How much does a good school matter?
September 4, 2014 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Please help me think about whether it is worth moving to a better school district.

I live in DC, and have a young daughter. We are considering having another child, as well. Our local school does not perform particularly well. My family has the ability to move to any one of several much better school districts in VA and MD, but I'm not sure the sacrifices that would be required are worth it. I'm not even sure if it's morally permissible.

So: how much does a good school matter?

My daughter (and her potential sibling) will have plenty of access to extracurricular enrichment, but she's still going to spend forty hours a week, thirty-six weeks a year with these teachers and students; that's going to have a big effect, even just in terms of cohorts and friends, right? How much better will her experience be at a highly ranked close-in suburban school like the ones in Takoma Park, Kensington, Bethesda, or Fairfax?

Then, too: is it morally wrong to abandon a bad school, especially if the students who stay will be predominantly non-white? Would staying help? Would staying hurt (perhaps by contributing to gentrification)?

I'm seeking personal experiences and evaluations, but I'd also be happy to be linked to relevant research and analysis.
posted by anonymous to Education (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried looking into a variance? That would not require moving but would still get your kid into the schools, potentially.
posted by corb at 3:28 PM on September 4, 2014

I have a cousin who moved from a not very good school district in Florida to Gaithersburg, Maryland. In her case they moved for job reasons and also to be closer to family. She had two elementary school age children at the time. She said she was really glad they'd moved, because the boy, who had not been motivated at all in his previous school, became motivated to do well academically and just engaged overall with the school experience because he was surrounded by kids who took school seriously. She didn't even have to nag the kid any more about doing homework, even though he had more homework at his school in Gaithersburg compared to his school in Florida. So for some kids, how other kids around them regard school and academic achievements can make a huge difference. (Perhaps relevant, he had been the only Asian kid in his classes at his school in Florida, and in Maryland he was one of many, and according to his mom he said it just made him feel more comfortable at school.)

I wouldn't assume the highly ranked suburban schools are mostly white. Some of them have large numbers of Asian students, and some just have kids from all over the place who are in the DC area because of their parents' jobs (e.g. Walt Whitman in Bethesda had a fair number of foreign diplomats' children).
posted by needled at 3:29 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

My experience: the kids from high functioning families do well wherever they are. A lot of urban school districts also have interesting magnet-type programs which provide more choice in schools. I would not move for the school district if it would have a negative effect on the family overall.
posted by metasarah at 3:40 PM on September 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

If you have the means to give your family a better life, which includes providing a better education by moving to a better school district, it's your right to do so. (Of course, you can choose to stay put as well.) I don't see it as morally wrong, and staying might hurt your children by not providing them with access to the best quality of education you can give them.

Yes, it would be great if all school districts were fantastic, but the current reality is that certain districts outperform others. Staying or leaving your current district is unlikely to change its performance.

In Maryland and Virginia, school districts usually span entire counties. Montgomery County, for example, is a very large area. So is Fairfax County. Having grown up in an area where school districts were by town or 3-4 towns at most, and each had at most 3 schools at each level, I have found the county-wide school district model in the DC area hard to wrap my head around, particularly with respect to any district rankings. I find it hard to believe that all schools in these counties perform at the same level; the school district rankings are likely an average of performance. I don't know if you can just up and move into a rich suburb and your kids will magically have a better education than they'd have in a more middle-class suburb; you'll have to do more research on the rankings.
posted by tckma at 3:49 PM on September 4, 2014

Then, too: is it morally wrong to abandon a bad school, especially if the students who stay will be predominantly non-white? Would staying help? Would staying hurt (perhaps by contributing to gentrification)?

I wrestled with this too and I'm glad I got over it.

Why should your kids suffer or be the sacrificial lambs so to speak in the name of "doing the right thing"? I'm sure many of the non-white kids living in poverty would get out if they could. It may not be politically correct to say so, but do look out for yourself and your immediate family and forget about some larger moral social obligation you think you may have. Move your kids to a better school and don't lose sleep over it.
posted by Fairchild at 3:49 PM on September 4, 2014 [12 favorites]

I've answered a different version of this question before, from my perspective as a teacher at one of the good suburban schools (who will nevertheless send my future child to a school in the city).

