What is it actually like going to a well above average public school system, compared to an average or below average one?
November 2, 2011 12:27 PM   Subscribe

What is it actually like going to a well above average public school system, compared to an average or below average one?

My wife and I are going around and around on where we want to buy a house and live long term, and part of it is that we can't decide just how important it is to get our kids into the best public schools in the area.

I went to a rural high school that was probably below average, and so I feel really out of my depth in the discussion. She went to a large suburban high school that was fairly average, but even it sounds fairly incredible to me when compared to my school (one quick example - my high school had only had two AP classes, English and Calculus.)

I'm also interested in what it's like going to a school system where the economic diversity is low, i.e. most of the kids parents are white collar and range from well off to really well off.

I feel like I've been fairly successful in life kind of in spite of where I went to school growing up, but at the same time I have no concept of just how different it would have been for me going to a better school. I'm a little bit above average test taker (my ACT score was 29, so decent I think, but nothing extraordinary by any means), but at the school I went to I was treated overwhelmingly like one of the smarter kids, and it might have been nice to have gone to school where more of the kids were at that level. I was bored very often in school, all the way from K-12. At the same time I'd like to think if my kids are intelligent and relatively ambitious the school system won't matter too much. But I really don't know, my personal experience is just too lacking.

I'd especially love to hear from anyone who transitioned from an average school to a top notch system, and the differences they noticed.

For anyone in the Columbus, Ohio area we are looking at the Dublin school system, so this might be a longshot but certainly any insight or experiences there would be appreciated as well.
posted by imabanana to Education (53 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I went to a school like the one you describe - public, top rankings, 99% white and parental incomes ranging from 'high' to 'astronomically high'. I didn't transition from a different school into that one so I can't speak to comparisons like that, but my stepsiblings attended an average high school, so I have a bit of perspective. I can try to describe it a bit, and answer any specific questions you have about what it was like.

To start, my dad had attended this high school when he was a kid, and loved the educational and social benefit it gave him so much that he moved me and my sister back into that neighborhood (even though it was extraordinarily expensive) so that we could attend it too.

My graduating class size was about 400, average class size was 20-29, and fewer for more advanced classes. There were AP classes in pretty much every subject and the school consistently had top-ranking scores for the statewide assessment tests - to compare, my stepsiblings' school had 'TAAS rallies', like pep rallies, but where they tried to get people to study for the test; we never studied for it.

I didn't know enough to take advantage of them, but there were many, many resources (tutoring, special test help) to help support kids who need any kind of academic direction. I fell into the cracks a bit with my math courses, for example, because I didn't have any support at home to help guide me to said resources. Anyway, I retook a math class over one summer at the other high school, and it was much, much easier - first and only A/B grade I ever received in a math course. That said, I did have special, one-on-one relationships with the teachers in subjects I naturally excelled in, and I found that really valuable.

Extracurriculars always had funding (even if the consistently-1st-place football team had, literally, millions more) and even the geekier ones win a lot of awards.

Something else to note, nobody was ever visibly pregnant, or had already had kids, or was married (or even engaged) during our tenure in high school, which is something my friends from more rural areas experienced.
posted by lhall at 12:41 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to an above-average public school from K-12 and I believe it made a significant difference. The standards were higher, it seemed like, so even regular classes would seem 'advanced' to someone from another school district.

Lots of honors and AP classes offered in high school. A variety of languages - as I recall, we were offered Spanish, French, German, Latin, or Japanese.

People's parents were white-collar and would come in and talk about their jobs. People's parents could make it to open houses and plays because they didn't work night shifts.

Writing skills were prioritized. Lots of journaling and mandatory English classes through 12th grade. This was an incredible advantage.

There were also social factors at play - parents were more involved, bad grades were not taken lightly, kids' home lives were relatively more stable, less fighting than at other schools that I heard about.

Personally, I would not hesitate to place my children in that kind of environment rather than hoping their intelligence and ambition gets them through a mediocre school system.
posted by amicamentis at 12:42 PM on November 2, 2011

Having motivated and engaged parents is probably the biggest factor in any kid's education, but good school systems have so many more resources.

I went through good public schools, and appreciated having a lot of AP opportunities and committed, fabulous teachers that imparted their enthusiasm. Heck, I got to take astronomy with an on-site planetarium, which was cool. One small word of caution is whether your kids will fit in with the community: my brother and I struggled a little with not fitting in to our preppy suburb. On the other hand, his kids are now in a great public school system that has more economic and other diversity, and while the kids aren't popular stars, I feel like they might have slightly easier time of finding their people.

My boss and family recently moved to an even better public school system than they were in and he seems surprised at the French immersion classes that his first grader is taking and other resources that just weren't there before. Lots of great resources in the good schools.
posted by ldthomps at 12:42 PM on November 2, 2011

Lots of field trips. Arts groups coming to your school and performing. Parents who speak about their jobs are executives at Fortune 500 companies, principal violinist in the orchestra, head of a research lab at the university. The kids with IEPs get just about everything they need. You can compete in fencing and crew and your high school has its own theatre and swimming pool. There's a Latin club and the JV teams do just as much as the varsity teams. There are whole-grade camping trips.

I would choose Dublin over Columbus (in a heartbeat,) but I'm curious - why aren't you looking at Worthington, too?
posted by SMPA at 12:43 PM on November 2, 2011

Schools in wealthier neighborhoods tend to emphasize creativity and critical thinking a lot more. At the opposite end of the spectrum in the poorest communities rote learning and rigid discipline are emphasized. The curriculum will be broader in the wealthier neighborhood and it won't just be more AP classes but also more foreign languages, more field trips, more enrichment.

If you end up in a wealthier community but are committed to exposing your children to more diversity you will find ways.
posted by mareli at 12:43 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: SMPA: It's very early stages, we are looking at Dublin (and Olentangy a little) right now because we like the areas, but are open to others also. Right now we live in German Village so it would be private schools or Columbus Public if we don't move. Two sons, oldest is about to turn 4 so we still have some time to decide.
posted by imabanana at 12:50 PM on November 2, 2011

My wealthy public high was once rated the top hs in the country on some very small survey. We heard about that all the time. We did have cultural and some racial diversity--we were the suburb with white families, Asian families, Jewish families, etc. We had a terrible football team, but did okay in soccer, golf, and tennis.

It was ridiculously competitive, and students were obsessed with having the right mix of activities to get into college; you applied to at least one Ivy or Seven Sister so you could say you got in.

Some avoided taking art and music because there were no honors sections. Smart kids cheated because they felt they had to have the 4.0 to get into Harvard.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:50 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

This doesn't directly address your question, but do be sure to look at the individual schools. In a system of any size, there can be some huge differences between the campuses.
posted by pantarei70 at 12:51 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to a series of great public schools (elementary thru high school) in one of the best-rated school systems in the country. By and large it was a very good experience and I'd recommend it without reservation. Had uniformly great teachers who I respected, all the way from first grade thru high school, to the point where the two or three bad or non-respect-worthy teachers stand out from the rest. I have a solid command of a lot of school subjects, which seems totally normal to me but apparently is rare in some places.

I was "tracked" into advanced/AP classes all the way along, and the only time I made friends from the "regular" track was in gym class or art class, so that was a little odd - there was a whole population of students at my school that I hardly knew at all. On the other hand, I had a large choice of smart, college-bound kids to be friends with. The smart college-bound group was large enough that there were subsets of "popular kids" "nerdy but still with friends" "slacker kids" within that cohort, and I never felt alienated or ashamed of being smart or college-bound. The culture of the school was respectful of "nerdy" pursuits like band or drama or photography or whatever, and in general there was not (much of) the kind of bullying I have heard about in many schools.

