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Would suburban parents send their kids to D.C. schools?

[This is my Local Living section column for Dec. 3, 2009]

A leader in the national effort to raise the achievement of low-income children once told me how she became, to her amused surprise, one of those rare suburban Washington parents who pay tuition to send their children to D.C. public schools.

She grew up in a white, blue-collar family far from Washington. Her children attended economically diverse schools, but when she got a big job in D.C. the people at her new office, despite their shared commitment to improving urban education, told her she would be nuts to put her kids in the D.C. system. Uncertain what to do in a strange new city, she bowed to this unanimous view and bought a house in Montgomery County, never anticipating what happened next.

One of her children didn’t like the Maryland schools. She dreamed of life on the stage and wanted to attend the Duke Ellington School of the Arts on R Street NW. This parent had raised her children to care about the nation’s ethnic and social divisions. She couldn’t say no to her daughter attending a well-regarded public school that happened to have a large number of disadvantaged students, even if it was going to cost her $10,000 a year.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a Montgomery County resident like me and that parent, wants to make those cross-district transfers much more common. In a new report for The Century Foundation, “Turnaround Schools That Work: Moving Beyond Separate but Equal,” Kahlenberg says creating more magnet schools like Ellington (and dropping their out-of-district tuition requirements) would be the most effective way to save children now confined by poverty and housing patterns to our worst public schools.

At a panel in Washington last month, he and I argued about the practicality of his idea. I think we will raise the achievement of impoverished children in greater numbers much sooner if we encourage more high-performing charter schools like those of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the subject of my most recent book. Such charters are usually in low-income neighborhoods. But KIPP is raising disadvantaged children from inner city to suburban achievement levels right now, while it will, I think, take many years to overcome the political and cultural barriers to attracting suburban children to urban magnets.

Kahlenberg, in our panel and his paper, said I was out of date. Well-run magnets with attractive programs are already drawing middle-class students into low-income neighborhoods. Other panelists and audience members said it would help if we let students cross school district borders, just as that Montgomery parent’s daughter had done.

The best public charter schools, Kahlenberg said, educate relatively few children. (KIPP has about 20,000 students in 19 states and the District.) He thinks magnet schools have more growth potential. “Nationally, there were 2,736 magnet schools educating roughly 2 million students in the 2005-06 school year,” he said in his paper. “By comparison, in that year, there were 4,000 charter schools educating about 1 million students. Like charter schools, there are good magnet schools and bad ones — and not all, by any means, are able to attract middle-class students into schools located in disadvantaged areas. But the best ones can serve as models for turning around failing schools.”

He has plenty of good examples, such as the Wexford Elementary School in Lansing, Mich., or the Tobin School in Cambridge, Mass. Research shows that low-income schools don’t need to be integrated to succeed, but it also shows that integration correlates with achievement gains for impoverished children. A study of fourth grader scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test shows that low-income students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of similar students in high-poverty schools.

It remains to be seen how Washingtonians feel about this. Would you be willing to send your child to a neighboring school district, no matter what the socio-economic background of the student body, if the curriculum looked good? If so, or if not, I would be grateful if you posted a comment here telling me why.

By Jay Mathews  | December 2, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Knowledge Is Power Program, Richard Kahlenberg, Tobin school, Wexford elementary school, achievement gap, charter schools, economic backgrounds, economic integration, magnet schools  
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"Well-run magnets with attractive programs are already drawing middle-class students into low-income neighborhoods."

The DC example given in this post is Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which I do indeed believe to be a well-run school with an attractive program. However, in a low-income neighborhood this school is not! If anything, it's in perhaps one of the most expensive, exclusive neighborhoods in the city, and one that suburbanites feel is fun, pleasing and safe. So much for drawing middle-class kids to the "inner city..."

