The troubling ways wealthy parents pick schools

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | December 24, 2015

During the holiday season, the Urban Edge is reposting some of its most-read stories of the year. This item was originally published July 30, 2015.

Image via flickr/dcjohn

Image via flickr/dcjohn

Give parents the choice of where to send their kids to school, and it’s not hard to imagine what they’ll pick: the best place available.

But that raises a more fundamental question: how do parents decide which school is the best?

Researcher Amanda Bancroft wanted to learn more about how parents make such critical choices. What she discovered raises serious questions about class, race, and the education system as we know it.

Bancroft’s work was based on interviews with more than 20 “high-status” parents – mostly wealthy and mostly white – who live in the Houston Independent School District. They represented outliers, since the overwhelming majority of HISD students are racial minorities and economically disadvantaged.

But HISD offered the perfect laboratory for Bancroft, of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Houston Education Research Consortium, to conduct her research. Since the 1970s, HISD has been a pioneer in offering “school choice” for parents. Under school choice programs, parents can send their children to the local school to which they’re zoned, but they can also apply for admission to magnet schools focused on specific topics, vanguard schools for high-achievers, or charter schools that have some freedom from district oversight.

“It created a market for parents to have access to different kinds of schools,” Bancroft said in an interview.

Ideally, the policies are a win-win for everyone. Lower-income parents don’t necessarily have to send their children to the types of underfunded schools typical of low-income neighborhoods. High-performing students can attend schools in the place that suit them best.

But Bancroft, based on her interviews with “high-status” parents, found an intriguing (and somewhat disturbing) trend.

In the wake of No Child Left Behind, a slew of data became available to policymakers and parents alike that can be used to figure out which schools are strong performers and which aren’t. Ostensibly, that accountability data – widely available online – should be key element in helping parents determine where they want to send their kids to school.

But that wasn’t the case. Bancroft said accountability data played a lesser role in parents’ decision-making process that many school choice advocates theorize.

Instead, parents relied on anecdotes from friends about which schools are best. And while district accountability data didn’t play a big role in their decision-making process, Bancroft found the racial makeup of schools did.

Generally, high-status parents chose schools they felt were a safe bet. In many cases, she writes in her forthcoming paper, that’s “not necessarily the school with the best test scores, the lowest teacher turnover, or any of the other data that are aggregated into a school’s accountability profile.”

Instead, she said, “‘safe’ is whatever collective opinion says the ‘good’ schools are – usually, the schools that have a majority of white, affluent students.”

That’s ironic, since the very school choice system that allowed them to make those decisions was originally designed as a way to foster integration. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act, school choice gave lower-income residents in segregated communities access to the type of white schools from which they had previously been excluded.

To be clear, the parents Bancroft interviewed rarely explicitly mentioned a school’s racial composition as a reason they sent their kids there (or as a reason for moving them elsewhere). “It wasn’t so much what they were saying as how they were saying it,” Bancroft explained.

Instead, they relied on coded language, using words like “urban” to describe the populations of some schools or reiterating fears about “gangs” or “crack dealers.” Bancroft said it’s “hardly a stretch” to figure out what parents were talking about when they used those terms. (It’s worth noting that the use of this language isn’t unique to the respondents in Bancroft’s study; in fact, the use of race-based coded language among this population is well-documented.)

The role of race in choosing schools was so pronounced that, in some cases, parents actually put their kids in lower-performing schools rather than enroll them in a higher-performing school with large numbers of minority students.

One interviewee, for example, moved his family to avoid getting stuck with what he believed to be a substandard school. But Bancroft notes that all of the elementary schools in that parent’s former neighborhood had met accountability standards for the last four years. One reason he might have moved? Student enrollment in each of those schools was 50 percent to 90 percent Hispanic, Bancroft found.

A different parent made a distinction between the “high-quality” and “lesser-quality” kids in the district while making a reference to students’ races.

Another tried to avoid enrolling his child in a school that was actually one of the most sought-after in the district, citing its “urban” problems.

When parents did use accountability data, they often used it as an afterthought and suggested it shouldn’t be trusted, Bancroft found. In one instance, a parent told Bancroft she avoided a school because it had poor accountability ratings. But when Bancroft went back and checked the data, it showed the school doing well. It wasn’t difficult to surmise that other factors were at play.

In her paper, Bancroft highlights the delicate dance parents take as they explain their choices. At the same time, she points to the larger problem school choice raises. She writes:

“When the parents in my study referred to the ‘urban problems’ in a school, it allows them to link the lack of quality they see in the school to teen pregnancy and drugs – individual acts – when the larger problem with the school is that it exists within a segregated district with unequal access to quality education. Color-blind cultural logics have arisen in a society that is built on racial inequality, but is organized by a set of social norms that say talking openly about race is unacceptable.”