I was (just about always) taken seriously as a student, and always encouraged to think I could "do anything", never had a teacher or parent-of-a-friend tell me "girls can't do math" or similar. I had opportunities to do relatively high end science work when a student, to travel and see other cities with various academic enrichment programs, and had good guidance from teachers and guidance counselor about college prep and choosing a college. I got into a prestigious undergrad institution, and something like 90% of the kids in the college-prep track went directly to 4-year colleges -- for all my friends it was a foregone conclusion that we'd be going to big name colleges and end up with some kind of professional job.

Of course, for people who ran into roadblocks of various kinds (as I did at some points, and many others did), or didn't want to go this route, this caused a lot of heartache. And for many kids, they never had to really consider "do I want to go to college" and similar questions - which leads to unhappiness and uncertainty in many cases.

Another drawback is the schools I went to, or the "advanced" tracks of them, were almost uniformly white and middle-class or better off. Not super-rich (those kids went to private school) but still, white-collar jobs mostly, and most parents had gone to college. So I missed out on all the experiences and friendships a kid can have outside that narrow spectrum.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:53 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to one of the top public schools in the country, but have worked in both average and below average ones. I'd like to highlight what amicamentis said about writing skills and what mareli said about critical thinking. These are absent in the average schools where I've worked. Not only can kids not spell, but the teachers can't either. These average and below-average schools often have sports, arts, field trips, etc., but the kids can't construct basic sentences and are never corrected because the staff is incapable of correcting them. Children pass from grade to grade without ever learning how to make a critical argument because repeating whatever the teacher said in class earlier is enough to earn them entry to the next level. I would check on the quality of the staff and the writing instruction. That's the biggest, biggest indicator to me.

The only thing I know about Dublin is that you should at least wait until Nov 8th to see if the plan to bond $25 mill for school improvements is approved in the election. Should be an indication of how the district is doing/will do.
posted by pineappleheart at 12:53 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to a very good school system (pretty solidly middle-middle-class) during all my years in public school, so my observations only come from what I gleaned from friends in college. (Incidentally, I went to a high-ranked private university, so a fair number of my friends in college had actually gone to private schools, or came from upper-middle-class/rich public school systems.) The number one thing I noticed was that I could write CIRCLES around my peers for in-class essays and suchlike due to the rigor we'd been put through in our AP classes. I also noticed I had a better awareness/knowledge of broader cultural topics and disciplines because of high school electives that had been available to me (such as creative writing, film studies, and philosophy).
posted by scody at 12:53 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

imabanana: "I'm also interested in what it's like going to a school system where the economic diversity is low, i.e. most of the kids parents are white collar and range from well off to really well off. "

The largely describes my HS (public), which also ranks in the Top 500 nationally. There were 125 in my graduating class ('90). I was one of maybe 6 Jews. There were 2 black, 2 Indian, and maybe 3 Chinese kids, everyone else was white, Christian, and usually upper-middle-class. Most parents were likely to vote Republican.Here are some notable things I remember:

- Classes were small. Maybe 25 max.
- It didn't look depressing on the inside.
- The library was well-stocked. There were multiple copies of books, and lots of periodicals.
- There was an AP class for everything.
- The teachers cared, and motivated us.
- Things were funded adequately (I can't believe that's actually a rare thing these days).
- Important people like the Principal and Guidance Counselor knew everyone personally; I gathered that they had some weight to throw around regarding getting kids into good colleges.
posted by mkultra at 12:53 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kids aren't going to be much smarter on average at a 'nice' public school than a shitty one (my father admin'd at an inner city school for awhile and gave me a fair impression of the daily goings; I went to a pretty highly-scored public suburban HS) The kids' average intelligence will just appear greater because of prior schooling in a better system. This of course does mean that there will be more high-level classes (i.e. AP) at a 'better' school simply due to demand; economic and social pressures in lower quality schools may lead to higher dropout rates towards the later years where these classes would be most evident normally. For example, my brother attends a HS even better than my own where they have maybe 12 AP courses available instead of the 8 at mine and the 4 or 5 at my father's former workplace. These courses have the greatest direct impact on one's college education and can save a ton of money down the road...

There was still diversity at my school, but yeah it wasn't like the greatest melting pot I've ever seen. Economically I had poorer and richer friends(and enemies), but the gaps were usually small enough that we were always able to do the same sort of things together. That said the things gay students might face at a shitty school can make those at least externally sexual-orientation homogenous...

The areas that your children might see the most benefit in are the extracurric departments, with better support for and variety of art, sport, and other programs. Occasionally some random funding will come through in the inner city and suddenly these kids with decades-old textbooks will have 1500$ cameras to use... draw your own conclusions there. Science equipment & textbook quality will vary so greatly in any school, but yeah again you can imagine it's usually better at the 'nicer' schools.

A final issue is of safety - Inner city / poorer schools often have real problems w crime and gang issues, but as a direct result they also have very beefed up security, w police, metal detectors on the entrances, and other features. It's not inside the school you'd have to worry about as much as how the interpersonal relationships within leak out into the surrounding areas after school.

I've been treating 'poor' and 'shitty' as synonymous here but of course they're not entirely codependent - You can definitely find devoted and knowledgeable teachers at underfunded institutions, esp w programs like teach for america encouraging new, motivated teachers to work at such places. But I wouldn't count on it.
posted by MangyCarface at 12:56 PM on November 2, 2011

Do I have a pretentious NYTimes article for you!

Meet the amazing girls of Newton North High.
posted by leedly at 12:59 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, so speaking as a researcher who has dabbled in education research, here are some thoughts, driven in empirical evidence, not opinion:

The biggest thing is the students that your kid is around:
- the students that would be around your kid(s) in a "better" school would be from families that (a) care more about their student's achievement, (b) families that care more about the school community generally and are more likely to make a stink about what goes on and/or care about the content of the classes, (c) students are less prone to serious disciplinary problems, (d) students are more likely to be on a college track

The teachers/administrators at the school:
- the school itself is more likely to have educators that have the time to focus on teaching versus discipline and/or home issues

The content:
- as you mention, the courses offered are likely to be much broader, more likely to have AP/IB options
posted by k8t at 1:02 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I graduated from a tiny high school that was "the haves" in a haves vs haves nots article the Times published in the early 90's when I was going there. It was wealthy suburbia + there was a power plant in town (That never ran because it was a 1930's era oil plant but paid a huge amount of taxes)

I wrote a long description about what it was like, but it wasn't that different from the other places people here have talked about - although it was quite a bit smaller than most - only 450 students - so class sizes were ever smaller. Test scores were high enough, and the guidance department schooled us well enough that despite being barely in the top 10% of my class I got into a schmancy college. Probably 15% of the grads went to "name" universities, and the bottom 30% went to community college.

But that doesn't matter - the kids aren't intrinsically any smarter - the parents are just better educated and have the time and money to be active in their kids lives. AFAIK the only thing that the data has shown to have a positive effect on outcomes is the size of elementary school classrooms. By the time you get to High School even that doesn't matter too much.
posted by JPD at 1:03 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to an excellent public high school. I appreciated having classes that wouldn't be offered in a lot of high schools, like philosophy, social psychology (which was largely watching movies, including A Clockwork Orange), AP music theory, and several levels of theatre (with lots of field trips to see plays and analyze them; the actors would sometimes do a Q&A with us right after the performance or come to our school for a guest lecture). There were also classes I didn't take but my friends got a lot out of -- for instance, not just general art classes but also pottery and metal.

My friends and I created our own "independent study" that was based on reading and discussing the New York Times; we would bring in guest speakers to talk about issues involving the NYT. Near the end of spring semester we had "fine arts week," where students involved in arts (not just visual but music, theatre, etc.) could perform or present their work to the whole school.