Posted by: DavidMNDC | December 2, 2009 11:27 PM | Report abuse

After reading your article, I wanted to find out more about the Tobin School in Cambridge. I checked out their website and it seems like a very nice school. I then decided to look at the Massachusetts Department of Education website. I guess it's economically diverse, about fifty percent low income. It's not so racially diverse, there are five or less white students in each grade. Each grade has between nineteen and twenty-eight students. The grade levels I'm referring to are three through eight. Test scores are not much different than the other schools in the city and are rather low. Because there are so few white students in each grade, their scores are not reported by grade level only in the aggregate. Their scores are significantly lower than the district scores. I don't see how this school's scores or diversity makes them an example for other schools to follow.

Posted by: Susan50 | December 3, 2009 12:34 AM | Report abuse

After reading your article, I wanted to find out more about the Tobin School in Cambridge. I checked out their website and it seems like a very nice school. I then decided to look at the Massachusetts Department of Education website. I guess it's economically diverse, about fifty percent low income. It's not so racially diverse, there are five or less white students in each grade. Each grade has between nineteen and twenty-eight students. The grade levels I'm referring to are three through eight. Test scores are not much different than the other schools in the city and are rather low. Because there are so few white students in each grade, their scores are not reported by grade level only in the aggregate. Their scores are significantly lower than the district scores. I don't see how this school's scores or diversity makes them an example for other schools to follow.

Posted by: Susan50 | December 3, 2009 12:36 AM | Report abuse

good reporting, Susan50. Do the other Cambridge schools with similar scores have the same large proportion of low-income students?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 3, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Residential segregation is very difficult to undo through schools. Magnet schools can be a great option for a small minority of suburban kids, but scaling them up to have a major impact on the larger education system is not really feasible. I think it unlikely that enough suburban kids would transfer into urban magnet schools to sufficiently desegregate urban schools to achieve significant student performance gains. Similarly, even if urban kids had the choice to transfer to suburban schools at no cost, transportation challenges would prevent many students from escaping their failing urban schools. Charter schools, on the other hand, are trying to improve schools where kids live and tend to go to school. Ironically, they are being attacked by the likes of the Civil Rights Project for going into extremely segregated neighborhoods (poor minority neighborhoods) and providing excellent education to underserved students. Similarly, charter schools are being opened in suburban neighborhoods to serve students who don't fit into the traditional, one-size fits all school model.

Posted by: gideon4ed | December 3, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

See also: Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.

Posted by: TomHoffman | December 3, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I completely agree with Kahlenberg. I am the product of a magnet high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Prior to attending the magnet, I went to private school until 9th grade when my parents found I could get an equal if not better education at the public magnet school. When I arrived at the public school I found that there were several other students who originally attended private school, but their parents chose to put them in the magnet school because of its excellent exducation. Not only did it provide me an excellent education, but I was also able to grow up in a diverse environment and interact with people I never would have shared my educational experience with had I stayed in private school. I was more challenged and prepared for college then my private school friends. The high school has the highest acceptance rate into Berkeley than any other school in the country.
Often when I read about the Charter School debate I wonder why don't more school districts invest in the magnet education model because from my experience it works. My sister also attended a magnet high school, but because of her interests in the performing arts she attended a performing arts magnet. Both of the magnet schools are magnets within a regular public high school so the magnets raised the bar for the regular school. Teachers who came to the school becasue they wanted to teach the magnet curriculum would also teach regular school classes so you got motivated and creative teachers. Also, not all the classes would be strictly magnet so you had a both mix of students. In turn it motivated the regular school kids to do better because typically the magnet kids were more focused on school. Magnet schools need to be looked at more thoroughly in the educate reform debate and all emphasis should not be on charter schools.

Posted by: rubin17 | December 3, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

If one of my kids made a good case for it, I'd send him to any school he wanted to go to, as long as the finances and commute were realistic.

