Rethinking the Definition of a “Good” School

Rethinking the Definition of a “Good” School

by Jennie Herriot-Hatfield

Guest writer Jennie Herriot-Hatfield is a new-ish mother who works in K-12 education. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two young children. All views expressed here are her own.

Reading time: 4 mintues

To my fellow White parents: Let’s rethink how we define a “good” school?

I’ve been writing and re-writing this post for a long time. It’s a bit scary to post because (a) there is no way to get this 100% right, (b) I have more questions than answers, and (c) I truly abhor the nasty debate that can occur online. But I think I’m ready. So here goes.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of interrogating the choices we White people make, so it is in this spirit that I share these thoughts. My fervent hope is that this fosters introspection and dialogue, not clap backs and broken friendships.

As a new-ish White mother in my mid-thirties, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve had conversations with friends — mostly White — about wanting to rent or buy homes in places with “good” schools or, in larger cities, send their kids to a “good” school in the city. (I even witnessed this on a recent episode of Vanderpump Rules, one of my favorite ridiculous Bravo reality shows, when Stassi and Beau went house hunting. It is pervasive in our culture.) This is usually shorthand for the GreatSchools ratings listed on real estate websites. While GreatSchools’ scoring system has improved recently, the ratings are still highly correlated with race and income. (And let’s be crystal clear why this is the case: it is not the result of deficiencies on the part of low-income students or students of color and their families. It is the result of many forces affecting marginalized groups in this country, including centuries of preventing the education of nonwhite children, huge disparities in public school funding across racial lines, racial bias in tests, and so much more.) As a result, the ratings tell you much more about the demographics of a given school than any other features of the school.

So when we say a school is “good,” what do we really mean? Do we mean we’ve heard the school is good from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend whose kids went to that school 10 years ago? Do we mean the school is predominantly White? Because sometimes that’s the implication, whether we mean it or not. (Note that “good schools” is an example of coded language. I’m sure I use coded language unintentionally too, and my awareness of what various terms and euphemisms really mean is always evolving.) Moreover, I’d posit that you can find schools with solid GreatSchools ratings but mediocre teaching, an unhappy school culture, and/or an inability to effectively serve all students who attend — again because of the rating’s correlation with demographics.

So what should we consider, besides a GreatSchools rating? As a lifelong educator and a new-ish mother who has made two good early childhood education choices and one not-so-good choice, I will offer some questions to consider. These are not an exhaustive list, but rather a place to start to replace our shorthand of looking for “good” schools. If you have other questions to consider, please share them in the comments.

1) What are my priorities?

a) Fundamentally, what do I believe is the purpose of education, and therefore what are my priorities for my child’s education? Answers might include preparation for being an active citizen in a racially diverse democracy; preparation for a meaningful career; developing strong social-emotional skills, like empathy and kindness; developing strong critical thinking skills; exposure to diverse perspectives; etc.

b) What are the unique needs and interests of my child? Does my child need a more structured environment? More hands-on learning? Something else?

2) What does all this mean for what I look for and prioritize in a school? How do I find a school that matches my priorities?

a) Based on what I want for my child and what I think their needs are, what features do I prioritize in a school? Do I look for a warm and nurturing environment? A student body that is racially and economically diverse? A curriculum that promotes inquiry? A dual language program?

3) What other considerations are important?

a) What are the hallmarks of a high-functioning school? I’d argue some key attributes include stable leadership, low teacher turnover, a relatively experienced and racially diverse teacher workforce, and systems and structures that encourage family engagement (with particular attention paid to meaningfully engaging historically marginalized populations).

b) There are certainly other considerations — like proximity to your home, perhaps — to add to this list.

Of course none of this can be gleaned from a GreatSchools rating. It requires visiting — which (a) isn’t exactly part of a typical home-renting or buying process and (b) is currently not a thing, while schools are closed. I don’t have a good answer for either, other than to say, visit when and if you can. In the meantime, think about what you want for your child, then look at school websites, read about their values and curricular offerings, read about their demographics and commitment to equity within the school, and read their state accountability reports. Above all, look beyond overly simplistic narratives about suburban public schools and urban private schools being “good” and urban public schools being “bad.”

Stay tuned for part two of this series: If we think some schools aren’t “good,” what are we doing about it? If we’re doing nothing, the implication is we’re okay with other people sending their kids to “bad” schools. (This essay originally appeared at Medium. To read the original please click here.)

Photo Credit: Bima Rahmanda

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