In our poli sci class we would have reasoned debates over profound historical questions like "Was it the right decision for the US to use nuclear weapons in World War II?" We were required to consider the best arguments for both sides in a civil manner, which is more than I can say for many college and law-school seminars and internet discussion forums.

It's hard for me to compare the teachers at my high school with other high-school teachers, since I only have one first-hand experience of high school. Even at a great school, there will be a mix of good and bad teachers.

Going to a good college right after high school was the norm. When I read statistics about how most Americans don't have college degrees, I have to stop and consciously make a mental adjustment just to process this information, since it's so different from my experience.

Some of the comments as well as the original post suggest that it's undesirable to be one of the smartest students, but this is a double-edged sword. Being surrounded by excellent students can actually hurt in college admissions if they consider your class rank, since it's harder to have an outstanding class rank when the bar is so high.

If you do decide that the excellent school is what would be best for your child educationally, I wouldn't decide otherwise just because of concerns over "economic diversity." The benefits of diversity are open to question, and students tend to self-segregate anyway.
posted by John Cohen at 1:05 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to the Saint Louis Public Schools, which i would describe as urban and not great. Granted, I was at one of the schools that were specialized to attract white suburban kids (magnet schools). My sister went to the nicest and most respected public schools in StL area (Ladue). Her actual education was no doubt a higher quality than mine. But, I feel like a got such a wide cultural cultural education that the trade off was worth it. White and middle or upper class was the minority and being in that situation in hindsight really impacted me. I went to these schools from 4th grade-12. I ended up at a large well respected state university. My sister when to fancy liberal arts college we both now have professional careers. She got to make pottery and jewelry in art class while we had colored pencils. She was doing real experiments in biology, chemistry while my school didn't have the same resources. But I think the real factor in how we turned out was our parents and the constant lectures and quizzes we received at the dinner table. I live in Milwaukee now, and despite the low quality schools here, I would probably send my kids there without a lot of angst.
posted by sulaine at 1:07 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I went from a mediocre private school (k-4th grade) to a very good public school system. My high school was big (~1800 students), but they worked hard to make it feel smaller - students were assigned to "houses" (there were four); each house had a head and a couple of guidance counselors. The headmaster of the school - we didn't call him a principal - knew a terrifying number of us by name, even if we never had cause to go to his office. Teachers were generally friendly, approachable, and willing to go above and beyond to help the kid who just didn't get it (Mr. Cohen, my chemistry teacher, I'm looking at you. What a god you are!)

We had a huge range of foreign language classes to choose from - not just French and Spanish, but also German, Mandarin, Latin, Russian, Greek (ancient only, I think) and a raft of others. We had a full complement of AP classes available. Our science labs were well-stocked and we weren't using decade-old textbooks. We could take choir, band, drama, and art classes for credit. We had open campus from second semester of freshman year, if your GPA was above some not-absurd level.

The school system was in a pretty wealthy town, and many of the students had parents who were doctors and professors and such. But we also had a fairly sizeable cohort of students from refugee families - they were Russian Jews, and Haitians, and Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people. The senior class gift two years ahead of me was flags to hang in the cafeteria - they represented the languages spoken at the homes of students. There were 65 of them. The valedictorian of my class was a guy who had grown up in a refugee camp in Thailand (I think) and had arrived in the U.S. at 11, knowing no English.

There was academic competition amongst students, but at least in my circles, it wasn't vicious or back-stabby; we almost always had study groups for various subjects.
posted by rtha at 1:08 PM on November 2, 2011

I agree with the above comment about more exposure to "high" culture. I was in a gifted and talented kids program in my public elementary school in a decent-good neighborhood in California, so some of it was thanks to that, but the cool stuff we got to do included: many field trips to museums, national park areas, the symphony, etc; this was for all students IIRC, but we had monthly little seminars on a famous artist or art movement, and would then work on an art project relating to that; prioritization of writing skills as early as 4th grade (something which absolutely served me in good stead later on); arts and music groups coming to perform for us, that kind of thing. And I don't think my elementary school was amazingly well-funded. We were still using fairly old textbooks, and our library wasn't the best.

I got a harsh introduction to differences in funding when my family moved when I was in 8th grade. I went from a closed-enrollment, uniform-requiring, public middle school in a wealthy area to a much larger, less well-funded middle school in a more economically depressed area. I immediately noticed changes in class size (much bigger), curriculum (far behind where I was), and class availability. For example, my 7th grade middle school had several foreign language courses available: French, German, Spanish, and even Latin if you got approval to walk over to the nearby high school for it. My 7th grade middle school also had honors classes, and multiple arts classes (woodshop, art, music, etc). At my 8th grade middle school, there wasn't even really a math class at my level available: I had to bounce between two different algebra classes in two different "tracks" (schedules), and was more or less left to fend for myself with the book.

The difference in English was also huge. In my 7th grade honors English class, we were expected to write short essays on our reading, and did a fair amount of creative writing too. In 8th grade, the teacher struggled to even get anyone to do any reading at all, and any writing exercises were basically regurgitating summaries of what we just read. The teacher chose books that had movies, which we watched in class, and which were clearly the only thing any of the other students paid attention to. In social sciences, I went from a 7th grade history teacher who made high demands on our critical thinking skills, to one who just had us read from the text book and answer the questions, none of which required anything more than copying from the book. My 8th grade science class was similar: all read the book, answer the questions, and take an (open book!) test. In 7th grade, we did actual experiments and lab reports.

8th grade was an absolute waste for me, and my parents made every effort to have me go to high school in the neighboring better district. At 23, I now cannot remember a single thing I learned in my 8th grade classes, other than the algebra and the object lesson in educational inequality. In contrast, I still remember specific history and science lessons from 7th grade.
posted by yasaman at 1:09 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry for the slipshod answer, but I'm on the go and this is something to consider: As someone who went to a very bad rural high school (no AP classes, no gifted programs, only a college credit program from the local and also relatively poor community college) and a very good undergraduate, the transition is really terrible. I got a very good ACT score, and I don't think my grade school education mattered much when it comes down to my tangible success, but catching up was bizarre. There was a plus side-- I spent a lot of time on what was most interesting to me, didn't worry about grades, read a lot of books, &c. I had a lot of downtime. We had some awful, awful teachers and some great ones. I happened to have a very good teacher (later a mentor) in the area I was interested in, though if I had been more interested in science or math it would have been an uphill battle. That teacher happened to be pursuing a Masters, which was very unique for the culture. The teachers who meant the most to me were very real people with very down-to-earth, less-than-ideal lives, and that's what I came to idealize, for one reason or another. After I graduated I went to a nearby college for a year where I talked to some folks who actually had my junior-year math teacher in their math classes, and found out that he was an almost straight-C student.

My high school definitely failed to prepare me for college, and didn't even really prepare me for graduation, since I ended up going to a local four-year college for a year before I realized I could easily transfer to a much better school. Now I'm at a top 10 undergrad, and I probably needed the extra year of college-level work to get prepared. My friends in high school (smart, funny people with ACT scores similar to yours) have mostly dropped out of school, ended up married, working at McDonald's, &c. I am the only person from my high school that I know who has gone to a university even remotely close to top-tier, and I don't think that's because I grew up with a bunch of stupid poor people, I think it's because there's no push, no instilled sense of ambition, no focus on writing or success skills. Our counselors didn't really care as long as everyone was going somewhere, and there was absolutely no sense of greater expectations, or how to respond to them. When I talk to friends who went to good suburban high schools, I feel this sad feeling of loss-- not shame, but you know, a Lisa Simpson feeling. I think I was lucky to have an interest in writing and a really close group of smart friends, such that feeling too cool for school was probably ultimately a constructive feeling. From that perspective, I think sending them to the best possible school is worth it.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:10 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

lhall: Something else to note, nobody was ever visibly pregnant, or had already had kids, or was married (or even engaged) during our tenure in high school, which is something my friends from more rural areas experienced.

