Monday, December 28, 2009

Invisible fences for humans, Part III: Importing desirability to schools that lack the demographic advantages.

My previous post on this subject explored my hypothesis, on how school districts derive most of their competitive advantage from demographics that favor high educational attainment. The greatest public schools earn their cachet far more from demographics that skew towards either low poverty or ethnic homogeneity (or ideally a combination of the two) far more than intensive credentialing for teachers, sophisticated pedagogical technology, or a high per pupil funding.

If it wasn’t clear from that analysis, perhaps the picture above, from the highly ranked suburban school district of Plainfield, Indiana, should communicate exactly how this country regards its patchwork of widely divergent school systems. I’ll reiterate my conclusion from the previous post: Despite a non-exclusionary structure that resembles a public good, school districts are first and foremost commodities of variable quality which forces them to compete for patronage. When highly marketable, school districts endow land within their invisible boundaries with greater value. Therefore, both municipal governments and electorates themselves have commodified schools so intractably that it has become their ambition to refine the district continuously, ideally so that it attracts the demographic base that will allow it to perform at a high standard as efficiently as possible.

Realtors have long known that it behooves them to become proficient in the nuances regional school quality, particularly if the prospective buyer is under 50, but even older, childless clientele often seek good districts because they know it will influence the appreciation of their home values. Websites like provide a “grassroots” information exchange for people seeking to relocate, in order to get firsthand information from locals in that prospective region; the overwhelming majority inquire about school districts. In Indianapolis, the local respondents consistently steer people directly toward the suburbs, advising them to shun IPS and avoid most of the collar townships, with the possible exception of Washington Township, Franklin Township, Speedway, or Beech Grove—the four school districts outlined earlier in the map above. Thus, within Marion County, only the districts featuring the two darker shades of purple enjoy the consistent reputation of desirable places to raise a family, due to the quality of the public schools.

Where does this leave those districts that fall somewhere in the middle, the ones that are neither wealthy (like Bexley) nor homogeneous (like Beech Grove), nor entrenched with poverty and a lack of parental involvement, the way Indianapolis and Columbus Public Schools are? This comprises a considerable amount of the city’s land area. Many of these districts, such as the majority of the collar townships in Indianapolis, are currently simply average, which is hardly appealing to newcomers with high aspirations when they can find exceptional school districts just a few miles away, outside the city limits. Because these average districts fail to contain in their boundaries the demographics that make them high-performance, they can quickly translate to “unsuccessful” and will hemorrhage the student population whose parents have the wherewithal to seek better public schools. In time, the collar townships of Indianapolis, or suburbs like Whitehall in Columbus, could contend with the same malaise and atrocious test scores as the inner city public schools, when all the committed students and their families have left. The polarization of school districts into haves and have-nots continues.

My recommendations have little to do with school management. I’m not a superintendent or a professional educator, and I wouldn’t pretend to know how to change operations within a particular school or classroom to adapt the curriculum to an evolving student body. Many of these recommendations would no doubt come across as naïve to someone intimately involved in public education. They probably are naïve. But I have been able to observe declining public attitudes towards some districts, while others remain ironclad bastions of academic excellence, and I have scrutinized the population changes taking place within these jurisdictions. Nearly all of the school districts in the collar townships of Indianapolis had strong reputations twenty years ago, and now many of them don’t, despite the fact that many of the same faculty and staff are still working there, just as committed as they were before. How can these middle-tier schools cope with demographic change? I propose a framework for rethinking the branding of schools districts that aren’t hot commodities like Bexley, or comfortably lily-white like Beech Grove—observations the ways to reinvent themselves so that their image, and the educational product they sell, can remain competitive.