I feel somewhat strongly about the economic/social/political issues inherent in this problem, but I'll sidestep that to try to simply offer some practical advice. What I'd add in your situation is that data about school(s) will give you some interesting facts and some context to understand the school, but it won't really tell you whether you want to send your child there. I would urge you to visit the school your child would go to, and ideally volunteer (at least a few times) in the classroom. Being inside the school building is going to give you a much stronger, more concrete sense of what this school is like and whether it would be a good fit for your child.
posted by leitmotif at 3:49 PM on September 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

is it morally wrong to abandon a bad school, especially if the students who stay will be predominantly non-white?

Absolutely not. Your first loyalty is to your family. Short changing her for a greater good that her presence will in no way achieve is wrong headed. I would also note that it would not be you making the sacrifice, but your child.

The race question is taking white guilt to the absurd. Would you think less of the non-white parent for trying to get her child into a better school?

(Of course, if you want to be Machiavellian about it and your kid is above average and can handle the other problems in the school, goes through the whole thing with above average grades and stellar SATs, you may find colleges solicit her on the assumption your child is diverse. But is that morally right? You'd effectively be exploiting the non-whites failures.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:03 PM on September 4, 2014

I'll second what metasarah and leitmotif have said. Also, understand that in the U.S. we've suddenly and inexplicably decided that schools can be understood and judged on the basis of standardized test scores. Thus, when one school has 80% of its students meeting standard and another has only 40%, the first school is deemed successful and the second is struggling.

This is, of course, a gross simplification that ignores the plain fact that test scores tell little about the teaching at a particular school and a lot about who the students are. Are the students learning English as a second language? Do they live in poverty? Do they spend their summers watching television? In that case, 40% of the students meeting standard might be a tremendous achievement on the part of the kids, families and smart, dedicated teachers.

There's great teaching going on in many schools that produce mediocre test scores. Something to consider, however, is that your kids might find– in a school where many of the students are challenged in ways your kids are not– that the real emphasis in those schools is on pulling those other kids up. It's possible they'd get more attention in a school in that 'good school district'.
posted by carterk at 4:10 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Race is a total red herring -- class is what matters. My family: parents, non-white, waitering illegally and getting paid under the table, on food stamps, had the same attitudes towards education than people with infinitely more comfortable lives than they did. There are also people with very comfortable lives who pooh-pooh book learning, and their kids are just as bad for your kid to have as classmates as someone generically disruptive.

Of course, my parents moved me to be classmates with the kids with very comfortable lives AND parents who valued education as fast as they humanly could.

You need to know whether the best teachers at the school have the resources to give your child what she needs, as carterk says. Even good suburban schools don't treat their students equally -- if you're in calculus as a 9th grader, you get taught by the teacher with 30 years experience; if you're in algebra I as a 12th grader, you get the fresh-out-of-college "oh god I suck at math too" newbie who is just struggling to hold the class together.

So speak to administrators (in private) about magnet / school-within-a-school programs, find out when kids take calculus, find out how many people get 5's on APs, etc. This is the part of the school that's relevant to you, I assume.

From leitmotif's linked post -- I do think that having been in an inner city school (or maybe having seen my parents be poor) has enriched my worldviews.

However, I am glad that my parents moved so I could be at the better high school. We regularly applied to / attended Top 20 universities and they knew our courses and teachers.

If you're at a school that's not _so_ bad as to make admissions officers salivate and praise (per last paragraph of IndigoJones's post), but one that's just kind of middling and doesn't normally apply to top colleges, they'll just not be too sure what "AP English" means, and you're going to have to have some seriously sellable extracurriculars. e.g. "my teachers have kind of low standards so I use the extra time to become a nationally-ranked kazoo player and I run kazoo camp during winter break."
posted by batter_my_heart at 4:39 PM on September 4, 2014

The "morally wrong to abandon a bad school" idea is thrown at homeschoolers on a semi-regular basis. It's silly. There are ways to work towards societal change without throwing one's child(ren) under the bus.

