The Social Construction of School Quality

by Courtney | April 20, 2017

Holme’s Buying Homes, Buying Schools is an older article (2002) about parents choosing  to leave Los Angeles Unified School District and buy a home in adjacent suburbs “for,” yes, “the schools”. But just try and say that this 15 year old article doesn’t still ring true.   It probably won’t be terribly surprising, but nice to back up our observations with ‘SCIENCE’!

What stands out so vividly for me in Holme’s piece is how our parent-school knowledge works. We like to think we make choices on hard evidence (even while we chafe against high stakes testing and other quantifiable, numbery ways we can judge a school).  But really, it’s all parent to parent.  The belief that some schools suck without having step foot inside and that other schools shine without having step foot inside comes from our talking with each other.

And this means that WE HAVE THE POWER TO THROW DOWN SOME SERIOUS CHANGE for integration. 

So grab your kid and head on down to the park. Start talking.  Talk about the “bad” schools in good ways, wonder aloud around integration for your own family, insert the value of life outside of privilege-segregated bubbles into the school narrative wherever you can.  Please, no matter what decisions you have/are making for your own kids, just put integration and equity on the big narrative table.  Because Your Words Matter.


from article:    “Most of the parents in this study did not know a great deal about their chosen school’s instruction and programs prior to making their choice. In fact, of the twenty parents who had moved out of their neighborhood because of their dissatisfaction with the school, just one had actually visited the rejected school. The vast majority had not obtained test-score data for the schools in their old neighborhood, or for other schools or school districts that they determined were “bad” and consequently avoided. And, less than one-fourth actually visited the school they ended up choosing before buying their home. And, finally, twenty-five of these parents had not obtained test-score data for their chosen school before they decided to move to that area for the schools.


And this: “Most parents stated that they based their judgments about the school quality primarily on information from individuals in their social networks.., they passed around the opinions of other parents about the quality of particular schools, that is, whether the school was considered generally good or bad by a number of high-status parents.”


AND HERE IT IS!!!!!!   “the reputations of “good” schools were not simply passed through the social networks of high-status parents, but were actually CONSTRUCTED through such networks.”  [emphasis mine]   Yes.  We make these narratives.  We are complicit in their social power.  And we also have the power to disrupt and change them.



And of course, as we have talked about many times before, the good/bad school narrative is often racist code — or, if we are being generous, the good/bad school story offers cover for avoiding the confrontation/acknowledgement of racism and bias.

Holme:  “One way parents rationalized their choices for schools serving mostly White, high-income students was to express concerns about the schools’ ability to meet their children’s academic needs. In fact, most of these parents believed that their children were in some sense gifted and needed an academic environment with other high-achieving kids in order to be stimulated. By equating children of color with low academic achievement, these parents were able to express their concerns about diversity not in terms of racial or class prejudice, but in terms of concerns about the academic and social needs of their own children.”


Yep. And more:  “Parents in this study also made assumptions about student discipline based on students’ racial and class backgrounds. Though no parent obtained actual statistics on school violence, many of them said they were concerned about the purported violence in the predominately low-income, minority schools they had deemed unsatisfactory for their children, and used this concern to rationalize their decisions. Parents often based their concerns on anecdotal information from friends and others in their social networks, and on their own assumptions about the violent propensities of low-income children of color.”  Heard that too.   (and did you see this article which found that non-Hispanic whites are more likely to abuse “hard drugs,” such as cocaine or opiates, than their black counterparts?)


Harness your power! Always ask about race/class demographics in every school chat, talk about the harm (societal, individual) of privilege-segregation, share your willingness to tour schools where kids aren’t just like yours, be open to having uncomfortable conversations. Confront, disrupt, reorient.  All this happens in the unicorn frappuccino line, at birthday parties, on facebook, and certainly during school tours.  Your words may not change anyone’s mind overnight… but seeds planted and watered do tend to grow.


Buying Homes, Buying Schools: School Choice and the Social Construction of School Quality (2002, Jennifer Jellison Holme)

(thanks for sharing this, CL!)


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