1) Stop using the top-tier school districts in the rich suburbs as a model to emulate; look instead to the creative responses to challenges that the inner city schools are facing
. Much of Indianapolis and Columbus city limits encompasses what demographers and urban planners are typically labeling inner-ring suburbia. These regions within the metropolitan landscape typically share similar features; among the most prevalent are their homes built before the 1960s, often in an automobile oriented configuration. The inner-ring suburban neighborhoods eschew the urban street grid, using curvilinear streets in a hierarchical configuration in which residential areas are segregated from commercial districts with minimal through-streets. The unadorned, outmoded strip malls in these areas are often heavily vacant, the houses are small (by today’s standards) and old-fashioned, and the newly arrived populations (often foreign-born or African American) have significantly lower spending capacity than the middle class folks who preceded them. These areas are, in many regards, economically declining. Thus, it is wishful thinking for the school districts that serve these areas (many of the collar townships in Indianapolis, for example) to continue to think that new school spending on state-of-the-art smart classrooms, stadia, or auditoriums will necessarily attract well-heeled newcomers to the public schools. Nonetheless, many of them have recently tried levying a new tax through mostly unsuccessful referenda. The fact remains that the middle class who once lived in these areas is receding, as families with the spending capacity make beelines to the excellent school districts in the shiny, new, poverty-free suburbs and exurbs. The new student population is less likely to have committed parents or college aspirations, which is typically reflected by higher drop-out rates and lower standardized test scores. These districts cannot compete with suburbia on academic performance statistics alone. They should instead look at the initiatives of inner-city districts, which struggle to attract anything other than the extreme poor to their catchment area. Indianapolis Public Schools offers a diverse array of charter programs (more than just about any district in the country), with a success rate that is mixed but still often surpasses the conventional inner-city schools. Magnet programs are an excellent way of preserving a degree of heterogeneity in a school district. Unfortunately, they typically sequester the highest achieving, more affluent students living in an inner city district through a college-placement curriculum, so that the poorer, less academically minded students only share the same roof with the aforementioned kids while taking completely different classes. Nonetheless, magnet schools instill a measure of socioeconomic diversity otherwise unseen in the overwhelmingly poor, minority districts throughout American inner cities. Many inner-ring districts in Indianapolis offer innovative programs, such as charter schools or a language immersion school in the collar township of Lawrence. School districts have to offer a viable service, and some families with enough disposable income to be choosy will seek innovation and creativity, even if it takes place in outmoded buildings. The continued popularity of magnet programs at schools such as Broad Ripple and Arsenal Tech prove that the political catchphrase of “instruction not construction” can elicit measurable results. By all means, fix the leaky pool or aging boiler, but no Olympic sized pool on its own is going to draw affluent families to the district if the suburb next door has a good pool and high test scores.

Embrace the cultural and ethnic diversity typically inherent in these school districts, particularly by accommodating programming in the fine arts, humanities, and athletics. With their diverse economies and low costs of living, cities like Columbus and Indianapolis have become increasingly desirable destinations for both middle class families and aspiring recent immigrants, particularly in the past decade or so. The dichotomy between the aforementioned groups, however, is profound—the white middle class families exercise their spending power and build new homes in the suburbs or buy in places like Bexley (if they can afford it), while the immigrants and foreign-born often settle with the older housing stock in the central cities. The inner-ring suburbs, though economically declining by many metrics, still offer better schools, lower crime, and greater accessibility to the scattered jobs in these decentralized metros than the aging housing in the inner cities, with their extreme mix of gentrified yuppie enclaves and profound minority poverty. The inner-rings are some of the most diverse areas in the nation, often boasting 20 to 30 languages within a few square miles, co-existing peacefully for the most part. In Indianapolis, few of schools in the collar townships in 1990 had a need for English as a Learned Language programs (ELL); today, nearly all of them do. A few of the elementary schools in the formerly lily-white Perry Township (just south of downtown Indy and IPS) now have student bodies that consist of 20% to 30% Burmese refugees. Clearly these foreign-born students have needs distinct from their English-speaking peers, but to what degree should they be sequestered? My speculation is that schools (at least in Midwest cities like Indianapolis and Columbus) are doing a much better job at recognizing this observation than my Observation #1. Many schools engage these students through international and cultural festivals, while classes with fewer language needs—such as mathematics and physical education—are frequently fully integrated. Administrators might be able to take this a step further by incorporating it into curriculum where an international Weltanschauung benefits everyone, including the native English speakers. Courses such as world history (sadly an elective across much of the US), art history, music appreciation, civics, phys ed (international sports), or even a sociology class devoted to immigration—all of these have the potential for malleability that would allow them to adapt to a broader cultural outlook, even if it only involves one or two days out of the entire semester. Not every middle-class parent is seeking ethnic homogeneity in the school districts; homogeneity just tends to yield the best test results, and people gravitate to favorable numbers. Branding schools as diverse by adding the multicultural perspective that international schools successfully adopted long ago (often with great success), could help turn around the struggling inner-ring suburban districts by tapping into the aspect of their identity that can distinguish them positively.