I (homeschooling parent) can't weigh in on what a "good" or "bad" school does to a kid, but I wouldn't feel bad about exercising whatever choice one has there. Nobody would try to prop up an argument in favour of keeping any child in a bad day care, or continuing to bring one's family to a bad church, or patronizing a run-down museum with errors in the exhibits.
posted by kmennie at 5:04 PM on September 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I grew up in DC proper, and I was in private school (in Maryland) the entire time. My parents made the choice to buy a house in DC, with the expectation that it meant 15 years of preschool-12 private education. I can't regret it, not that I had a choice; they do not regret it either. (They have also known people who sold their houses to move to a better school district farther out and ended up sending their kids to private school anyway, which is a choice that comes from a lot of different factors.) I absolutely loved growing up in DC, though, and I'm actually glad they didn't move-- but every family is different. DC does have some better public schools, depending on the area-- you don't mention if young means that she is already enrolled in elementary school or not, but if not, then you may want to really explore the local school and charter options. Talk to parents. Maybe talk with the local scout troops-- many elementary schools in DC have them or draw heavily from local schools. Do any of your neighbors have kids? If you're looking ahead, I did an internship with someone who went to School Without Walls and she thought it was a great experience.

The public schools in northern Virginia and Montgomery County are generally great, though there are obviously variances in size, number of kids per class, electives, etc. I can only speak from personal experience with TJ and Walt Whitman, but I know people who got great educations there and speak pretty highly of them. But yeah, I think the "morally wrong" sentiment is misguided. The problems with DC's public school system are many and legion. If you want to help support and change them, that's really great; there are ways to do that whether or not you have children enrolled. You moving or not moving will also not impact the "gentrification" of your area: that's undoubtedly already happening, and leaving will not remake the old fabric of the neighborhood.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:19 PM on September 4, 2014

I wish you would elaborate more on what you are judging this as a "bad" school on.

My son's school is close to being ranked as a 'failing' school based on test scores. What test scores don't show is the high percentage of students who are recent immigrants and/or in very unstable living situations (the school serves families who live both in a homeless shelter and also a seperate shelter for women and children leaving abusive homes).

This school is excellent, diverse, and vibrant. Every single teacher we have had is excellent. They work hard to ensure they meet my intellectually gifted son where he is, while also adapting to his special needs. His classmates include the granddaughter of our US Senator and also children who arrived from Sierra Leone within the past six months.

Ratings based on test scores are not the whole story. Visit the school, talk with families, find out about the PTO and read school board minutes. Then decide.
posted by anastasiav at 5:26 PM on September 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think the big question is, how bad is bad, and how good is good?

I grew up in an area where the "bad" public high school was not particularly different from the "good" parochial high school, and in fact depending on what you were interested in and whether you could qualify for the gifted program (parochial school didn't have really any offerings for gifted students), the "bad" school could have been considered a better school. Most parents who took their children out of public school in favor of private education were ultimately doing so because of racism or classism (or in some instances, the desire for their child to have a certain kind of religious education), not because of the actual quality of programs offered.

I also frequently question what "good" vs. "bad" school district even really means, since, let's face it, even the shittiest inner city public school offers more than my supposedly great exurban parochial school did. Especially at the elementary school level. Unless the teachers at the elementary school are bad on an individual level, or the class sizes are outlandish, school is school, no? It's not like inner city first grade isn't going to teach subtraction.

On the other hand, wow, some of those DC suburb school districts are impressive. It would be a shame to forgo those opportunities just so dad can have a shorter commute, or mom can keep going to the gym she likes, or whatever.

