Ask your companions at a dinner party about their elementary or high school, and you will learn that everyone has a theory about what made it “good” or “bad.” The amazing teachers. The decrepit building. The souped up science labs. The pungent cafeteria food. Unique extracurricular activities. The football team’s reign of terror. And the lists go on. When it comes to our schools, we all fashion ourselves as mini-experts. Most of us are convinced that some schools are better and others worse. And above all, we are certain that which school our kids attend matters.
What does it mean to say that schools matter, i.e. to claim that there are “school effects?” Essentially, this is a claim that, all else equal, going to one school versus another makes a substantial difference in a child’s outcomes. We all suspect that there are real quality differences between schools. But the trouble is that many studies find that differences between schools are dwarfed by differences within schools.
When the outcome in question is test scores, researchers have found that school effects are quite small. For example, once family characteristics are taken into account, private schools don’t come out ahead of public schools. (Catholic schools are a notable exception, though the most convincing studies find test score effects only on the students who are least likely to attend these schools.) Though city parents fight for their kids to get into selective elementary schools precisely because they are assumed to be “better schools,” economists Julie Cullen and Brian Jacob found that kids winning a kindergarten lottery to attend selective schools in Chicago don’t end up with higher test scores. (More details here.)
Does this mean that all schools are the same? Could 100 million parents be wrong? I don’t think so. These parents are only wrong if their sole goal is to pump up their kids’ test scores. But parents have a broad range of goals for their kids, and it’s not clear that test scores are the top priority. For example, Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen found that parents, when asked to prioritize the goals of public schools, collectively value social skills and work ethic, citizenship and community responsibility, and emotional health more than the acquisition of basic academic skills. If we researchers took our heads out of the sand and studied the many goals of education, we might find that schools matter more than we think.
This is not to say that parents aren’t in it for academics – they are – but perhaps that parents see academic growth more broadly than the acquisition of test scores. Parents visit schools, and they discover that some kids are dissecting pig hearts, while others read out of textbook. They see that some schools require their students to write frequently in a variety of different styles, and provide their teachers with reasonable workloads that allow them to provide meaningful feedback. They notice that some schools offer art and music, while others have cut out these “extras.” And they know that some schools get their kids excited about learning, while others are passing out worksheets.
We’re so used to equating test scores with educational quality now that it’s easy to forget the big picture. Schools may not matter much for test scores. But that doesn’t mean that schools don’t matter.
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