Accommodate socioeconomic or aspirational strata through increasingly divergent curricula beyond elementary school. I’ve read City-Data forum postings where well-educated, liberal parents have shrugged their shoulders at the fact they are shielding their kids from cultural diversity by sending them to the highly-ranked suburban public schools; they argue that their kids will get plenty of multicultural exposure in college and it’s more important right now to send them to a top school. I could hardly criticize this argument. Of course, much of the homogeneity that affluent parents seek in good school districts has less to do with race or ethnicity that socioeconomics. Not all these middle class families are so prejudiced that they move to the suburbs solely to avoid racial minorities. Wealthy, top ranked districts in the suburbs, such as Carmel High School north of Indianapolis, are not uniformly Caucasian. Many of these schools have a strong racial minority and foreign-born population; the difference is that these minorities are equally affluent and strive to send their kids to the top public schools in the region. Their parents have raised them in an English-speaking environment, either because the household is multilingual or they are second- and third-generation immigrants. The inner-ring collar townships of Indianapolis and the suburban outskirts within Columbus city limits aren’t remotely economically one-note. Even if, all too frequently, the more aspirational (and often wealthier) kids tend to become segregated into the accelerated educational track, both wealthy and poor students bump shoulders in the hallways between classes or in the non-weighted subjects, such as music or phys ed. High schools in the collar townships will continue to encompass socioeconomic diversity, which may prove beneficial for dealing with life down the road, since, unless we all move to places like Carmel, we all have to engage with people outside our income level now and then. Probably 30 to 50% of students at the inner-ring school districts go on to college; about 90% in Carmel do. Since only about 30% of all Americans have a college education, you can guess which school system is more reflective of the greater American population at large. I can’t help but wonder if the economically diverse schools appear under continuous strain because they have to accommodate such a wide variety of aspirations. Many reformers have argued that the American system has left itself hamstrung by nationwide, standardized minimum curricula, forcing nearly all students to get at least three years of mathematics, two years of science, four in English, etc, even when it is clear that a large contingent lack the aptitude, ambition, interest, or need for algebra or Julius Caesar. It makes me wonder how well an increasingly diverse nation such as Germany is adapting to its multi-tiered system, in which, after the Grundschule from grades 1 through 4, students are divided, based on academic ability and parents’ wishes, to one of three facilities. The five-year Hauptschule teaches some advanced subjects at a slower pace and prepares students for vocational apprenticeships. The six-year Realschule includes part-time vocational schools and advanced apprenticeships, with the possibility of moving up to the nine-year Gymnasium, the school for university-bound students. This structure generally favorably skews international test scores for Germans, since many standardized math and science exams only target the students enrolled in the full 13-year Gymnasium. From an American perspective, the German system may appear overly deterministic and highly segregated, filtering out students by ability at an inordinately young age. But lateral mobility from school to school is always possible, and it already bears a passing resemblance to the hierarchy of accelerated, gifted/talented, special ed, or remedial programs that exist throughout the US. Placing such a system under one roof would allow different aspirational levels to find a specific niche that allows a broader array of students the opportunity to excel, but it would still give the district the ability to focus quality programming on the college-bound contingent among the students. Some high achieving parents actually prefer such an educational environment because it is less “snobby” or elitist than the fancy suburban schools, but the standards for the college-bound students remain high. For parents with the financial resources who don’t want the demographics of their high school to echo the nearest country club, a school with diversified academic tracks aligned with ability may be a better fit.

Encourage the populations living in these districts who are unaffected by school quality to engage with the districts. This intense discussion about accommodating families with school children leaves out one sizable demographic: those for whom public schools are irrelevant. This contingent may even comprise a majority of the population in many major cities, since it includes households with no children, households for whom the children are grown and out of school, or households who send their children to private schools. Most struggling inner city public schools are experiencing a net decline in student enrollment form year to year; if these districts are experiencing any population growth whatsoever, chances are the new arrivals belong to one of the groups listed above. Many of these people have made the choice to move or remain in the central city despite steeper crime rates, higher taxes, deteriorating infrastructure, and a floundering public education system. The reasons for remaining are diverse, but embedded in many of them is a commitment to living in the city to support the amenities that urban centers have to offer (even if, as is frequently case in Indianapolis and Columbus, the environment in which they may live remains auto-oriented and suburban). Many of these people are themselves well-educated and affluent; the property owners among them have voluntarily subjected themselves to a certain level of taxation to support the local districts, even though it has no bearing on them personally, beyond the truism that good schools equate to higher home values. If school districts forged ways of getting these people involved in their respective districts, it could only broaden the aggregate level of stewardship. How can they achieve this? Recent retirees and empty nesters often seek volunteering opportunities and may be eager to help tutor ELL students, coach freshman football, or serve as an assistant director for school plays. Publicity for major events—the annual musical, a major basketball rivalry, a statewide debate tournament—should target far more than just the parents of children involved. These individuals could easily offer a relevant outsider’s perspective on school boards or education foundations. I think the inner-ring school districts have only just begun to tap into the communitarian-mindedness of the local childless population, perhaps because they would appear an unlikely source for additional financial support; after all, they’re already paying heavy taxes for a service they don’t use. But the property owners among them still have an interest in successful school districts because of the impact it can exert on their home’s value. The potential for volunteerism and fresh ideas these people offer remains generally overlooked.