I know a family in NYC who have decided to take their daughter out of private preschool and send her to kindergarten in the NYC public school system, because they didn't find it to be obviously superior to what she would get for free at the neighborhood elementary school.
posted by Sara C. at 5:30 PM on September 4, 2014

I went to 3 perfectly mediocre public schools, the kind that many 21st century parents would pull their kids out of in a heartbeat. Although they were not yet high stakes, I'm sure our schools' standardized test scores were in no way remarkable. In keeping with Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools at the time, our schools were 60% white/40% black and about 50% free/reduced lunch, all of which felt perfectly normal to all of us but are now part of what makes a school "bad" to many people.

I made great friends, had some classes I loved and some I hated, took a handful of AP courses, had amazing experiences in sports and band, had my pick of colleges, and ultimately got a PhD from a fancy pants school. Did I suffer from missing out on "opportunities"? Would my life be that different if my parents had rescued us from these "bad" schools and sent us to "better" schools?
posted by hydropsyche at 5:36 PM on September 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

In contrast to hydropsyche, I went to a mediocre public school. It was diverse, and I had a few amazing teachers, but for the most part, I was bored. In contrast, my husband went to a private school that was just about as diverse as my public school and had a host of amazing opportunities. His senior year, in lieu of classes, he climbed the Grand Canyon and wrote a novel. Much like I wish I hadn't wasted my time at soul-crushing day jobs, I also wish I hadn't wasted large chunks of my childhood in a school district where I was chronically understimulated, and mostly not very challenged at all. I would have loved to have had better opportunities.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:26 PM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Having a critical mass of high-SES kids from stable, 2-parent families at an urban public school does not magically make it a "good" school for everyone. (For kids with families just like theirs, perhaps, but not for everyone's kids. That's a oft-repeated fallacy.) It's bad teachers who cannot be fired that make schools bad. Even the best, most moneyed PTA cannot solve that problem.

The flip side to a piece of your question is actually this then: Would staying (in a "bad predominantly non-white school") when you are able to leave actively hurt other people's children?

Yes, it can. And here's exactly how I've seen this play out.

* High-SES parents often have more free time to spend at school, plus more social capital and knowledge of how to work the system, which gives them an information advantage that they very strategically deploy to do system-gaming things like requesting the best of the available teachers for their child's grade -- leaving the worst teachers (who can't be fired because: tenure) to the lower-SES kids. (A lot of parents have no idea you can request teachers, nor the flexible time during the day to spend at school, nor the social capital to gather that kind of intel.)

* High-SES folks also tend to choice and test (and te$t prep) into public gifted programs located within otherwise average public schools, and they overwhelmingly win the non-neighborhood spots in magnet programs. (A lot of parents have no idea one can choice into other schools and programs. Or that gifted tests can be gamed vis-a-vis expensive test prep.) Hell no, it is not an equal playing field. Not by a long shot. In fact, low-SES gifted kids who do not get properly identified as gifted are at the very highest risk of eventually dropping out.

* Meaningful economic and cultural diversity hardly ever "just happens" on the real relationship level. The proverbial rich kids generally do not suddenly form deep relationships with the proverbial poor kids, and rubbing elbows at the same school over time does not equal some kind of like magical social glue. Children absolutely do self-segregate. They read social and dress cues, and pick friends just like them (like we all do), who like the same video games, and speak the same language. (There are exceptions to this, of course, and proactive parenting with a very clear, specific diversity goal for your child can absolutely help.)

* Think about it: taking your kid out of the neighborhood school to which they are assigned means a smaller class size by exactly one kid at that school. It may in some cases even mean the state money per pupil allocation stays at the school, depending on how your local schools get funded (which varies greatly state by state, and at the local level).

Therefore, one child leaving a particular public school will not make an already bad situation worse, just as a cohort of vaunted magical rich kids at a school will not suddenly make a "bad" school situation better. For whatever that is worth.

Bottom line: worry about yourself.

So: how much does a good school matter?

From grades K-12 your kid will be spending just over 16,000 hours at school. (Extrapolate from that.) A high quality school that you can feel really good about -- because your child is safe there, and is appropriately-challenged there, and is generally respected as a person there -- to me, that means everything. (And this is why my own kids attend a hippy dippy private school, but YMMV.)
posted by hush at 6:38 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Then, too: is it morally wrong to abandon a bad school, especially if the students who stay will be predominantly non-white? Would staying help? Would staying hurt (perhaps by contributing to gentrification)?