This isn't limited to "rural" or "inner-city" schools. My high school was a mix of backgrounds and incomes. There were pregnant teens and teen parents, but there were also ridiculously smart kids. Classes were the same mix - we had a good selection of AP courses, though AP History was tossed in the lap of a poor fellow who wasn't up to the task of preparing our class for the AP test (someone cried when he gave us an artsy project at the end of the year, instead of ramping up studies to get us ready for the looming test).

But to be honest, AP courses are obnoxious. If your kid doesn't test well, then AP tests suck, and are the most stressful thing ever: you did well for a year in a challenging class, but it really comes down to ONE lousy test.

Might I suggest community college courses in lieu of AP courses? Grading is continuous, the students (usually) want to be there, the teachers know their stuff (again, usually). I took community college courses both in the summer and during the school year.

And if you're worried about a lack of diversity in the school education, have fun and take your family to musicals, museums, art exhibits, good restaurants, etc. It's great if a school can offer those things, but it's not the end of the world if they don't.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:11 PM on November 2, 2011

k8t: "students are less prone to serious disciplinary problems"

Absolutely. When students got detention at my school, it was almost always for being late to school. I never saw a confrontation get more physical than a staredown (there were occasional neighborhood fights, but never on school grounds). Kids didn't sass teachers. Someone getting suspended was rare (it maybe happened once a year in the entire school), and was a Pretty Big Deal.
posted by mkultra at 1:15 PM on November 2, 2011

People have given most of the upsides I had, I'll give some downsides. I went to a top-100 nationally public school system.

We had a fair amount of religious diversity and racial diversity, but virtually no economic diversity. That does limit the world you are exposed to, both in ways that protect you but also in ways that make you narrow.

This was 20 years ago, so the social situation is different today, but most people came from stable two-parent homes. That might mean mom and step-dad, or mom and mom, not necessarily mom and dad. But there were not a lot of single parents and people often had to move away if their parents got divorced; the economic hit was too big to keep paying the high property prices and high taxes.

There was a lot of pressure to consume conspicuously in ways that my family did not participate in and I was not allowed to participate in and (later) was not personally comfortable with. I do not think 16-year-olds should receive brand new Lexuses as birthday presents. I recall a girl I've known since we were five being ostracized for an entire week and mocked for a whole year for wearing a T-shirt she bought at K-Mart when she was eight. (My parents sheltered me from consumption pressures too much to realize what that was about at the time, but I look back on it with horror.) Personally, it'd have to be a HELL OF AN AWESOME DISTRICT for me to be willing to subject my children to that sort of thing, but I realize that's party my reaction against the parts of high school I found horrifying, and that everyone finds some part of it horrifying and will avoid that thing at all costs, and others may not find it that bad. For me, the heavy value placed on consumption and consumerism was really hard to deal with.

Academic pressure was intense. Successful parents do not necessarily have intelligent children -- people don't have to be super-brilliant to be successful. But the intensity of academic pressure made a lot of C students with successful parents feel they had to be A students. There was a lot of cheating. There were suicide attempts over bad academics. There was a lot of mental illness -- there was a shrink in town who specialized in teenagers who had depression from being so high-achieving, no fooling. Full-time practice. I got two or three Bs in my high school career; I was not in the top 10 percent of my class of 400. (It's okay, I still went top-25 for college.)

On the plus side, colleges know the school has a fantastic academic program. On the minus side, colleges are looking to create diverse classes and white kids from wealthy suburbs are a dime a dozen. I was a student representative on admissions committees in both college and grad school (for undergrads, both times) and urban and rural students were much bigger deals to "get." We would have literally 500 applications from perfect-GPA, 20 extracurricular, valedictorian student-body-presidents from Wealthy Suburban Town Public High. We'd have three students with 3.8s and a job working at a grain elevator from a Rural School where they participated in 4-H for 10 years. Even though the suburban students might have been objectively "better" on paper, they were all cookie-cutter copies of one another and not very interesting. The rural students were INTERESTING. Of course, we might let in 200 suburban students and 3 rural students, so there are "more" suburban students, but your odds as the rural student were better.

In general, around here, there is more alcohol abuse at poor schools, more pot use the wealthier the school gets. Cocaine and other hard drugs are mostly at the wealthiest schools. This is because drugs cost money.

99% of my graduating class went on to a four-year university. One went to community college. One went to an internet start-up. One joined the Navy to help support his family after his father died very unexpectedly a couple months before graduation leaving him with two younger brothers and a mom who hadn't worked in two decades. The community college student and Navy kid were considered failures. That's a shitty attitude.

Generally it was a good experience, but I promised to give the downsides. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:18 PM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

As the product of an above average school (for my state at least) who is now in university I say this:

Send your kid to private school (if at all possible). I really really wish I had gone this route (I had the chance but didn't take it, now I'm full of regrets). If this isn't a possibility, go for the best public school you can find and supplement your kids learning with either judicious homework help/revisions and figure out how to make them want to excel.
posted by Strass at 1:22 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing I keep noticing with the people from public schools at the name-brand university I go to is that their schools had functioning programs to get kids to take college classes, often even as underclassmen, especially for math. You'd see the slightly-above-average sophomores and juniors taking multivariate calculus and linear algebra and differential equations, and the rest of the curriculum pushed forward to accommodate this, these kids who would be taking single-variate calculus their senior year in other schools. And depending upon the school, you could see this happen in other subjects, especially in English and the sciences: finish up AP Biology your sophomore year and go on to a college class or independent study.

Doing publication-level research in high school also happens, although more so in private schools. National-level debate and academic competitions, and the driven students who compete in the national and international math and science olympiads, although winning those competitions depends heavily upon the individual.

Coming from a competitive high school myself, I know that there were small groups of the really smart kids inside the general group of smart kids - the kids with 6 AP's and extracurriculars as opposed to the kids taking 16. . . and doing national-level debate. . . and publishing multiple papers in peer-reviewed journals. . . and getting a 2400 on the SAT without preparation. . . and founding national organizations. . . and singing opera professionally (a composite of some people I've met at college). A self-motivated student in a really good high school can match the resumes of most private school kids.

I found that ambition really depends upon the space given to it. As in, in average high schools, ambitious course-loads is 2 or 3 AP's. In a really good public high school, an ambitious course load is 5 AP's and two college classes over the year. But if you look at it differently, as my friend did, you can go to community college starting at the age of 14 in your classes and have all but 2 quarters of your undergraduate coursework done as a freshman. But that really depends heavily upon the student.
posted by curuinor at 1:24 PM on November 2, 2011

My school offered lots of AP courses. Enough that you didn't feel the need to take all of them.

20% of the school was in the band, another 10-15% in orchestra, and 5% more in chorus. Music was very important and I never felt like a "band nerd." In fact, the homecoming king and queen were in the band, as was the class president and a bunch of the football players. (Digression: this is why I don't buy the premise of Glee.) The band won all of the competitions we were in and were one of the most successful organizations in the school. Being part of that organization taught me a lot about success and hard work.

In general I never experienced the feeling of being an outsider for being smart. There were just too many other smart kids around. There were certainly people who were made fun of for being dorks, but it was because of their social skills, not their interests.
posted by davextreme at 1:28 PM on November 2, 2011

where I grew up most of the private day schools were actually a step down from the best public schools. There was probably one day school that was as good as the best public schools. Those kids also had the best drugs FWIW.