The study raises questions about whether school choice really accomplishes what it’s intended to accomplish.

Often, high-status parents have the resources to move close to a school they think will serve their child well. That way, even if they don’t wind up at the magnet or vanguard program they’re seeking, they’ll still have access to a school they perceive as “good.”

That’s problematic, because the option of moving in order to have access to certain schools isn’t financially feasible to many lower-income residents of the district. And that fact largely undermines the promise of school choice.

Bancroft argues that the way high-parents use school choice has the potential to entrench segregation within the district rather than combat it. In the end, she writes, the program provides a new way in which “collective stereotypes work in the interest of the privileged and against the interests of the poor and the marginalized.”

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7 Responses

  1. Joan Peterson says:

    OK. But when do we get to the part that says, hmm, maybe these people aren’t just pure racists – maybe we should think about their decision process? Try to empathize, understand?

    When we stop thinking of people as stereotypes and one-dimensional beings – maybe we can untangle what they value, and how their decisions might actually be the right ones.

    If you never try to see them as reasonable people trying to make reasonable decisions, you’ll never understand them and be able to work out something that moves us all forward.

    • Ed McWhorter says:

      OK, Joan. Please help us out with this. Please explain the reason behind these reasonable decisions to value racial composition over school performance. The parents in the article themselves seem to have had trouble explaining their reasonableness, citing school performance data that actually contradicted their choices where latent racism seems to have explained those choices perfectly. Help us get in their heads in a way that even they were not able to. We’re dying to hear it.

  2. Sadie Douse says:

    Parents should research on schools how there teachers are how they teach students and what is the level of there education.
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  3. Lori Britton says:

    This was a narrow study, and the results were reported in this piece in an even slimmer point of view. I could have been part of the study, Four kids who went to a total of 4 Houston schools, highly rated private and public, plus a boarding school. We are zoned to “best” schools. We chose private with one public high school in the mix. I can honestly say that kids not in the “upper tier” public programs were not educated well. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian – whatever – in regular classes they were underserved. My housekeeper has two daughters. The parents are neither white nor affluent. They moved to an area based on school accountability standards and enrolled their children. The school did not meet their personal accountability standards. The girls’ educational, social and extra curricular needs were not being nourished, in fact, educationally they were being stunted. The parents went through the same process as white, affluent parents, though with fewer choices, in picking a new school where their children could flourish. They chose a respected Charter School and their children are excelling in all areas. What I want is for ALL families to have the same choices. Data is numbers, people are what make up a community. That is not about race, it’s about a common goal for a good educational environment for children. All races want that, not just affluent white people. It’s absurd to think otherwise. Make school choice available to everyone. Up the accountability of all public schools so those who need a neighborhood school have a great choice and they will come. This is not rocket science or some unspoken plot to keep people down. Get off the racism rant, and help fix a system that is failing a good portion of a generation of Houstonians.

  4. Luke Smith says:

    There could be a social aspect to their decisions.

  5. Steve says:

    I tend to agree that there is not ‘racism rant’ in this article. Paraphrasing Mr McWorther, latent racism seems to explain and fit the data. The question raised to me is given that reality how do we improve the status quo. The following are a few thoughts that come to mind.

    It should be obvious that academics are and should always be paramount. When the high school is perceived as an academic powerhouse, that school will be very desirable to parents indeed. The question may then be, what inhibits such a school from being desirable to parents.

    I would consider the perception of security and discipline as fundamental requirements to any desirable high/middle/elementary school. Perhaps an index of perceived security, respect for teachers, safety should be quantified. I would award extra points in this metric for school uniforms for example.

    Lastly, proximity or location of the academically focused school is a requirement. If the parent must drive through rush hour traffic to get their kids to a magnet school, this acts as an inhibitor of the best intentions.

    I liked this article and hope to continue the dialog it started. It is an absolutely critical conversation to have.

  6. Button says:

    HOW MANY WAYS DOES THIS WOMAN GET IT WRONG?