There are a lot of ways to cut this. First, I would say that most parents who are stuck in a bad school district would leave in a heartbeat if they could. Some well-meaning well-off white parents are under the mistaken impression that the mere presence of their children will somehow magically make things better for all the other kids -- it won't.

When the child in my life was in a crappy school, it was okay until about 5th grade. Then she started to question the usefulness of busy work/homework. She wasn't wrong that it wasn't useful. I also had the bad experience of seeing some racism in how a particular teacher was toward the kids of color. I didn't want my kid witnessing that, or getting treated well based on her whiteness, or becoming a target to her peers because of that racism.

My kid started hating school because it wasn't engaging. And her lack of engagement was, at worst, considered a behavioral problem and, at best, unimportant because even without doing any homework she was doing "well enough" to not be a priority for her teacher's attention (which I totally get - because a lot of kids were struggling at school and at home and needed more attention.) But with a pile of stupid busy work every night, and less and less interest in spending hours in a miserable environment where the majority of the teacher's time was spent on behavior management (because of teacher/student ratio), the kid was seriously taking an emotional dive. She told us that the cafeteria workers have the option of turning out the lights during lunch if the kids get too noisy and rowdy - it was a signal that no talking was allowed. She said sometimes they just turned them off at the beginning of lunch before the kids had a chance to get loud.

We couldn't move out of the district for complicated reasons. But her dad grew up in poverty, in the projects in East Harlem and went to really crappy schools, so when he said "private school" i wasn't going to tell him that it isn't lefty enough. We always say "we don't need her to compete with China, we just need her to continue to love learning." We haven't regretted it. We don't regret living like college students/not taking vacations/not paying down debt/eating on the cheap. She has completely blossomed. She has a deep sense of justice, the organizing skills of a teamster, and speaks the language you hear spoken in the halls of power. She's learning Latin for fun. She's been changed by the community at her school but it has also been changed by her. (Memail me if you want to hear the story of how certain chapters of her health textbook -- chapters important to the health and well-being of girls in particular -- were left out of the curriculum until she raised her voice about it.)

She's a head strong kid -- she wasn't going to take our word for it that "school is great! You should just do your homework, it can't be all that bad." We had to take her self-reports about school seriously. Your kids' responses to their environment will be your guide.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:51 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

A good school doesn't matter but a bad school is life changing, and not in a good way. If you want to make a difference in a failing school, volunteer, donate things, write letters to the school board. Do not sacrifice your children's future to make a point. Put them in the best school that you can.
posted by myselfasme at 6:57 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it helps at all to think about it this way, Montgomery County is a minority-majority jurisdiction, and Fairfax Co is nearly so; both have minority-majority public school populations. So it's not like you'd be moving to Whitelandia or anything.
posted by drlith at 7:22 PM on September 4, 2014

Plenty of anecdotes here, I'm gonna give you some facts. On my phone so can't link but feel free to google, the info is easily accessible. I have studied the sociology of education so I'm not taking out of my butt here.

1 - the biggest determinants of success for your kid are education and income level of parents. Nothing else even comes close. Successful environments produce successful kids, generally regardless of school. The converse is also true. However...

2 - school does make a difference, but it's smaller than you might expect. We are talking about being weeks behind on learning here, not the difference between graduating from Princeton and pumping gas. Private schools make almost no difference whatsoever. These affects do not manifest in every kid in a given class or school.

3 - when you take a "smart" kid out of a "dumb" class, the outcomes for the whole class go down a bit. And when you put one in, they go up a bit. Smart kids "lift" their classes, beyond the addition of their grades.

If you believe it is immoral to benefit at someone else's expense, or that as a citizen and community we have a responsibility to help each other when we are able to, at minimum cost, then you might well consider taking your kid out of such a class immoral. The evidence is that, if your kid is getting advantages from you, school can't ameliorate that.