And boarding schools are an entirely different ball of wax that have a different set of pluses and minuses.
posted by JPD at 1:30 PM on November 2, 2011

My son went to a good elementary school, a so-so middle school, and is presently a sophomore at a wannabe great high school. My personal opinion is that foundational learning in elementary school is critical, and even in a good school, I had to pull him out and home school him myself during third grade because I felt he was falling behind. My home schooling, as difficult as it was, really helped turn around his self confidence.

I don't believe his middle school education prepared him for critical thinking, either.

The only real evidence of critical skill development is in the high school AP classes. At first, my son was like, "Whoa, this is tough and I don't know if I can handle this." I had to work with him a lot the first few weeks, give him encouragement and insight. Now he's much better, and expects more of himself, and realizes that studying takes time and hard work, that he can't just skate through and expect to get a 4.0 like he did in middle school.

My advice is to be prepared to experience sub-standard educational criteria at the elementary and middle school level, no matter how good you think the schools are, and to make sure the high school in your district has a wide range of AP classes. In those classes, your kids will be among the group of students who want to academically challenge themselves, and whose parents understand the importance of advanced learning. This way, your child will get the best of both worlds: diversity and academic excellence.

In addition, another commenter stated that it looks better to be among the top grads in a lesser school, than among the better than average grads in a superior school. This is something to consider.
posted by zagyzebra at 1:31 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I graduated from Bexley High School about ten years ago. One thing about it that sticks out is that everyone goes to college. Absolutely everyone, it's baked into the culture from the ground up. This actually hurt me a little, as I felt some peer pressure to go to fancy small private college rather than Ohio State, even though OSU would have been better for me in almost every way in retrospect. Another thing is that I was kind of an asshole of a student who never did any work and I got a lot of patience and second chances and people who cared to help make something of my natural talents that might not have existed in other environments.

The Upper Arlington schools and the Bexley schools are as good or better than the Dublin schools, and have some advantages-such as not being so damn far out in the burbs, which will be nice if you're coming from German Village. Many of the northern suburban school systems aren't much worse, if any worse-Westerville, Worthington. Olentangy I guess is ok, though I never thought of them as in a class with Dublin. Grandview! Young families move from German Village to Grandview as their kids reach school age, especially if they find Upper Arlington too pricey. That's a pretty common path I think. Very good schools. Consider Grandview. My parents both worked out east of the city, so that's why I grew up in Bexley-otherwise we would have been Grandview bound, I think.

The Columbus public schools are actually pretty good relative to other big cities-especially if you can get into one of the alternative schools. I can't speak with any authority about how the selection process works for those but it's worth looking into. You'd certainly rather send your kids to Columbus Alternative than like Whitehall or Reynoldsburg or anywhere down south. I'd rather send my kids to Columbus Alternative than Dublin schools, honestly, if I had kids and still lived in Columbus.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Columbus is a place with pretty solid public education and it's worth thinking more broadly about where to live. There are some places where private school is the only way, but I don't know why anyone in Columbus would spend a small fortune to send their kids to Columbus Academy, for example.
posted by Kwine at 1:32 PM on November 2, 2011

filthy light thief: "This isn't limited to "rural" or "inner-city" schools. My high school was a mix of backgrounds and incomes. There were pregnant teens and teen parents, but there were also ridiculously smart kids."

Sorry, I should have specified more about that one. Partly it's because I went to school in Texas, which is notorious for having horribly lax sex education in the rural areas my friends lived in, and the other is that social pressure in my school environment was so strong that if you got pregnant, you either moved away or had an abortion.
posted by lhall at 1:34 PM on November 2, 2011

Nthing what k8t said (and with just about everyone else).

I went to a highly regarded public high school, my kids go to one of the best public schools in the country, but I teach in an inner-city school, so I have some knowledge here.

The differences are mind-boggling. It's not even comparing apples to oranges; there's just no comparison for the absolutely different experiences these different schools provide.

In the moneyed districts, your kids will be surrounded by other kids whose families value education, show respect, and there's a boatload of money for technology, books, pencils and cool stuff.

Less-moneyed districts? Forget it. There are fistfights, there are weapons, we have police on staff, kids tell me to f*uck off to my face weekly. There aren't enough books, there's NO technology. Basically, there are some really dedicated teachers, but they're a lot more burnt out than their counterparts in wealthier districts. The parents are unreachable and the kids mostly couldn't care less about school.

However...here's my gigantic caveat: if you have a child who is super achieving or at the opposite end of the spectrum, a kid who needs support, a wealthier district will be great because they have all those AP classes as well as tutors and ABA specialists and tons of sped teachers, etc.

But if you have a pretty meh-about-school kid or a kid who's just kind of average or slightly below average academically, chances are very high they will sink in a wealthy school. Those kids don't get support, their classes are way too hard, and they often end up hating school.
posted by kinetic at 1:34 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have a friend who attended a small public school that didn't offer a foreign language because "Americans already speak English". He felt like he was at a huge disadvantage in college, but I don't know if his experience is common.
posted by wrinkle at 1:53 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to a very good public high school, was totally meh about school and got terrible grades, and was one of three kids (out of 100) that didn't go on to college. So... poster child for why a good school doesn't help, right?

Then I moved to Austin, met a ton of people of wildly different backgrounds, and discovered that my k-12 education kicks the ass of most of the liberal arts bachelors' degrees my friends got. I've read most of the books, write better, have at least as much math and science, and also don't have student loans or an alcohol problem.

So yeah, quality of instruction (and budget - I took art classes, drafting and CAD classes, and got a solid music background in 4-6th grade as well) makes a pretty big difference later on, even if it's not guaranteed to make high school suck any less at the moment.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:57 PM on November 2, 2011

I'm also interested in what it's like going to a school system where the economic diversity is low, i.e. most of the kids parents are white collar and range from well off to really well off.

This was where I went to school. Of course, I don't have anything to compare it to.

I don't really know how to say this without sounding like a prick, but I was probably the smartest kid in my grade. Certainly one of the top five. This means that things like academic pressure were non-existent for me. The New York Times publishes hand-wringing articles about the pressure kids are under taking so many AP classes. AP classes were what made school remotely tolerable, as they might require a non-trivial amount of thought once in a while. I had a horrible, horrible time in English in high school. We had a really good gifted program in elementary school, which disappeared in high school (it was a different school district--this was not uncommon where I grew up). Suddenly, I was in the 'honors' class with all the kids I'd been kept away from in earlier grades. But because the families are so snobby, their idiot kid just has to be in the honors class, otherwise they won't get into college. Or something.

However, god knows what would have happened had there not been that robust gifted program in elementary school. (It is, of course, no longer as robust.) Those teachers would tell the other teachers, "No, really, it's okay to let hoyland sit in the corner and build a little quiz game during social studies. He's not going to learn anything from the curriculum anyway." (Though they regularly forgot my brother had gone to the library to do an "independent study". They did park us in the library sometimes.) That's where the benefit to the rich school system lay--the teachers weren't so overworked that they could pay attention to the kid who wasn't at risk of failing.

The lack of diversity and sheltering that went on was ridiculous. I was bullied for having a British parent. From first to third grade, the one Indian kid and I (and then my brother) were the sum total of diversity in the school. I'm not even sure there was a Jewish kid in my grade at that age. My mother came to help in my kindergarten class and I remember the teacher telling the entirely class off for making fun of her for 'talking funny'. In high school, my friends' didn't want them taking the train. This same train I'd been riding without an adult since the age of 12. God forbid, there might be black people or something.

