "Don't you know?" she asked, as if perplexed by my naivete. "If you're white and you live in Alexandria, you send your kids to private school."

But such assumptions are wrong. And there has been plenty of research to prove it.

The mania brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act has turned the pursuit of higher test scores into a sort of Holy Grail. And it's hard not to buy into it. The media publish test scores and list schools from top to bottom, reserving adjectives such as "prestigious" and "world class" for those with the highest scores. Real estate agents publish links to school Web sites and tout high scores.

I bought into it, too. After my husband and I bought our house in 1997 and I saw the neighborhood school's test scores published in the newspaper, I began to think about moving, as a number of our neighbors with young children had. And we didn't even have kids yet.

If there is one useful thing that has resulted from No Child Left Behind, it's that for the first time, the government requires schools to track and publish test scores broken down by racial and ethnic group. And the numbers show something interesting: white kids, on average, score about the same in all subjects no matter what school they attend. Education researchers have found that it's not race or ethnicity at all that best predict how a child will perform on a test: it's socioeconomic status.

Research has found that schools have an enormous impact on academic achievement for poor students. But for middle-class kids -- regardless of racial and ethnic background -- schools tend to matter relatively less, because parental influence matters so much more. To take the two extremes, it is hardly surprising that a middle-class child who has been read to often, taken on trips to museums and is surrounded by books and talk of college from an early age will score better on tests than a child living in a crowded apartment with non-English-speaking parents who work multiple jobs, or a child experiencing the often chaotic and hopeless environment of intergenerational poverty.

"Test scores are an indicator. But what are they an indicator of? The education of the parents and the wealth of the community. They're not an indicator of how good the school is," said Gary Orfield, an education researcher with Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. "People move their kids from the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs on the belief that it's going to help their test scores a lot. But being in schools with kids of different backgrounds with low test scores will have no impact on middle-class scores. And it could have a positive impact -- fostering an understanding of society, being able to collaborate effectively across racial and ethnic lines. That's the tragedy."

The tragedy is already playing out. The Civil Rights Project has found that 50 years after public schools were desegregated, they've re-segregated to an astonishing degree, even at a time when the nation is more diverse than ever and is heading toward becoming a "majority minority" society within a generation. And, in a recent report, Orfield and his coauthors found that white students are the "most racially isolated group of students" in the country, with the average white student attending a school in which only one in five students is of another race.

Civil Rights Project researchers have found that when white or middle-class parents do send their children to diverse schools, it's often what they call "diversity at a distance" -- the kids are segregated inside the building, in special magnet or "gifted" programs that statistics show are overwhelmingly white and middle class.

"Middle-class white professionals are the people who have the least to worry about, whose kids have the best connections, the greatest chance for opportunity and the best social capital," Orfield said. "And they are most frightened by diversity."

I understand the parent who didn't come to the open house for my kids' school. I was nervous when I began looking at kindergartens, too. And I should have known better. I had been covering Montgomery County schools for The Washington Post for several years, and I knew the research. A colleague and I broke down the county's test scores, and the data revealed that poor kids attending schools in low-income neighborhoods scored far lower than poor kids going to school in middle-class neighborhoods, while middle-class kids scored about the same regardless of the type of school they attended.

Still, when it comes to your child, you want the best. I looked at test scores. I visited public and private schools. I met with parents. I agonized. I also recalled my own upbringing in Portland, Ore., where my parents sent me to Catholic schools. My elementary school included one black family and one Vietnamese family. Everybody in my world -- my school, my church, my neighborhood -- was white, and I knew I didn't want that same environment for my kids.

Then the day came for the kindergarten open house at our neighborhood school. The classroom was bright and colorful, decorated with children's work -- it didn't seem different from those "world class" kindergartens in Montgomery County. The materials were plentiful, and the kids seemed happy and on task. The principal was tough and focused, while the two teachers we met seemed young and dynamic yet experienced enough to know what they were doing. And they both were committed to teaching all kids. "We take them where they are and move them where they need to be," one explained.

We walked out the door feeling light-headed. We didn't have to move. We could send our son to the neighborhood school and know that he was at the best place.

Our son is now in third grade. He reads well above grade level and his test scores are fine. Despite fears that the school would concentrate only on test-taking and on raising the scores of the lowest achievers, his teachers have often left me in awe. I've watched them teach as many as five or six mini-classes at the same time in the same room to reach everyone -- from those learning their letters to the child reading "Harry Potter." I've also watched them enrich the children by putting together a Native American feast, or setting up an Olympic competition after studying ancient Greece or having the children create their own pretend businesses and checking accounts to learn about economics.

Our daughter started kindergarten there this past fall. Both our children have made friends across racial, ethnic and class lines with an ease that I never experienced as a child. And I have come to know people who live in my neighborhood as more than mere faces at the bus stop. The parents who have become invested in the school are energized and involved, and together we're building ties across all that divides us.

Sure, my neighborhood school isn't perfect. And certainly some diverse schools are troubled and disorderly and no child should have to attend them. But when it comes to choosing the right school for your children, the important thing is to get the information, understand the numbers you're looking at and decide for yourself.

You may end up being surprised.

Brigid Schulte is a reporter on the Metro staff at The Washington Post.