What Most People Mean When They Talk About “Good” Schools

For those of you who are parents, perhaps you’ve successfully enrolled your children in a “good” public school. For those of you who are community members, perhaps you’ve talked to neighbors, co-workers, or others about whether or not various local schools are “good.” For those of us who teach, we know there is a perception about whether or not our school is “good.”

But what do most people mean when they talk about “good” public schools? Is it where the faces of the children are mostly light-skinned? Is it where we can feel comfortable interacting with other parents? Do we encourage ourselves and others to think about what does–and doesn’t–happen within the school building when we talk about “good” schools?

Let’s face it–no matter where you live, there’s a great chance that when many people talk about “good” schools, they consciously–or subconsciously–mean schools with low numbers of minority students and children in poverty.

Louisville’s Jefferson County Public Schools, where I teach, has a complex system of busing to help prevent socioeconomic segregation. There are magnet high schools that skim the top 8th graders from the public school system every year. There are still schools saddled with extreme poverty. There are schools that house AP students and “neighborhood” kids, many of whom begin high school unlikely to be on college-bound tracks. The racial and economic diversity in many of our buildings is impressive.  

Of course, listening to countless parents, coworkers, and neighbors over the 10 years I’ve lived in Louisville, apparently the only “good” schools we have in our district are the ones with lower numbers of poor and minority students.

Unsurprisingly, if you take a look at the state’s accountability rankings for high schools in our districts, this correlation is confirmed, as I suspect it is in locales across all fifty states.

Top Five Performing Schools in JCPS

School

Accountability Score

Free/Reduced Lunch %

Dupont Manual

87.3  

18.9

Male

77

26.7

Brown

75.7

27.0

Butler

63

46.8

Ballard

61.8

29.7

Bottom Five Performing Schools in JCPS

School

Accountability Score

Free/Reduced Lunch %

Academy at Shawnee

27.9

81.1

Valley

31

77.4

Iroquois

34.4

87

Doss

35.8

76.2

Western

40.3

80.5

Since ranking schools and test scores is generally little more than an exercise in ranking by poverty levels, it’s about time to reexamine the notion of “good” schools.  Let’s seek out discussions about what goes on inside school buildings, what opportunities students have and don’t have, and examine philosophies behind effective pedagogy.

Let’s be bold about designing new types of learning environments, so that there are more models and potential discussions about what “good” schools could look and be like.

The next time you hear someone mention that so-and-so is a “good” school, ask them why, and see if you get an honest response.