Picking a "good" school is very different than scrolling for five-star reviews when online shopping. And it turns out the decisions we’re making are perpetuating segregation in many communities. Here's what you need to know when choosing a school for your child.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
Illustration by Sarah Hanson

Picking a school for your children to attend has become a very big decision for some families. Plenty of parents look to test scores, real estate databases, and casual chats with friends when house-hunting to make sure they buy in a neighborhood with the best public schools. Many childless couples even consider the school rankings listed on real estate apps like Zillow when considering a neighborhood where they will raise their future children.

So what's in a ranking? A 6/10 on Greatschools.org may be a low enough score for some families to consider private education and 10/10 locations are hard to find and afford. But there is far more to consider about a school district then a numerical score can tell you—school "shopping" isn't like scrolling for five-star reviews on Amazon.

When Emily Hubbard's oldest child was ready to attend school, her family lived in a low-income, mixed-race neighborhood in Alabama. For her husband, a black man who went to public school in New Orleans, it made sense to go to the neighborhood public school even though its test scores were low. But, for Hubbard, who is white and grew up homeschooled, it was a scary proposition.

“Choosing to be in the public school system, I was for it, but I had to work through some things,” she said. “We couldn’t afford anything else anyway, but I was like, ‘Is this fine?’ We just kind of did it, and it was fine. … It was a way to be part of our community in ways that we weren’t otherwise.”

So what makes a "good" school good and a "bad" school bad? After a few years with kids in the public school system, Hubbard was no longer sure how to answer this. The low rankings for her school district didn't match the good experience she was having with her children's education. Websites with school ratings often only consider state standardized test scores, which, studies show, tell us more about students' socioeconomic status than how well they're learning.

And those playground chats parents are having about schools typically happen between people who look like each other—socially, economically, and racially, said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on race and education. We take our connections' word for what makes a school "good" or "bad," and those labels often correlate with the schools' racial and economic makeup.

"It's really important for families to understand that their individual choices either hold up or undermine the system," she said. "And, unfortunately, the overwhelming system in place right now is one of segregation."

The Ethics of School Decisions

It's been 65 years since Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark case that outlawed racial segregation in schools, yet racial and economic segregation has "continued unchecked" for almost three decades, according to a new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Housing and education policies are partly to blame, along with federal and state government decisions to step back integration efforts, said Halley Potter, a senior fellow who researches educational inequality at The Century Fund.

But the choices parents make to buy a home in a specific neighborhood or choose a private school or charter school over a lower-rated public one affects the system too. When wealthy families choose only "top-rated" districts, other schools in the community lose out on the resources those families bring, including clout with community leaders to push for more teachers or the ability to raise money to cover extra needs.

And, while those schools with high test scores in affluent neighborhoods may also come with nicer facilities or more programs, children may also miss out on the benefits of learning inside a diverse classroom.

Decades of research has found that all students thrive in integrated schools and take with them the ability to better operate in diverse spaces throughout their lives. Studies show that they have higher average test scores, more leadership skills, and even reduced anxiety.

"You can really be giving your children the gift of having the tools to navigate and have conversations across different lines," Potter said. "That's something that can be a big academic and professional benefit as they move later on in life."

Individual cities and districts are starting to address ongoing segregation, Potter said. In Chicago, for example, leaders merged two schools to integrate the populations. Some middle schools in New York City also have launched an integration plan—here, students must apply to middle school rather than being assigned based on where they live. Some parents in NYC have become outspoken against these integration plans, claiming high-achieving students would lose spots in selective schools.

But there is also momentum among parents to make the schools more inclusive, said Courtney Mykytyn, founder of Integrated Schools, a parent-to-parent grassroots network.

"We have parents who are now driving clear across their city because their neighborhood is very white to go to a school with a lower rating and are grateful for that experience,” she said.

While some parents may worry that their kids won’t excel at a low-performing school, Mykytyn said the lack of programs, field trips, and other extras that come with a school in a wealthier neighborhood have not hindered her kids’ desire to learn. Her neighborhood public elementary school in Los Angeles has a rating of 3/10 and the high school her kids attend ranks 6/10, according to Greatschools.org.