As far as proactively sending my kids to DC schools, I suppose I'd consider it if that school were better than the schools in my home district. But as a practical matter, I'm not aware of any DC schools that are superior to Fairfax County schools.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 3, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Interesting post, rubin17. Which magnet was that? I am guessing North Hollywood High.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 3, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Rick Kahlenberg sent me this response to Susan50's deep reporting on the Tobin School in Cambridge:

On the reader question about the Tobin school, as I noted in the issue brief, it was a struggling high poverty school that was just turned into a Montessori Magnet in the 2007-08 school year. Each year, students apply at the preK and Kindergarten level, so the relevant population to look at in considering whether the school's new theme is able to attract white middle class families are students in the very early grades. The grades 3-8 data that the reader is looking at come from the days prior to adoption of the new Montessori theme.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 3, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Cleveland Humanities Magnet in Reseda.I would not trade my high school experience for anything. My sister went to Hamilton Performing Arts in LA. North Hollywood is a magnet but it is highly gifted so you must take an IQ test. Cleveland is open to anyone regardless of their IQ. The school tries to get a 60/40 split to make it as diverse as possible. All classes were honors or AP. My understanding is the magnet started in the 70's to bring back suburban and white kids to LAUSD after busing started. I will say it worked becasue you had kids who could afford to go to private school, but their parents placed them in public school because the education was so good. The commute was not an issue for my parents or friends becasue a neighborhood school bus was provided.

Posted by: rubin17 | December 3, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Magnet schools are just private schools for people who can't afford them. We tax payers foot the bill. And the numbers look good on paper to show diversity.

Posted by: flcat | December 3, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

In light of the critical role that middle school plays in students’ development, MCPS implemented the Middle School Magnet Consortium in 2004. This program at Argyle, Loiderman and Parkland Middle Schools attempted to improve student performance, broaden student choices, and increase the social integration at these schools. Five years later, enough data is available to evaluate the success of this approach. The results demonstrated by those data are extraordinarily. Our daughter is a seventh grader at Arygle’s Information Technology Magnet. Academic performance, as measured by MSA proficiency rates, has improved in every category of student and in every grade as a result of the MSMC at Argyle. Prior to the program, only 38% of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in math and 57% in reading. Since the program was instituted, those numbers increased to 63% and 82% respectively. These impressive improvements are replicated within each specific student groups, and it is even more remarkable when test scores are examined for FARMS and ESOL students, where improvements are traditionally considered the most difficult to achieve.

Posted by: jmazur7 | December 3, 2009 10:25 PM | Report abuse

By the way, I graduated from North Hollywood High (and before that the IHP programs at Carpenter Ave. E.S. and Walter Reed Jr. High. Before she attended Argyle, our daughter was in the Highly Gifted Center Program at Barnsley E.S. I'm sure she's exactly the kind of student Argyle wanted.

Posted by: jmazur7 | December 3, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

I notice that Kahlenburg doesn't provide any actual data about the Tobin school - just as he provided no data - only an assertion - when interviewed by you, Jay.

Presuming our children's education is more important than getting a story or being quoted, I think journalists and educators should be very careful not to leave false impressions.

Personally, I think this type of behavior in the educational community is similar to the fraud of the gate-crashing Salahis. As long as people get away with making claims for which they have no or specious evidence, the more they will do it and the more kids will suffer – or at least not be helped.

Posted by: efavorite | December 4, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

This article is especially relevant for us in Hyattsville, Maryland where there is hot debate over the Creative and Performing Arts magnet at Hyattsville Middle School. The PG County School Board is looking at boundary changes right now, and as part of that may cut this very popular and effective program for both budgetary reasons and to address crowding issues at the school. But the fact of the matter is that the magnet program is doing exactly what was intended. It has drawn a critical mass of engaged, talented and motivated students and their parents into the school and that has changed the school as a whole. Rather than being simply a perk for just those students and parents within the program, it's turned around a school that used to have an absolutely horrible local reputation into one that parents feel good about sending their kids to, and that students are excited to attend. It really was not very long ago that local parents would plan to either move to Montgomery County or look to private school for middle school if they could afford to in this area -- the prevailing wisdom was that if you could afford to, you would bail on the PG COunty public school system at middle school if not sooner. That is no longer the case. HMS is living proof that a great magnet program can do what it's supposed to -- be a rising tide that lifts all boats and does so in a very fast and cost-effective way, in my opinion.

