Accountability Opinion

Parents and “The Company You Keep” Hypothesis

By Eduwonkette — January 10, 2008 2 min read
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Some people protest war. Others protest hunger and suffering. Less discussed, but no less common, is a special class of protest reserved for parents: conscientious objection to their children’s troublesome friends. When parents look out into the world, they see peers whose values and attitudes are contagious. And they are notorious for circling the wagons to keep out unwanted intruders.

Which brings us back to the question of whether the school your kid attends matters as much as you think it does. On Monday and Tuesday, I pointed out that the differences between schools in improving test scores are actually quite small. However, I argued that schools do offer different kinds of opportunities to learn, and parents’ anxiety about where to send their kids to school is partially about their kids’ academic futures.

Amidst all our wonky talk about school choice and academic quality, it’s easy to forget that parents are acutely concerned about what kind of kids are going to be over for play dates. Most parents intuitively buy into the maxim, “You are the company you keep,” and believe that peers are going to affect the person their child turns out to be. Ignoring the emotional dimension of choosing schools leads us to a cookie cutter - and ultimately myopic - understanding of this process.

I’ll give you the bright side of parents’ worries, and then the dark side. Parents reason that their kids are going to spend most of their waking hours surrounded by their peers. They want their child to be flanked by kids who are well-behaved and respectful of the learning process. Parents would also prefer that the other parents at their school share their approach to parenting. For example, they’d like to know that their five year old isn’t watching “Showgirls” and hitting the bottle after they’ve dropped him off.

Parents also know, especially when the kids are young, that the parents of their kids’ friends are going to become their friends. So parents need to be able to see themselves in the other parents at the school. As Ryan, the husband of a San Francisco mom who’s blogging about her school search, said, “I liked the [parent] tour guides. I could see myself being their friends. We’re going to be spending a lot of time at Alice’s school, and we want to be in a place where we feel like we can connect with the other parents.”

Here’s the dark side. NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider tracked parents’ use of a school search website in DC (DCschoolsearch.com), and documented which features of the schools parents looked at, and in what order. Guess what the heaviest hitter was? Demographics. Socioeconomic and racial composition play a large role when parents are choosing schools. (More on whether parents choose school quality or school racial/class composition; see also Mark Schneider’s book - Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?).

Economists might argue that this is “statistical discrimination” – essentially using group averages about performance when we have insufficient information. Certainly, on average, learning conditions are worse at schools with high proportions of poor and minority kids. A less cheerful take, of course, is that this is animus-based discrimination.

Regardless of your interpretation, my point is that parents’ choices are as much about “the company” as they are about school quality.

Image credit: 4th grade, Linwood Elementary School.

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