Speaking personally, I also think exposure to diversity is important for kids, though I'm not aware of any research around the benefits.
posted by smoke at 7:46 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Tl;Dr the benefits and risks of a particular school (as opposed to going to school at all), are generally much overstated in both media and parent's minds. It's a variable that is easy to isolate and control, but its prominence because of that is generally unwarranted.
posted by smoke at 7:50 PM on September 4, 2014

I went to the schools in Takoma Park, up through 7th grade. From 4-7th, I was in the science magnet program, the one that goes on to produce some ungodly number of Westinghouse finalists in their science fair competition. The teachers were engaged, the student body was moderately diverse in principle, but I was mostly in the magnet program bubble. (In 7th grade a kid I didn't know stole the jacket off my back. I eventually got it back because he was wearing it to school. At the time struck me as really stupid of him, but in retrospect I realize it was probably that he didn't have a coat to wear.)

Then I switched to a mediocre public school system in a lily-white suburb of Cleveland. There were differences, to be sure. Academically I was about a year ahead, on average. It was kind of nice to be a big fish in a small pond. The new school system had an AP Computer Science course that I took in 9th grade, and then I was able to take classes at the local mediocre college, which was a little better. The new school system had a decent array of other AP classes with the better teachers, so I was able to get good scores and gain admission to a very prestigious college. Perversely, I think it helped me because I wasn't coming from one of the well-known high schools that send a million students to well-known colleges and universities. It sure was a hell of an adjustment to the demanding college workload, though.

I'm in my 30s now, succeeding in a career that requires technical skills, and I certainly don't regret the magnet program at all. However, it wouldn't have been life-changing. Genetics and parents, for most kids, most of the time, make up the lion's share of the impact, as I understand it. A five-year-old from a poor household has heard one million fewer words than one from a rich household. It's true that kids will spend 14,000 hours at school. But break that down. Probably only half that is real instruction, the rest is gym, lunch, walking to and from class, assemblies, etc. So we're down to 7,000 hours. Even a generous 25:1 student:teacher ratio knocks that down by a major, major factor when we're talking about one-on-one time as opposed to lecture time. Probably only a few hundred hours of real, interactive teaching going on between a student and instructor in their whole K-12 career. Compare that against what you can do. If you take on a longer commute by just 15 minutes a workday instead of working directly with your kids, that's 62 hours per year. Experiences and questions tailored to your specific child's strengths and weaknesses are educational dynamite.

I have my son in a Spanish dual immersion program at a "bad" public school. It's a pain to chauffeur him to and fro, but I think it's more important for him to get the language skills now and experience some real diversity than to be in a "better" school. Even though, according to the test scores, we put him in the worst school in the district. Just a month after he enrolled we received a letter informing us that federal law required them to offer us the opportunity to transfer to a school that wasn't "failing". The teachers at the school know that all the parents are going to get that letter every year, no matter what, even though they teach their hearts out every single day. I applaud them.

Just looking at the standardized tests, it makes a huge difference when you compare apples to apples. At my son's school, the rich white kids are doing better than rich white kids at "better" schools. (I'm being glib, of course, what I mean is native English speakers who aren't eligible for free or reduced lunch.) An elementary school teacher of my acquaintance believes there should be a question on the test, "How many people did you share a bed with last night?"

It's one of those things where you may just have to wait and see how your kids react. Some will thrive, others may struggle. I hope you come to a decision you and your kids can live with.
posted by wnissen at 10:22 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Student outcome, especially in early elementary, is related to the teacher, not the school. I sent my daughter to kindergarten in a neighbourhood where houses sold for over three million. Her teacher was a blithering idiot with terrible teaching methods and classroom management skills. We moved to a school with a more middle class clientele. The teachers actually gave a shit and my daughter's education experience improved.

We did purposefully consider the number of ESL students in the school and opted to live in a neighbourhood which had primarily English as a first language learners. I feel this was a good choice. My perfectly ordinary child gets plenty of attention in the class and the program is customized to her skills and abilities.

Having engaged parents means better equipment, you need a critical mass of moneyed parents to get enough funds for computers, playground equipment, etc.