Posted by: rumipumi | December 4, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Jay – have you written anything on the Wake County, NC schools? You should – I’d love to read your take on it. Richard Kahlenberg wrote about the schools just this fall in the Washington Monthly while reviewing the new Grant book another poster mentioned. Here’s my favorite passage from Kahenberg’s report:

“What is astounding—and profoundly disturbing—is that education reform at the national level has basically ignored the type of findings so powerfully outlined in Hope and Despair in the American City. In Washington, the "hot" education reforms include charter schools, teacher pay for performance, and community schools….”

So please let’s hear more about a system that seems to have actually worked. It’s no longer an experiment – it worked! It took time – it involved teacher collaboration, magnet schools, busing, considering socio-economic factors over racial factors. The “achievement gap” narrowed dramatically – though it didn’t close. The superintendent there, Bill McNeal was named national superintendent of the year and we’ve never heard of him. Why not? There’s no mention in the article about the teachers union, but I know there is one in Wake County. How’s that working out?

Posted by: efavorite | December 4, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

To efavorite,

You are interested in finding out more details about the purported success at "dramatically narrowing" the achievement gap in Wake County Schools.

Actually it is all a bunch of baloney. Check out the actual test score data at this link.

Boasians like Jay Mathews and Richard Kahlenberg are always trying to convince everybody that it is actually possible for ethnic groups with substantially different average IQs (Blacks ~85, Hispanics ~89, Whites ~100, Asians ~105, Jews ~112) to show the same academic achievement levels. In contrast we Galtonians (e.g. myself, Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, Linda Gottfredson, Phil Rushton, Richard Lynn) accept the fact that there is ethnic diversity in innate intellectual ability and that therefore it is a false hope to expect that Blacks and Hispanics will perform as if they are (on average) as smart as Whites or that Asians and Jews will perform as if they are (on average) as dumb as non-Jewish Whites.

Here is the actual data from Wake County, the 2009 8th grade middle school math scores (% at or above level III, with NC statewide values shown for comparison):

Wake County / NC Statewide
Asian 94.9 / 92.4
White 93.1 / 88.5
Hispanic 67.9 / 75.1
Black 60.7 / 66.2

So this shows that the claims about Superintendent McNeal's supposedly wonderful system are totally false. In fact the lower IQ minority group students (Blacks and Hispanics) actually do WORSE in Wake County compared with the statewide scores of Blacks and Hispanics!

This is only further evidence that (as Richard Rothstein has pointed out before) claims of success in closing the racial academic achievement gap invariably turn out to be exaggerated or false upon close inspection.

Posted by: rifraf | December 5, 2009 12:17 AM | Report abuse

I have real reservations about magnets. My kids attended an ES with a magnet program. Were the test scores at the aggregate school better than they would have been, yes. Did it have ANY positive impact on the kids who did't participate in the magnet but just lived there, no. Magnets can offer interesting and exciting programs, but the scores need to parsed separately between those in the magnet and those in the traditional school. MCPS does not do this and it is no accident.

Posted by: amanda2315 | December 5, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

A friend's son attended the Blair magnet, in the early 90s, and said that the only contact between the magnet/non-magnet kids was in PE. The two groups even chose different extracurricular activities. I doubt that it's changed much. Of course, most people felt that the reason for locating the magnet at Blair was for ethnic bean-counting.

Posted by: momof4md | December 6, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The big issue for attracting upper-middle-class parents is physical safety. We're going to be moving soon (assuming the closing on the home goes smoothly) and the new district has a magnet program. One of the magnets is a small parental co-op with mixed-grade classrooms that at first glance sounded really attractive. Then I started hearing about problems with bullying from the non-magnet students at the school (it's a school-within-a-school program). I'm going to have to go check it out for myself, but I have to admit that I'm somewhat leery. Diversity is great in theory but not if it comes at the expense of safety...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 7, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

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