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‘Diverse Schools Dilemma’ guides parents in assessing city schools

Mike Petrilli provides instructions on how to look past a school’s overall test scores to assess the achievement of its students.

Michael Petrilli wants what many of us want for our kids: a good education in a stimulating, integrated neighborhood school.
Courtesy of Michael Petrilli

Mike Petrilli’s quandary will be a familiar one to lots of Twin Cities parents. Before the arrival of their two sons, Petrilli and his wife — modest earners both — enjoyed living in the heart of the city, in their case Washington, D.C.

They liked being able to bike to work, access to public transportation, restaurants, museums and other cultural amenities. And they, and lots of their Gen X and Gen Y brethren, liked the affordable housing and the diversity. And they firmly believed in equity as a principal, and that the ability to navigate a multicultural society is both a personal blessing and a professional necessity.

But the arrival of kids can pose tough choices regarding schools. For earlier generations of middle- and upper-class parents, a move to the suburbs usually guaranteed a good if segregated education. But many of today’s young parents want their kids to attend racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. For them, the struggle is with low test scores and seemingly draconian school cultures.

Petrilli has a leg up on the rest of us, though. He’s one of the nation’s top names in education policy research, the kind of guy who reads the studies and the footnotes and edits the influential journal Education Next (full disclosure: which several years ago gave me a thoroughly pleasant assignment). In short, he can sift the lore from the numbers.

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And as executive vice-president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, one can assume he’d have the pull to make sure his kids share story hour with Sasha and Malia Obama if he wanted. But he doesn’t. He wants what many of us want for our kids: a good education in a stimulating, integrated neighborhood school.

What luck for the rest of us, then, that Petrilli kept his policy-wonk hat on while he went in search of a school for his kids, a journey he chronicles in the brand-new, commendably readable “The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools.”

Research-based, but written for parents

Though it’s packed with interesting information from the scholarly research that crosses his desk, “Diverse Schools Dilemma” is written for parents. I whipped through it in an afternoon and found something that resonated on virtually every page.

So can all those Gen X and Gen Y progeny be a part of the solution without sacrificing their own potential? Let’s start with the take-away: Not all urban, integrated schools are the same, and the simplest, surface-level data on student performance they are now required to report isn’t necessarily the best way to drill down on the standouts.

Rather, Petrilli suggests, with data proliferating on the internet, a parent armed with a basic understanding of what makes kids and schools successful can shop for a program much the way we now shop for housing. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

All students, Petrilli argues persuasively, do best in middle-class schools without high concentrations of poverty which, as in Minnesota, means integrated schools, yet “the issue of school segregation is rarely mentioned nowadays within policy circles,” he writes. And integration, a short history reminds us, has proven maddeningly elusive.

Adding up the factors

Over the last couple of decades education reformers instead have tried to end-run the problem by figuring out what the exact elements of that equation are. Is it the poverty itself? The impact of peers? The tendency of the best teachers to gravitate to affluent schools? An aspiration gap? His answer: All of the above, plus parenting styles, parental investment in the schools, inequitable funding and a host of other factors.

Both President George W. Bush’s and President Barack Obama’s education policies have sought to make inner-city schools work, so far to little effect. “Yet the sobering truth is that none of these efforts — nor similar ones going back 25 years — has been very successful,” he writes.

“While demography need not be destiny, reforms to date have been generally ineffective at severing the link between advantage and achievement. Identifying high-achieving schools with a high concentration of poor or minority kids is like finding needles in a haystack.”

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If you’re new to the research and policy histories of either desegregation or efforts to reach impoverished learners, the book is a painless primer. It lays out enough information to give an anxious parent some context before moving on to its larger point: Middle-class white students generally do fine in diverse schools.

Students of all races and backgrounds do better with a critical mass of higher-achieving peers and worse when their classmates are poor and lower-achieving. White, middle-class students enjoy some insulation from this. “Increasing a cohort’s proportion of black students by 10 percentage points lowered black achievement gains quite significantly, but just barely decreased white gains,” Petrilli reports.

The highest achievers, however, are the affluent kids most at risk. There are ways to offset this, helping teachers learn to “differentiate” their instruction to reach all or grouping kids for part or all of the day roughly by ability so teachers aren’t trying to reach both extremes.

And when Petrilli gets to the school-touring phase of his research he reports on some promising approaches in schools that are deliberately trying to get at this seeming impasse. But it’s delicate, intentional work and, at least in the instances he chronicles, done in an effort to encourage diversity for its own sake.

“Still,” he writes, “the ideal situation for low-achieving kids is to be in class with higher-achieving peers most of the school day. But the ideal situation for high-achieving kids is to be with other high achievers most of the day. If there’s a sure way to square that circle, I haven’t found it.”

What about the odds-beating schools?

So what of the odds-beating schools, the aforementioned needles in a haystack which have both super-concentrated poverty and high test scores? Their student bodies tend to be overwhelmingly minority. Why don’t their sometimes eye-popping ratings draw affluent white families?

Petrilli wades right in and lays out research showing that parenting styles are behind these powerful reactions. White parents generally want environments that suggest their whole child will be honored, with programming that encourages creativity and an emphasis on self-esteem. Poor minority parents often want strict discipline and an emphasis on the basics.

He’s right. I’m a frequent visitor to odds-beating programs and while I have never encountered the rote, “drill-and-kill” focus only on tested subjects that detractors suspect them of, I often choke on the question of whether I’d send one of my kids there. It’s never the academics.

This disconnect can make a school’s gentrification via an influx of well-intended white parents desirous of a “progressive, child-centered” education a dicey process. The schools that manage it well, Petrilli writes, have principals who deal with issues of race and class head-on, and communities that are willing to go to painstaking lengths.

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Uncomfortable though it makes you, ask, he suggests. If the principal doesn’t see addressing these issues as part of his or her job or suggests you are pushy for trying to find out, run the other way. If you choose not to, opting to “stick around and try to improve the school you’ve been dealt,” you’ll appreciate the final chapter, “How to gentrify a high-poverty public school.”

Petrilli goes to some lengths not to disclose his family’s decision until what is essentially an epilogue to the book. I won’t give it away, but will just say my two cents worth is he remains as ambivalent as the rest of us frequently feel.

‘Screen, match and explore’

Instead, I’ll suggest that if you are in his position, it’s well worth the $12 the book will set you back to read his “screen, match and explore” approach. Petrilli provides detailed instructions on how to look past a school’s overall test scores to figure out how many kids in less-than-privileged schools are achieving at high levels, who they are and why.

He suggests you use, but I got the same results using the Minnesota Department of Education website, which offers the advantage of allowing users to compare groups of kids, grade-level cohorts or even entire programs via slick interactive graphics.

I’ll also tell you that his approach will yield essentially the same impressions you’d glean visiting schools for a living but in a much shorter period of time. Will it tell you which of the top candidates will pass the all-important “gut check”? It will not, but it will certainly help you, as your child’s first and most important teacher, feel equipped to navigate the dilemmas within dilemmas.