    Ok – I started off writing a long rant about the absurdity of this woman’s analysis. However, on my way to refuting her poorly researched and race tinged analysis, I took a look at her methodology. There is so much wrong — from shoddy research to unsupported conclusions that it cries out to be used in some B school parody of population research run amok!
    First, lets discuss sample size. For any fact based research, the sample size is determined by the population size, margin of error (confidence interval), confidence level and standard deviation. For a population of 2 million, your sample size would need to be at least 2,399 respondents. If your population is 220,000 your sample size should be 2,376 with a margin of error of 2% and a 95% confidence level. (Note that sample size doesn’t change much for populations over 20,000.) Now researchers know that in order to get a statistically relevant sample size, they need to invite a certain number of individuals to participate. Response rates will vary depending on the method of delivery i.e., email, phone, paper, person to person, quality of the invitation, use of incentives, etc. If one assumes that the response rate will be 20%, then one needs to invite 11,180 people to participate. As is it, using a highly unlikely response rate of 100%, the author would have needed to interview any where from 2,376 (220,000) individuals to 2,399 (2,000,000) individuals to get a truly randomized sampling. How many did the author interview? Twenty! Some “mostly white” — whatever mostly white means (is that 80% white or 90% white) and wealthy –whatever her definition of wealthy is which can vary by a WIDE margin. Where and how did she select her interview subjects? Did she stand in line at the River Oaks Starbucks, asking questions? Did she send out a survey? How did this woman selectively choose the people to be interviewed — all twenty of them?

    Secondly, there is an art and science to writing survey questions. One needs to limit the scope of the questions, the complexity of the questions, limit leading questions and narrow the response options so that interpretations of response have meaning and are valid. What does Bancroft use? Who knows? What we do know is that she makes an egregious leap into mind reading and states: [“Generally, high-status parents chose schools they felt were a safe bet. In many cases, she writes in her forthcoming paper, that’s “not necessarily the school with the best test scores, the lowest teacher turnover, or any of the other data that are aggregated into a school’s accountability profile.” Instead, she said, “‘safe’ is whatever collective opinion says the ‘good’ schools are – usually, the schools that have a majority of white, affluent students.”] Oh my gosh, how does she know this? To be clear, Bancrap openly admits no parents ever explicitly said that. Yes, that’s right, no parents said what she infers. She used her own biased interpretations of her giant (haha!!) sample to make unsupported and unsubstantiated analogies.

    And seriously, what does “generally” mean in this context? Is that 19 out of 20, 15 out of 20 or 10 out of 20 or … better yet … 10 out of the 12 that answered her query in the way that she wanted. (The heart surgeon says to his patient, “Generally, my operations go well!” The patient says, “ What does that mean, 80%, 75%, or 60% of time it goes well?” The doctor replies, “Generally, yes!”)

    I don’t have the time to refute all of the inadequacies and egregious mistakes made in this race baiting article. From the get go, you can see the author had an agenda she was pushing. By the numbers, HISD is 8.3% white, Houston is 50.5% white. What that means is that 83% of the white population is not educating their children in HISD. The Asian population in Houston is 14.1% while HISD gets only 3.6% participation. Again, 75.5% of the asian population chooses to not send their children through HISD. Hello, Bancroft!! Did you interview any of these populations? No, you selectively chose 20 women, that you deemed “mostly white” (again, what does that mean?) and “mostly wealthy”(Yes, what does that mean?). How flawed is your analysis? According to latest Census data, 6.7% of Houstonians make over $200,000 which means 3.4% of the white people in Houston make over $200,000 and 3.3% of nonwhite people make over $200,000. Using the census data, 96.6% of white people are not wealthy AND 83% of the white population are not sending their child through HISD. Bancrap interviewed 20 selectively chosen women which were clearly not representative of the 96.6% white, non- wealthy population and made racially charged inferences about the white populations’ school choices.

    I abhor this type of gotcha journalism. The author makes sweeping generalizations that are unsupported. Why doesn’t the author do her home work? HISD has a racial make up of 24.9% african-american, 62.1% hispanic, 8.3% white, 3.6% asian. Of the 215,000 students in the district, 75.6% are economically disadvantaged, and 30.1% have limited english proficiency. If your are an affluent, educated parent and you want your child to be surrounded by peers that are similar, you are going to have a hard time finding a school in HISD. Why would you place your child in a school where they would be a minority? Why? Our children aren’t social experiments. A parents responsibility is provide the best learning environment they can afford for their child. Every parent puts their child first and any parent who doesn’t shouldn’t have children. People live and send their children to schools that are similar to them. If the academic standards, racial makeup or value system of the school doesn’t mirror their life, then the child will not attend that school.

    [“Bancroft argues that the way high-status parents use school choice has the potential to entrench segregation within the district rather than combat it. In the end, she writes, the program provides a new way in which “collective stereotypes work in the interest of the privileged and against the interests of the poor and the marginalized.”] There is absolutely, 100% no way she has proven anything close to this. She has not provided any evidence to support her statements, she has not proven how school choice helps or hurts poor and marginalized students, she has not proven why multiple populations choose not to send their children to HISD. She has proven one thing, and one thing alone, and that is she has no credibility, no research driven skill set and should be forced to apologize to all parties that she injured with her reckless, unsubstantiated comments.

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