School Choice & Charters

Sociologists Shed Light on Suburban School Choice

By Holly Kurtz — May 15, 2014 5 min read
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The Wauters are parents with purpose. They participate in PTA. They tote their children from play dates to soccer practice. When their youngest son was in day care, they requested that he be moved into a group with slightly older children because they felt that he was developmentally advanced and would benefit from the challenge of being the youngest in the class. It’s a classic case of “concerted cultivation.” That’s the term sociologist Annette Lareau coined to describe the hothouse parenting style that has developed among recent generations of middle- and upper middle-class parents.

Despite this intensive involvement in their sons’ lives, the Wauters put little thought into choosing the suburban school their children attend.

“We just felt like the public schools are very good here,” Ms. Wauters told Lareau for a study that began in 2008. “We didn’t really look up any test scores or anything like that before we moved here, but just by reputation, word of mouth...I just feel like it’s just so much that I’m maybe assuming about the schools. Some of my decisions are not like I’ve carefully researched.”

The Wauters are not rare. In fact, their uninformed decision was the rule rather than the exception for the 46 middle- and working-class suburban families whose stories are summarized in a chapter of Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools, a book published by the Russell Sage Foundation in March. Lareau, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, edited the book with Kimberly Goyette, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, also in Philadelphia.

In order to explain why families like the Wauters would practice “concerted cultivation” yet put little effort into choosing schools, Lareau has coined a new term. That term is “microclimate.”

Microclimates are geographically grounded networks inhabited by the families who participated in Lareau’s studies. They are usually segregated by both race and class. Based on “word of mouth” gleaned from these networks, parents selected from a limited set of neighborhoods, using vague criteria such as “we liked the area.” Once they found a place in which they felt comfortable, they purchased a home. Then they sent their child to their assigned public school.

Copious and readily available public data described the characteristics of local districts. Parents just chose to ignore it. For instance, one family bought a house thinking their child might attend one elementary school only to learn that their home was actually zoned to a different school.

“We really didn’t care,” they told Lareau. The reason was that they assumed all the local schools were good.

Lareau’s findings align with those of a classic study published in the peer-reviewed Harvard Educational Review in 2002. Based on interviews with 42 suburban Los Angeles families, most of whom were upper middle-class and white, that study also found that empirical information played little if any role for those who purported to select their neighborhoods on the basis of the schools.

“Most parents neither gathered their own information about schools nor visited prospective schools themselves before deciding to buy their homes ‘for the schools,’ rather, they based their choices primarily on information from other parents in their social networks,” concluded author Jennifer Jellison Holme, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin. “These social networks were not conduits of factual information between parents about particular schools... Rather, they passed along general opinions of a school, that is, whether or not a school was considered good by a number of high-status parents.”

Unlike “concerted cultivation,” which Lareau has found to be much more intensive and common among wealthier families, the influence of microclimates does not appear to vary by socioeconomic status. Rather, working-class, middle-class and upper middle-class families alike selected their suburban schools on the basis of low levels of limited information gathered from microclimates.

However, the microclimates themselves broke down along class lines. As a result, the children of richer and poorer parents ended up attending different and unequal schools.

“What I think Annette is getting at is that the segregation of networks, in terms of both class and race, contributes significantly to residential segregation,” said Elliot Weininger, an associate professor of sociology at SUNY College at Brockport who also contributed a chapter to the book.

For instance, the suburban schools in which the children of wealthier families ended up spent $26,000 per pupil, per year. They offered special classes like foreign language and music and boasted 3rd grade reading proficiency rates of close to 100 percent. By contrast, a nearby working-class suburb spent $14,000 annually per pupil. The 3rd grade reading proficiency rate was less than 50 percent. The families who selected one of these districts rarely knew anything about the other even though all were located within easy driving distance from one another in the unnamed Northeastern metro area that Lareau studied.

Lareau described her findings as “disquieting” because it’s not necessarily clear how policy interventions might target the microclimates that appear to be furthering inequality.

Nor is it necessarily the case that Lareau’s findings apply to non-suburban settings with school choice programs. For instance, Weininger’s chapter described the intensive and fraught research process that middle and upper-middle class families undertook prior to choosing schools in an unnamed Northeastern city with a school choice program.

"[T]he use of performance data was almost entirely restricted to middle-class and upper middle-class parents,” wrote Weininger, who based his conclusions on in-depth interviews with 41 families. “In my sample, it was only these parents who spent large amounts of time scouring district websites or, assembling spreadsheets, and researching school quality...Among working-class respondents, by contrast, there was almost no discussion of performance data in the interviews, and information on school quality came almost exclusively through network contacts.”

Other chapters in the book examine how lower and higher-income families choose homes and schools in a variety of different settings.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.