Like someone else mentioned, there was pressure to go to a 'name' small liberal arts college. The Ivy League was preferable, but there were few kids in the school with a reasonable shot of getting in. There was a college counselor (a perk of a rich school, I guess), but she was hopeless at dispensing advice to anyone who wasn't the average student. I got told to apply to multiple UCs because it would increase my chance of getting into the UC I was interested in. (I'm not from California. That makes precisely no sense, but obviously I had $40 to throw at that pointless advice. I only applied to the one I wanted to go to. Amusingly, the accepted wisdom in California is that no one gets into both UC A and UC B.) I'm sure I was considered mad for applying to a public university when I wasn't applying for engineering.

I'm sure this is more cathartic for me than it is useful for you. This comment should also be disclaimed by the fact I don't have kids. I guess what I'm saying is don't go for the wealthy district because it's wealthy. Maybe you have to pick it because you need to chase services (it sounds like your kids are perhaps old enough for you have some idea of that). But, holy crap, trade a little wealth for some diversity of background/experience.

(There's a small irony that when I was born, my parents moved from a school district where the high school has an intermittent gang problem and fights and whatnot to where I went to school, but we all probably would have been better off had they not moved. As they tell it, they moved to somewhere they could afford a house with a yard in a nice neighbourhood, not for the schools specifically.)
posted by hoyland at 2:02 PM on November 2, 2011

I'd especially love to hear from anyone who transitioned from an average school to a top notch system

I went from a ritzy suburban school to an urban high school!

I think the quality of the basic education was similar at both schools -- at the urban school, there were many excellent young teachers who were trying to do the Stand and Deliver thing. If anything the teachers were more demanding -- they felt like they were miracle workers.

The problem was that the urban high school was an extremely stressful environment. Classes were huge, teachers were quitting or getting fired (often for sexual harassment), there were dealers openly selling pot and meth and LSD right outside the doorstep, and several of my friends were severely beaten up by gangs (there were 4 student deaths in my class of 400). Guidance counseling was nonexistent. There was zero funding for non-sports extracurriculars -- no debate team, no math team, no yearbook. There was no outlet for curious students to explore their interests.

My slacker friends from the urban school didn't go to college, and are now working in retail or food service or are in the military. My slacker friends from the fancy suburban school went to private colleges, went to law school or grad school, and are working retail or temping or babysitting. The ambitious students from both schools did fine. Not a lot of difference really.

But everyone from the urban school remembers it as a horrible traumatic experience that they'd rather forget, while everyone from the suburban school has fond memories of that time and still hangs out with each other. I think that may be the real difference.
posted by miyabo at 2:27 PM on November 2, 2011

Full disclosure: I was homeschooled in Bucyrus (and other places) for high school. The majority of people I knew in high school went to Galion, Bucyrus, and Wynford. I also knew a ton of kids through Irish dance - they were at Dublin, Bexley, Worthington, CSG, St. Charles, and the Catholic schools. I went to elementary school in Southern California so I know big districts and so-so schools, though I was mostly in an isolated gifted program when I lived there and so saw things from an outsider, "what, you only get one field trip a year?" standpoint. I went to Ohio State and know lots and lots of parents of school-age kids all over the place in Columbus, primarily in the Worthington, Dublin, Pickerington, and Canal Winchester districts.

If you're moving from German Village (and I would, as lovely as German Village is) seriously consider Bexley, Worthington, and Upper Arlington. I don't know any kids who went to Grandview schools so I have no opinion on them. Also consider CSG and St. Charles/the other Catholic schools, some of which are very good.

The real trouble with Columbus, in my opinion, is that you can't really rely on how things are going to be, what schools will exist in ten years when you're in the middle of the high school thing, etc. It's a big, shrinking, pressured district without a clear sense of direction. I'm very impressed with what they're doing at Metro High but who knows what'll happen there in four or five years. The elementary school that I lived right by before I moved to Clintonville has had three different themes (traditional school, alternative "open plan" school, and now it's a "media" school, whatever that means) in the last ten years. Africentric keeps changing what it's doing, too. I'm not even clear on if the downtown high school will actually get to keep most of it's property after the I-70/I-71 mess is straightened out. They're closing schools, trying to get "creative" in reassigning students, etc. You can find a good thing now but that's no indication of how it'll be later on.

The smaller, wealthier, more stable districts, and the Catholic/private schools, are a lot more predictable in addition to having more resources and more dedicated parents (and maybe staff.) This is actually how things are in the rural districts too, mostly, it's just that they don't tend to have the more resources and the "aim for excellence" sort of attitude.

Oh, and while I will agree that in principle the "name school" thing could be bad, my friend who went to CSG got very little hassle over going to Wooster, and my friend who went to Bexley got very little hassle over going to Whittenburg, and my friend who went to St. Charles got no hassle of any kind for going to Ohio State. Meanwhile kids back up in Bucyrus were hassled for going to OSU-Mansfield instead of doing something sensible like factory work. I was told by very well-meaning friends that if I went to OSU I'd surely be raped; most of those friends thought of going to trade school or enlisting as a real step up in the world, and college was more like life on another planet. It was ridiculous and admittedly makes it very hard for me to see something like "Yale is the only school for me" as being especially closed-minded.
posted by SMPA at 2:32 PM on November 2, 2011

One thing about it that sticks out is that everyone goes to college. Absolutely everyone, it's baked into the culture from the ground up.

This was close to my experience as well. In my experience, there was almost no concept that college, in one form or the other, wasn't on the agenda for close to all students, though the implicit expectation was along the lines of "state universities for most of you, private universities or small colleges for the top tier, and at least community college for the rest of you kids." Most matriculated right away after graduation, but some took a year or two off.
posted by scody at 2:34 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to an average- to below-average public high school in Denver, then went to a typical large state university (Colorado at Boulder). People from the top of the class at my high school found college quite difficult. People from the middle of the class at a well-regarded public school district in suburban Denver went to the same college and said they thought it was easier than high school.
posted by massysett at 2:47 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to an above-average public school and had some similar experiences to other commenters - small class sizes, lots of teacher attention, everyone went to college, everyone cared cared about the school work, etc.

Maybe this goes without saying, but I will just add that I would look into why the schools are ranked highly. What is it based on? Did they evaluate how well students did in college, or just how many were accepted to college, or how many dropped out of college? Did they have resources for students who, while bright, maybe wouldn't benefit from college or traditional education? Were evaluations of the teachers taken into account? Or is it all based on test scores? What is the racial and economic makeup of the school? Will your kids only be around well-off white kids, and how do you feel about that?

My above-average public high school was, and still is, ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country by some measures. Those particular measures based it on AP test scores, and we all took a lot of APs, starting our freshman year. By the time I'd graduated, I'd taken more than 18 AP classes, which was typical of my graduating class. The valedictorian had taken more than 23. This is CRAZY. I was burned out when I went to college.

It is more typical for a high-achieving high school student to take 4 or 5 AP classes, over the course of 4 years, starting when they are juniors or seniors. When you are taking 8 in one semester, you do not get the kind of rigor you do elsewhere. I believe that my high AP scores measure that I am excellent test taker than that I particularly excelled at the topics more than my college friends who weren't trained in AP testing the way I was and scored lower. Plus, while I learned really well how to write a timed, 5-paragraph, AP essay. I learned nothing about how to write an actual paper. (This is not typical - normally AP English is great at this. But it is not tested on the AP. So we didn't learn it.)

Also, I was often still very bored.

I missed out on some of other things I would've liked from high school, that others mentioned at the cooler-sounding above-average schools they attended, like philosophy classes and cool clubs and art classes and other classes that weren't APs but really worthwhile, and that sort of thing. And, you know, a social life. At my school, it was all about tests. There are lots of other ways that a school can be high ranked or seem awesome.

