Reputation or data: One parent's effort to identify "good" schools

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For the first time in their lives, my twin daughters are attending separate schools. It was a hard decision made after a lot of research and soul searching. My wife and I think both schools are good ones, but I’d be lying if I said I was 100 percent confident. The national debate over whether and how parents can know best when it comes to school choice has me wondering if we’ve chosen well. I am somewhat comforted by the fact that we had full information and access to many options, but I know that’s not the same for every family. That should be the debate on parental choice. Perhaps the process that my family went through—and the differences between the schools we ultimately chose—can help shed light on the larger discussion.

The school that both girls attended through ninth grade last year is an odd one, to be sure, and not just because of its sixth-through-twelfth-grade orientation. As a standalone STEM school, it is more like a charter than a traditional school, but it has no sponsor or elected board; it is supported by a consortium of higher education, philanthropic, and district leaders. As a public school, however unusual, it had a bevy of data for us to look at when we first considered it five years ago: test scores, proficiency and growth data, graduation rates, college-going numbers, teacher education levels, student and teacher diversity information, etc., all of which were impressive, especially given the dismal outcomes for the district’s middle and high schools that my wife and I had investigated and decided against. A school visit to observe classes and talk about educational philosophies left us energized and excited for the possibilities this unusual option could provide.

But there were items on the con side too. The school was very small and had minimal arts and language options, no sports or organized extracurriculars, no auditorium, no busing for us, and no music programs. Accelerated curriculum and early college tracks took the place of more recognizable AP and honors courses. The alums brought out to talk about how great the school is were first-generation college goers who did not look like my daughters. Would they fit in? Would they be motivated? The school is so academically focused it seemed barely able to muster enthusiasm for two social events per year. Most of the people we talked to about our options had never heard of the place. Heck, its lunch program was an array of vending machines.

Did we make the “right” choice? If you are a data-driven decision maker, you might think so, despite the many down sides. If you think student achievement as measured by annual tests is important, you might also approve of our choice. But if you are more inclined to value school culture, a fully rounded socio-emotional experience, some impressive names among the list of alumni, or perhaps a winning football team complete with a homecoming dance, you might argue we made a mistake. Perhaps you may even think that we harmed our children by our choice due to what our chosen school lacked.

One daughter has thrived in this environment and will likely remain there until the end of high school–although the rapid pace and mastery focus has allowed her to complete nearly all of her high school requirements already. Unfortunately, the rapid acceleration and relentless STEM focus led our other daughter to hit a wall last year and thus we needed to make yet another choice for her.

The school to which we moved her this school year is another odd duck: a secular private school of more recent vintage than most. It shares traits with the more familiar prep school model but seemed to us to be a bit more down-to-earth when we investigated. As an independent private school, it had no historical test score data to share, and no academic ranking to compare. In fact, staffers and parent liaisons were adamant that these things shouldn’t really matter. To them, its reputation as a good school was most germane. The quality of its faculty seemed based on how long they had been teaching or where they received their degrees, but the list of school founders was impressive and familiar. The campus was lovely, secluded, and well-appointed. The theatre production we attended was quite good, and there was no escaping the schoolwide excitement over the basketball team’s current run, the impending study trip to Russia, and the quiz bowl team’s fine year. Alumni names dropped regularly in conversation. Dining room, commons, library. Interestingly, this school also eschewed AP, IB, and honors classes, which were replaced by independent study and research projects in students’ junior and senior years, designed and conducted by the students themselves. What constitutes “A” work on such a project? No one seemed to know or care. That was not the point.

Did we make the “right” choice here? Reputation and school culture were the marketing angles, the exact opposite of our previous choice. In the end, we chose this school largely because our daughter had nearly completed her high school requirements—as determined by end of course exams per Ohio law—at the public STEM school and would be able to take advantage of “extras” in the new private school.

We have experienced ups and downs at both schools and questioned our decisions multiple times. Both schools we chose are featured prominently in a recent article about what the future of education in Columbus should look like, which is something of an affirmation, but it’s not proof. So far, our children are learning, growing, and thriving to our satisfaction whether or not we have data to prove it. Even this far into high school, however, there are other options we can explore should the current schools prove ineffective for either of our daughters. That, to me, is the essence of school choice.

The current national debate on parental choice seems to me to lack the nuances illustrated by my family’s story. First, even families with lots of information and access to options struggle with decision. Reputation or data or both? Perhaps other non-academic factors will prevail. Second, families like mine are advantaged over others who don’t immediately have the same resources and systemic familiarity. For their sake, the national debate cannot yet be “parents know best” versus “policy wonks know best.”

School choice supporters must continue to push for multiple options to be fully and freely available to all families regardless of zip code, skin color, and income. Inter-district open enrollment, charters, vouchers, and even standalone schools must be expanded to all who need it. Most importantly, supporters must make sure that as much data as possible is available on all aspects of school “goodness,” both quantitative and qualitative. Solid data are valuable, as are a well-deserved reputation and spending time in a prospective school to see if it passes the eye test. Data should be easily accessible, understandable, and comparable across as many school types as possible.

Until that is a universal reality, all parents can’t know best, and those who have information and access are advantaged over others. The national debate must change to reflect this reality.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,