“They’re still super curious people,” Mykytyn said. “Their spirit has not been squashed by this.”

How to Broaden Your School Options

School data isn't always easy to find, but new research shows that when parents evaluate their choices based on student growth instead of student achievement, they are more likely to pick the less white and wealthy district. And some states are beginning to offer more nuanced information about schools, thanks, in part, to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

In some states, for example, it’s easier to tease out how specific subgroups of students are doing within a school and whether they’re achieving above-average growth. So, even if a school’s third-grade test scores are below average, the numbers may show that the school’s low-income students are achieving above-average growth.

“There might be some really awesome teaching in this school,” Potter said, “they just happen to be serving a population of students that are coming in with academic needs more than some other schools are.”

When searching for schools, experts say parents need to shift their mindset from focusing exclusively on achievement, test scores, and special programs to also considering the community inside the school and out.

"When we think about schools only in terms of what we can get for our kids, we have opted out of the beauty and promise of what public schools should be," said Mykytyn. "If the neighborhood is a neighborhood you like, then move to that neighborhood and figure out where you're zoned to go to school or figure out which school actually has diversity."

Here are a few ways to broaden your school search:

Test your assumptions

Integrated Schools recommends families tour two schools that aren't on their community's list of sought-after options to see them in action—and also, perhaps, witness the segregation that's still occurring. It’s a good way to learn more about the resources and programming that are available, but it’s also an opportunity to check your own assumptions, Potter said. When you visit schools, she said, “observe what’s going on there and realize that some of the assumptions that you may have had walking in the door might not be actually what’s going on in the school.”

Meet the school's administrators

During tours and as you chat with current parents at the school, find out as much as you can about the school’s staff and leadership. “A lot of what can make a school experience really excellent or really negative for both students and parents have to do with the relationships with teachers and principals,” Potter said. “And those can be good or bad in any school.”

Remember this is a long-term relationship

Keep in mind that schools are constantly changing communities. “It’s not just what that school looks like right now, but the relationships that you’ll build and what you’re bringing to the table,” Potter said. “The reality is that there are so many different ways that students can have really fabulous educational experiences in schools, and it’s not as narrow as being able to say what the single best school is for every child.”

Learn from Others with Experience

Mykytyn has no regrets about sending her kids to a lower-rated school and calls the experience "tremendous" even though her children have often been one of the few or only white kids in their classes. Worry about being an outsider is a common concern among white parents, she said, and has been covered in a two-part podcast series on Integrated Schools’ website.

“For every story of a white kid who struggled being the ‘only one,’ there are stories of white kids who have been grateful for the experience … and a thousand stories of black and brown kids who have struggled being the ‘only one,’” Mykytyn said.

Because of their experience, Mykytyn said her own kids have a different view of the world than many of their white peers who attended mostly white schools. “They actually have a best friend who has been pulled over by police simply for being a person of color or who has really different experiences in life, whose parents are deported,” she said. “Whatever the story is, it’s not just a news item, it's a friend.”

What Really Matters

Hubbard also has no regrets about the school she chose for her children. Today, the family's four kids, ages 5 to 10, live in Missouri and attend a low-rated school. The kids are flourishing. Her newly minted fifth grader is reading at a 12th-grade level even though the school has test scores in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

"It's greatly benefited our family. It's not a sacrifice," Hubbard said. "My kids still are loved by their teachers, and I don't believe we should measure people by test scores."

It turns out that what matters most for kid's to succeed in structured school situations is that there are other kids and a seat for them in a classroom. “As a nation, we don’t really know what makes one school good and one school not good," Mykytyn says. "We don’t know what metrics matter, we’ve been struggling with that for a long time.”

Sure, high test scores can get your kids into top-rated colleges, but who's to say they'll be scoring in line with the school's ranking—statistically speaking, highly sought-after schools don’t actually improve your kids’ test scores. And do good test scores make good people? That's hard to answer, but Mykytyn does say that from her experience, communities do all benefit when they have diversity and inclusivity. And she has no doubt that her kids are in a good school for them:

“The way they exist in our city feels really important to me in terms of who I hope they are as adults.”

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