Just - this is really intuitive I guess - but there are lots of ways for a school to be "good." When your kids are old enough, find the one that's good for them, their interests, and their learning styles.
posted by fireflies at 3:21 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to one of those above-average, high achieving magnet schools that specialized in science and engineering. The demographic was mostly Asian, some white, and very few underrepresented minorities. At the time, my high school was #3 in the national rankings. There, we were taught early on that we were gifted and could achieve anything. This culture of excellence resonated within us. There was also fierce competition amongst the student body, because everyone wanted to be #1. Surprisingly, the teachers were excellent; not even my college professors can match their abilities to teach difficult material well. I did not have the typical high school experience. Instead, I loaded up on AP and college courses (the lowest offered were honors courses, no regular or transitional classes). We were required to complete a minimum of 500 hours of community service prior to graduation; obtain a six-month internship during senior year; and learn two foreign languages. The results of this academic rigor spoke volumes. 10 out my 60 classmates got accepted to Harvard or Stanford; 30 were accepted to Cornell.

I am not sure how an above average public school system measures against below average ones, but I will provide some anecdotal evidence. More than half of my classmates were recruited from three extremely wealthy towns. On the other hand, I was the only kid who passed the application test in my district. Go figure. Even now at my college, there is a tremendous discrepancy between the highly and lowly educated in regards to grades and opportunities. I worked in high school and ended up in the bottom 50% of my class. Even so, I ended up with nearly a full-ride at a top 10 school.

Although I do not believe that rankings for elementary education are as crucial, selecting an education district appropriately for middle and high school is. Your child(ren) will have better long-term opportunities. Me-mail me if you have any questions and good luck with your search (sorry...I'm all the way in NJ).
posted by nikayla_luv at 3:42 PM on November 2, 2011

I am the only person from my high school that I know who has gone to a university even remotely close to top-tier, and I don't think that's because I grew up with a bunch of stupid poor people, I think it's because there's no push, no instilled sense of ambition, no focus on writing or success skills.

This is absolutely the experience of my partner, who went to a sub-par high school. I went to a "college prep" school. A lot of people have talked about the intangibles, but my "good" high school got me one very tangible thing: a full scholarship to university. I went to a private high school, but not a super-fancy one, and it wouldn't be rated any higher than a good public high school.

Where I grew up, admission and tuition to state schools was basically guaranteed if you scored high enough on standardized tests (not just the SAT but the PSAT in particular). This fact was drilled into us by our teachers: you must study for this test because if you do well you have a chance at a full ride to college. We studied test questions at the end of every day, I did well on the test, I got scholarships.

I have two friends who were in public school at the same time. They were told nothing about scholarship opportunities. One person only heard about the PSAT the day she walked in, another actually left the PSAT early because again he had no idea what the benefit could be.

So "college prep" or whatever you want to call it gets you familiar with the hoops, and then helps you jump through them. I have issues with the fact that so much depends on standardized tests, and am still horrified that my friends lost out on scholarship money simply because they went to crappier schools where no-one bothered to tell them to prepare for the PSAT. However, I personally did benefit from the standardized testing system and can honestly say that my high school helped me get a full ride.
posted by lillygog at 3:44 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I went to a below average public school. It was 99% white and mostly Christian. Funding was short so the teachers would go on strike once or twice a year, and it wasn't uncommon for the school to be short of typical school supplies, like pencils or textbooks.

I'd say about 40-60% of the students had qualified for reduced or free lunch. Classrooms usually had about 25-35 students per teacher. There were maybe 2 or 3 AP classes available, and Pre-Calc was probably the highest math course offered. There really wasn't a variety of courses offered, but I could still choose courses like Intro to Web Designing and Creative Writing.

I think my school recognized that it was a below average school so they really took advantage of classes offered at local colleges and vocational schools. The school may not have had a lot of money, but it sure had a lot of pride.

Regardless of school, I still had many friends, I was one of the top students in my class, and I went to a very well respected college. I don't think the quality of the school mattered so much as the quality at home.

At home, I wasn't quizzed or forced to learn anything, but I was definitely encouraged to ask questions, be curious, and be engaged. My mom always brought my sister and me to bookstore at least once a month to pick out a book. If we couldn't afford a book, then she would bring us to the library. My dad was a very curious person himself, and I think a lot of that rubbed off on me. He'd frequently ask questions out loud, which provoked me to wonder as well. If neither of us knew the answer to a question, he always went out of his way to look up the answer and share it with me.

Honestly, I think these encouragements from my parents are really what shaped me as a person, and not so much the school environment.
posted by nikkorizz at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to a an upper class (probably not "the 1%", but likely the top 10%) high school in Bergen County in NJ.

I now work in an "underachieving" high school in Austin, TX.

Here are some of the biggest differences I notice:

-We had a variety of languages (French, Chinese, Latin, Spanish, German) offered through the AP level and Greek as a 1-year senior option.
-We had AP studio art, ceramics I & II, metal working/ jewelry, two levels of "home ec" cooking classes.
-The majority of the students were in honors or "pre-AP" classes.
-It was expected you would go to college. It wasn't even a discussion. just "where will you go?" Counselors would help you with the admissions process (to some degree, as in make sure you were going.) In a class of 400, 396 enrolled in some form of higher ed. for the year following graduation. (This includes about 40 people or so who enrolled in the local community college, but everyone else went on to 4-year schools.)
(note: because of this there actually wasn't that much admin support in applying, it was largely assumed it would come from home. )
- Extracurriculars were expected. No one cared if it was sports, drama or music, but whatever you did, you did it to the fullest.
-There was some ethnic diversity (large Jewish and east asian populations), but little to no economic diversity (it was a shock in college when I had to explain what Chanukah was to friends. I'm not Jewish, but I thought it was as well known as Christmas).
-There were very few if any discipline issues. A suspension was extremely rare.
posted by raccoon409 at 3:54 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

My top-tier public high school was in the best district in Maryland, and still scores the top SAT scores in the district, last I checked. Wikipedia tells me that as of last year, 62.9% of students are White, 26.6% are Asian, 7.6% are African American, 2.5% are Hispanic, 0.1% are Native American, and 0.3% are unidentified. The high school dropout rate is 0.81%. I think 94% of my graduating class went directly to college. Apparently there was a website or forum in the early-2000s in South Korea with guidelines on how to relocate to the MD/DC/VA area and get your kids into my high school, which I guess tells you... something.

We weren't the magnet school, which on balance, I kind of wish I had considered more carefully. (As a teenager, I was deathly afraid of specialization.) We had tremendous amounts of technology funding, and more than half of the social studies faculty had advanced degrees, with several doctorates. In comparison to many other public-schooled peers in college, I found that my language and science education were still very solid, and that our relatively Lake Wobegon-esque student body made us above-average enough to avoid teachers "teaching to the test," when it came to state assessments, No Child Left Behind, and similar. Another advantage, I suppose, is the built-in assumption that everyone will go to college. Since it was public school, there still wasn't much useful in the way of college counselors or guidance (at least not on the upper end - I bet they did more with some of the middle 50% or lower 25% of my graduating class).

We had a lot of AP courses on offer compared to other schools - I think 15-20. I didn't really have to study outside of class to get 4s or 5s on the five or six that I took. So that was nice. Outside of AP, classes were highly tiered - so you'd have regular, honors, gifted, and then sometimes AP or remedial as needed or relevant. Placement was matched by skill level in a given subject as opposed to across all your classes - so you might be in gifted spanish, regular math. I also had a core group of advanced english/social studies students who were chosen by select admission out of middle school - we had two hour blocks together with a dedicated liberal arts curriculum for all four years of high school, which was rare, but kind of neat.