If it isn’t obvious already from this long analysis, school districts across the US tend to polarize; the status quo is homogeneity, often by race and nearly always by social class. The inner-ring, collar county schools—the mediocre ones—get very little attention, sandwiched between the superstars in the outer suburbs and the deeply troubled ones of the inner-city. The success stories among schools that fit into this category rarely make it into the local newspaper, but in Marion County, one school district does seem to enjoy the lion’s share of positive press: Washington Township, the collar township directly north of Indianapolis Public Schools, outlined in yellow in the map above. North Central High School, the only grade 9-12 public school in the district, still enjoys a reputation that ranges from good to superlative, all while being far from racially or economically homogeneous. Department of Education snapshots reveal that the student body of over 3,200 is under 50% white, and the district encompasses some Indianapolis’ most prestigious neighborhoods, such as Williams Creek and Meridian Hills, while also feeding into some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the region, such as parts of The Meadows; 29% of the student body qualifies for the free lunch program.

Within the Indianapolis metro, North Central’s reputation is of an institution that manages to wield its colossal size and diversity towards overwhelming self-affirmation. It caters to a tough crowd yet annually sends kids to Harvard and Yale; it has a permanent security team after successful arson attempts in the 1990s yet offers a full array of Advance Placement and International Baccalaureate programs; it provides curricula to kids living in Section 8 as well as trust fund beneficiaries. The fact that it is “tough” and “urban” yet still elite has evolved to one of its primary selling points: the wealthy kids can prepare themselves for college while still understanding the need for street smarts that comes from having classmates who grow up entirely without privilege. Those same lower-income students may receive a discipline and sufficient exposure to academic success to motivate them when they find no inspiration or support in their immediate families. Co-existence of polar opposites under North Central’s mammoth roof is not a guaranteed success, but it has sustained itself for decades. My generalizations about the rich and poor are of course superficial to the point of being patronizing, but the essence of a school’s reputation is often based on similarly facile stereotypes. North Central’s reputation of tough and top-tier derives largely from the fact that it attracts an urban liberal gentry committed to a diverse worldview, and it is possible some of its programs—particularly the costly International Baccalaureate—would be hard to replicate in the other inner-ring, collar township schools of Indianapolis. But it is clearly getting something right that other districts such as Pike and Lawrence Township, are struggling to achieve as their growing diversity has resulted in a decline in the academic reputation. North Central remains the regional paradigm.

As I conclude this intensive study inspired by the differences inside and outside the Columbus suburb of Bexley, I am likely to subject myself to a wide array of criticism, much of it no doubt deserved. It may appear that I have overemphasized the importance school districts play in the overall desirability of a location. I’m sure other educational policy analysts would assert that I have focused on demographic influences on public schools, almost deterministically and at the exclusion of other variables. But I remain convinced that teachers, principals, facilities, computers, and overall cash flow have far less of an impact than the home environment to which students return at the end of a day. Dedicated teachers, sophisticated technology, and tremendous public spending will seldom compensate for lack of familial support. If too many students come from families who cannot be motivated to value their children’s education (as is the case in Indianapolis and Columbus Public Schools), educators will not be able to cultivate an environment that appeals to those families who do care. Perhaps I focus on the middle-tier schools that are losing ground because I went to an inner-ring school district myself and received a perfectly good education from it. A little over a decade later, many of the same teachers remain in my high school as committed to their jobs as ever, even while the student population has skewed increasingly toward foreign-born newcomers and racial minorities, seeking an alternative to dysfunctional inner-city schools but not wealthy enough to afford the elite exurbs. While the forces that instigate urban decline and renewal are infinitely complicated, for a significant portion of the American population, schools are the tail that wags the dog. We really do—at least many of us—value education that much.


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