Being within walking distance from the school helps build friendly relations. Going to a school with traffic patterns suited to walking is fantastic.

You might not need (or perhaps can't afford) the fanciest neighbourhood. I do recommend moving to an area where you have a shared background with other families, where people care about education, and where your child will fit in and make friends.

We rent to make this happen and I firmly believe this is the right choice for our family.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:26 PM on September 4, 2014

You might be interested in reading "The Diverse Schools Dilemma" by Mike Petrelli. Petrelli is a education expert who was struggling with the same issues you are when choosing schools for his kids. Ultimately, he moved from Takoma Park to Bethesda.
posted by statsgirl at 6:41 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

when you take a "smart" kid out of a "dumb" class, the outcomes for the whole class go down a bit. And when you put one in, they go up a bit. Smart kids "lift" their classes, beyond the addition of their grades.

And research shows the higher-performing students suffer for it. Just to round out this particularly problematic perspective a bit more, go ahead and Google "gifted children as unpaid teaching assistants." You absolutely do not want to burden your gifted child with this type of unfair responsibility - and indeed the current gifted research is in unanimous agreement on this point.
posted by hush at 10:27 AM on September 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Counter intuitively, there is some research (covering 14000 kids ), that suggests it is not so clear cut as that, though I'm not sure the OP's kids are gifted?

OP, here's some of the research talking about the relative difference school makes.
posted by smoke at 3:23 PM on September 5, 2014

I'm aware that this also contradicts my second point - that smart kids "lift" classes. Indeed, I really encourage you to do some reading about this phenomenon, known as "peer effect" OP, as it's one of the most hotly debated and researched topics in education research.

In fact, the debate has moved on since I was really across and there are some interesting studies out now, suggesting that peer effects are quite small, that students may benefit from having kids with disabilities in their classes, and also very mixed (PDF, but this is a great paper). I'm going to take the liberty of posting part of the conclusion on that paper, it does buttress my fundamental point, which is that school matters less than people commonly think:
We find that peer effects are not “one-size-fits all,” but rather exhibit striking differences across students of different abilities and across different segments of the peer ability distribution. For example, the weakest students appear to experience the biggest positive impact from having higher quality peers. At the same time, however, such benefit appears to derive specifically from having peers in the highest quintile of the ability distribution. High ability students appear to experience the weakest spillovers from mean per ability, but nonetheless may suffer sharp losses due to an increase in the share of peers of very low ability.

The sizable effects observed in the nonlinear models are obscured in the linear-in-means models, within which we find only very modest, but positive, spillovers from mean peer ability. Furthermore, comparisons of effects between math and reading scores, and across different schooling levels, also depend on whether linear or nonlinear models are employed.

Considering the more nuanced results of the nonlinear models, the policy recommendations are not clear cut. For example, while low-ability students appear to benefit significantly from having top-quality peers, those peers will experience reductions in achievement gains from mixing with students of very low ability, reductions that may fully offset the weaker students’ gains.

On the other hand, policies that mix middle and high ability students with each other are likely to strictly dominate those that segregate the top students in a separate track. While parents may prefer strict tracking, our results indicate that the highest-ability students actually benefit from mixing with students of middling ability. We also find that any negative peer effects from school choice programs are likely to be small (my emph). A choice program that attracted 2.5 percent students, all of them from, the top ability quintile, would have only very small negative effects on the learning gains of lower ability student who remain behind. </blockquote
posted by smoke at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2014

Thanks, statsgirl, for recommending the excellent book "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools" by Mike Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Petrilli says: "The ideal situation for low-achieiving kids is to be in class with higher-achieving peers most of the school day. But the ideal situation for high-achieving kids [such as his own children] is to be with other high achievers most of the day. If there's a sure way to square that circle, I haven't found it." I completely understand why The Petrillis ultimately chose to leave Takoma Park and move to Bethesda, and I appreciated how frank he was about the tradeoffs involved.
posted by hush at 8:03 AM on July 18, 2015

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