The lack of economic diversity, and the soullessness of the suburbs, were definite downsides. I think it's always hard for teenagers to get a sense of a world outside of themselves, but going to a top-tier suburban school that emphasizes academic achievement over all else doesn't help much.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:14 PM on November 2, 2011

While my answer may not be totally relevant (third world country low tier public school) I thought my experience was somewhat hilarious in terms of "how low can you go"

1. Class sizes over 50 students.
2. There was not enough places for desks in the classroom, even if students shared desks. Some of us unlucky ones had to drag our desks outside the building and listen to the lessons through the windows.
3. There would be about 1000 students but there was only 1 toilet
4. We didn't have a biology teacher for the nearly 2 years leading to the final high school exam. There simply were not enough teachers.
5. Another public school 15 minutes walk away would boast 50 students scored straight As in the national exams, our school couldn't even produce 1. My sibling went to that school.
posted by xdvesper at 4:23 PM on November 2, 2011

I'm also interested in what it's like going to a school system where the economic diversity is low, i.e. most of the kids parents are white collar and range from well off to really well off.

Yep, right here, graduated in 84 - so my data is a little old. We had probably 3 black families in the district and maybe a dozen Asians, but everyone else was white and no one was openly gay. Zero diversity. Did it make me a racist? Nope, it just made me ignorant about other people and cultures.

College was a huge culture shock for me - so many different kinds of people! I just really didn't know any different than where I grew up (like I said, ignorance). But I adjusted, I asked questions and got to know people, because I was that kind of person and that was how my parents raised me. So I don't think it's so important that you have a ton of diversity as much as it's important for a child to learn to ask questions and seek understanding and be able to get along with anyone.

A drawback to living in a school district like that was the whole "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. My parents were on the low end financially and couldn't take us on those Disney vacations and I didn't get a car for graduation. I survived just fine, but I do have some uncomfortable memories of me as the selfish teen pouting about not having what my friends did. (Sorry Mom and Dad, I know better now).

Also, seconding what everyone else has said above about resources and opportunities. I've taught in a wide variety of schools and those two things are the biggest differences. The schools where students score well on NCLB tests don't need to spend their money on improving test scores and can afford bigger libraries, computer labs and art exhibits. Schools that score low on NCLB tests aren't able to spend their money on the "extras" and need to put their money in getting the math and reading test scores up - and sometimes many art, music and sports programs suffer for higher test scores.
posted by NoraCharles at 4:31 PM on November 2, 2011

Sorry, just wanted to add: I emailed a few friends in "better" public schools and heard back that they too were prepped for these college standardized tests in a way that "worse" schools were not. This may be my own personal tangent here, but I just never got over how the sub-par environment cost my friends actual cash. If you are an engaged parent, you can obviously mitigate these problems.
posted by lillygog at 5:39 PM on November 2, 2011

Reflecting on my own high school experience, I think it's okay to not be at the "best" high school in town if it means your kid will be instead with other students from a somewhat similar socioeconomic background--or at least not be one of the only kids who isn't super rich. If you are super rich, go that school. If not, it might be hard for your kid to keep up in terms of external pressures and expectations for clothing and such. My school was so snobby. Really, we did think we were better than everywhere else, and I think that was pretty much the message we got at that school.

And sometimes those great schools are only great for the very best. The middle-of-the-road kids can get left behind. And often those good schools with those good test scores--well, those kids are going to get those same test scores no matter where they go; it's not necessarily because of the school. As an illustration:

A few years ago, I spoke extensively with a friend who had worked at a top high school in a college town of a flagship university. He later moved on to the county system, outside of the town, where the scores were generally much lower. His take wasn't that the city schools were any better or the kids any smarter, but rather that the kids in town had a better structure for learning at home: they didn't watch tv after school; they read a lot and had access to books; their parents encouraged their education. So the difference wasn't what happened at school.

I suspect you are going to be looking at schools that are failing versus schools that are best in the state. And I don't mean to say that "better" schools don't always offer more. But if you were to to take some of those kids from failing schools and plop them in the better schools, they wouldn't necessarily do any better, because it's not always about the school.

There are always trade-offs. If you live in an all-white, wealthy town with top schools, your child will learn some things very well and other things not so well.

I don't know the school systems you have in mind, but I suspect that the differences between the "best" and the second best schools are pretty minimal.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:01 PM on November 2, 2011

I went to a well-regarded public high school in an upper-middle-class white-collar neighborhood. Honestly, I think it's pretty overrated. My mom deserves more credit for my education than my schools -- she was the one who interested me in literature early, introduced me to music and art, etc. Field trips are great, but most kids are just happy to clown around outside of the classroom -- I was the rare kid who actually wanted to look at the paintings at the museum.

I could also write circles around some of my private-school-educated peers -- thanks to the perseverance and dedication of two particular teachers. But the majority of my teachers kept to a much more average level of expectation. Sure, this is still a higher standard than in very poor schools, but nothing to write home about.

Yes, the expectation was that everyone goes to college. No, there were no (acknowledged) pregnant students. (Oh wait several girls just happened to move away yet oddly, were still living locally, and got their GEDs. Yeah, confirmed, they were basically forced out by the administration.)

Groups of people WILL find an "other" over which to exercise their superiority. In a homogeneous community, they'll go to ridiculous lengths to stratify other kids into manufactured divisions of alleged prestige and wealth. It's pretty fucking gross.
posted by desuetude at 9:18 PM on November 2, 2011

In my experience, in a city with high poverty, even the best urban school had to focus on the kids who are struggling. Kids who are smart and want to enjoy learning are in the worst spot, because its obvious that the homework is busy work and doesn't really support learning. So the homework didn't get done and test grades were "good enough".

We have a saying in our house: she doesn't have to compete with China--but we want her to continue to love learning. By 6th grade in the best urban school--she was starting to hate school. And since she was doing better than most of her classmates, why should we care about the homework (which was boring busywork anyway)? We don't actually even care about grades--but she was miserable, the teacher wanted us to bully and punish her to get the homework done, and she didn't want to go to school in the morning.

We asked her what she wanted in a school. She said "teachers who are smart" (ie.engaging), clubs (there weren't any extra curricular), and more group projects. At her new school they spent a week learning how to edit each other's essays.

At her old school, I emailed the teacher 4 days before a field trip to ask what time they'd be back for pick-up and never got a response.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:18 AM on November 3, 2011

I'm probably n'thing all the comments above. But it matters. It matters in what your kids perceive as "normal".

I went to a very much above average public high school... our college-after-graduation rate was 98%. I thought everyone went to college. That's just what you did. It wasn't an option to not to go to college, for me and basically everyone I knew. Having the I-am-definitely-headed-to-college mindset definitely matters.

It was also "normal" to be super involved - in clubs, in sports, in community service, in whatever. Most people I knew had at least a few activities going on at any given time. Everyone I knew and was friends with was busy. We were a school of busy people, and that really stuck with me. (I suspect this was probably a product of having low socio-economic diversity (ie. there were more than a few BMWs in the parking lot).)

And there in lies the flip side... It was also "normal" for your parents to just buy you a car once you got your license. It was "normal" (for some classes, basically required by the curriculum) to have a computer at home. It was "normal" to a have a freaking rock wall in our gym so PE could teach rock climbing (ri-dic-u-lous).
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 8:21 AM on November 3, 2011

A few ancedota. I started off at an OK (but not good) school through 3rd grade. At 4th grade transfered to a good (but not excellent) school. Downsides were I spent 4th grade catching up on work, so missed out on the gifted programs/camps (they tested in 4th grade). I was still able to take APs and advanced math classes in highschool since I was caught up and top of my class by 6th grade again.

I went to a top liberal arts college and it was a great education, but I wasn't prepared for the lack of career counseling/course selection (but that may have been a consequence of my parents not being familar with the four-year college experinece).
posted by ejaned8 at 3:00 PM on November 3, 2011

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