The Problem with “Great Schools”

By Ali McKay | May 30, 2018

by Ali McKay

If you have young kids or use online realtor sites, you’ve probably seen the school ratings from GreatSchools. Our school is rated a “4”. That’s out of 10. When I was in school, forty percent is not a grade that I or my parents would have been happy with. In fact, there would have been a fair amount of freaking out about a 4 out of 10. And yet, my children, and all of the other 330 kids in that school, are learning, having fun, and occasionally misbehaving or letting off steam. They are being kids. The more I think about it, the more I wonder how a building full of people – actual kids, teachers, parents, staff – can be described by one number.


I am very happy with our school, even though it has some pretty significant challenges. It isn’t a “4” to me, or to most other parents I’ve talked to. I have friends at other nearby elementary schools with ratings of “3”, “4”, even “2” – they also love their schools.


So why is our school’s rating not fitting my experience, and so many other people’s experience? And why do ratings in general, and’s ratings in particular, perpetuate segregation and resource hoarding?    


First, a little bit more about my experience. I knew our school was a remarkable place when we toured. I saw a young girl put her arm around the shoulders of her classmate (who appeared to have significant special needs) and guide her carefully across the library. This act of care stuck with me, but mostly, I just saw lots of cute kids. Many were students of color, some girls wore headscarves, and there were a wide range of disabilities and special needs. This was, and is, a community that was a better reflection of the world than a school that is white, privileged and segregated. We believed this would be the kind of education my kids needed. So, we left our more white, privileged and segregated school and moved our children to this school.


And it has been the kind of education they need. Truthfully, it’s also been the kind of education I also need as a white, privileged parent. My older son, an “Advanced Learner”, is thriving, especially socially. I won’t say the academics are as rigorous (or stressful) as before, but he is a reading fiend and I have seen his anxiety drop and his social life develop in a very healthy and positive way – in ways I don’t think it could have at the whiter, much richer school he attended before. In our previous school, there was a clear majority (white, wealthy, high achieving) from whose norms he desperately did not want to deviate. With such a clear norm, his drive to conform was strong. He cried in class often. And, our platitudes to him about diversity held little weight or relevance to him there. Now, he is one among many – different races, different economic classes, different religions. It seems his need to conform can’t find root.


Importantly, from that also flows an active dialogue and conversations between us and our kids, and between my husband and I as their parents, about race, class and difference. Why does a classmate wear a head scarf? What is her experience fasting for Ramadan? What is a Christian? What is an Atheist? These are all conversations we’ve had. We’ve had to engage with these issues as parents much more deeply than when we could float lazily on the river of sameness at our old school. We are now “riding the rapids” of difference, which is sometimes scary, but also empowering. Empowering because we learn and develop critical thinking skills rather than float along doing what everyone else does.


As for my younger son, who is in Kindergarten, he just told me the other day that he actually likes school. He’s enjoying himself, and he’s learning to read, write, and interact with peers who look and act differently and have different abilities than he does. He gets a social education as much as an academic one. Most importantly, there are loving, dedicated and hard-working teachers and staff at school every day telling all the students that they matter and that they can learn. These things are very important to me, and a number rating will never be able to tell me about them.


Now, let’s talk about the problem with GreatSchools. Our previous school is a “good” school, rated 7 out of 10 on GreatSchools. Search on GreatSchools and you’ll see these ratings right away. The “good” schools are marked with big green tear drops (let’s call them “GoHere! Drops”). The schools who rate 7 or less are depicted by tiny little orange, red or gray circles (let’s call them “Stay Away! Circles”). Here is Seattle, where I live:

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Parents who see those little orange and red dots (Stay Away! Circles) are, understandably, worried. The ever-present narrative is that you MUST send your kids to the good schools. And you must do whatever it takes to send them to those schools. Or you go to private school (and many do in Seattle).  Why is this the narrative? Because that’s what everyone else says and does. Because we are asking and answering other people’s questions. But we need to be asking other (or at least more) questions. Questions of the schools, questions of ourselves, and questions of GreatSchools.


So what, exactly, is GreatSchools measuring? Mostly socioeconomic status, it turns out. In fact, Jack Schneider, an historian and researcher who studies schools, has written that factors the schools can control usually explain only about 20% of test scores.  That means at least sixty percent of test scores is determined by socioeconomic status. Low income students will tend to score lower and high income students will score higher – and this is regardless of where they go to school. Much has been written about why, but, as just one example, researchers have found that poverty affects kids’ language environments. And, middle and upper class parents are, from day one, cultivating their kids’ language and other skills, setting them up to stay in the middle or upper class.


Certainly, the more words you know and the more your parents and your upbringing have cultivated you for tests, the better your test scores will be.  It is these scores that account for 47% of GreatSchool’s school rating for elementary schools (and a whopping 72% if you add in their ‘Student Progress’ on tests factor). This means that the GoHere! Drops and the StayAway! Circles are mostly telling you to find high socioeconomic students and avoid lower socioeconomic students (and English language learners, kids who qualify for special education services, and so on . . .).


I can attest that the testing situation I’ve just described is true for my kids. Ours is a Title I school where 65% of students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch, and, significantly, upwards of 30% are homeless and 48% turn over (i.e. leave) every year. While many students at our school do not meet the standards for their grades, my kids test fine (as mentioned above, the older one is even an “Advanced Learner”).


GreatSchools seems to be aware that there may be a problem, and changed their ratings late in 2017 to include an equity component. This component accounts for 28% of a school’s rating (i.e. whether it is a GoHere! Drop or a StayAway! Circle). Their website says: “We believe that every parent — regardless of where they live or how much money they make — needs reliable information in order to ensure their child is being served by their school.” They have many pictures of Black and Brown families on their site.


They may be sincere and wish to effect positive change. But they are an organization that relies heavily on test scores. And importantly, appears to be funded by revenue from ads for private schools and funders, like the Walton Foundation (a conservative foundation created by the Walmart family), that have often been hostile to public schools – hostile to the very idea that public schools are a common good that supports a robust, flexible and tolerant democracy. We also need to ask how useful these school ratings are to the Black and Brown families they picture on their website. The GoHere! Drops show up almost exclusively in mostly white neighborhoods where, in Seattle and cities like it, a small single family home costs at least a million dollars and where there is little or no affordable housing. (That school with the 10 in the map above is in a neighborhood where, as of this writing, there was nothing for sale below about $1 million, and I happen to know many desirable houses go for 30-40% over asking.) Similarly, how much revenue does GreatSchools generate licensing their ratings to online realtor sites and other real estate sites targeting people who have the wealth to purchase a home in the first place? Those who have enough income and wealth to purchase a home in zone with a “good” school (GoHere! Drops) are not low income or low net worth families. Even GreatSchools’ president Mathew Nelson says that the best way to know if a school is right for you is to visit and talk to people in the community. So, what is that single digit rating really for then?


These facts are troubling by themselves. More importantly, and as I said above, we should view anything that assigns one number to a school building full of people – kids, teachers, custodians, librarians – with a hefty dose of skepticism. And, to ice this rather yucky cake, these ratings perpetuate segregation.


There is evidence that families seeking those GoHere! Drops on, the “good” schools, are in fact a big cause of housing segregation (See, The Chicken or Egg Debate: Housing v. School Integration by Halley Potter of The Century Foundation). The increasing income segregation our cities are experiencing is exacerbated by families with high incomes seeking good schools, sometimes causing up to two times more segregation (See Neighborhood segregation is driven by income inequality, choice of school districts). [Mar 2019 Update: a study released in October 2018 finds evidence that online school ratings systems are accelerating segregation.] Schools are about as segregated now as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. For poor and non-poor students, housing segregation increased between 1991 to 2012 by 40%. Real estate segregation and school segregation have obviously been linked for a long time. This was no accident when it started – government policies, redlining, restrictive housing covenants, and more, created a lasting phenomenon. But now, we have an app, we have a rating and we have our GoHere! Drops and StayAway! Circles that do the job even more efficiently than ever, even if the overt racial animus that originally caused segregation has lessened.


If school ratings, especially test score focused ratings like GreatSchools’ ratings, are a problem, how are you supposed to pick a school? Take the two tour pledge: set foot inside two schools. You wouldn’t buy a house without going in it, so why do so with your child’s education? When we were deciding on our current school, we toured and we talked to teachers and parents. It didn’t take that much time, and walking around and seeing the actual people in the building was the most important factor for us.


Second, remember that parents tend to pass along the dominant narratives, whether they are actually true or not. They will tell you a school is “good” or “bad”, even though they might not have ever been in the school they are talking about. I noticed this when talking to other parents. People who had never set foot in our old school called it “the private school of Seattle Public Schools,” probably because it has high test scores and middle and upper class families, and they heard it from other middle and upper class families. Researchers like Jennifer Jellison Holme and others have found this to be true (i.e. that families listen to and value a school based on what other privileged parents say about it).


And then, investigate your values and your goals for your kids. I am guessing your goals for your kids when they are 50 is not that they had high test scores. Like me, you probably want a lot more than that for them. Like me, you might be anxious about academics or anxious that not being around high achieving peers or watching screen time at school sometimes (gasp!) will hurt their prospects as adults in a competitive world. Anxiety is a small price to pay for seeking justice and dismantling systems of segregation and racism. And, it makes me feel icky but it bears repeating: socioeconomically advantaged kids will get high test scores wherever they are, because of the luck of their birth.


You can also read more about how parenting to advantage your kids can cause harm. Ask yourself if you can participate in the increasing segregation of our schools and the continuation of separate and unequal educational opportunities. If it is important to you that the kids in your school be like your kid, and the families be like yours, ask yourself why and don’t allow racist stereotypes to go unchallenged. Talk to some families who have chosen integrated schools, read about a Seattle parent’s choice to attend a mostly Black school, and read this Kids & Race post on sending your privileged kids to a “low performing” school.


For more about integration and its positive effects, read all of Nikole Hannah Jones work and How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students, by The Century Foundation. Finally, never forget that integration is not about benefiting the privileged kids, or letting them see Black and Brown children in the halls on their way to their segregated advanced placement classrooms, but about deeper and equitable learning for all students.


The decision may not be easy, we certainly spent a lot of time on ours. I do know a school isn’t a number – my kids are not a number, and neither is any other child.



**(Note: Ali removed a reference to one study that showed that kids from low-income families may have 32 million less words directed to them than their middle and upper class peers. I did so because of some problems with the methodology of the study and concerns that focusing on things like word gaps may blame families for their own poverty rather than the racism, classism and ableism of this country.)


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