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


Accountability Score

Free/Reduced Lunch %

Dupont Manual















Bottom Five Performing Schools in JCPS


Accountability Score

Free/Reduced Lunch %

Academy at Shawnee















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.

  • sharonwright

    Been There…


    Thank you so much for pointing out this information that should be so obvious, but seems to be swept under the rug so often out of fear or ignorance. I have taught in a “good” school, and I was miserable. Why? Because many of my students were complacent, apathetic, spoiled, and there simply because their parents did not want them to attend other schools in our district with higher numbers of minorities. I actually had parents tell me this… much to my surprise at their honesty. Now, I am so happy to be teaching at one of those “other” schools in our district with diversity and students who are hungry to learn. I appreciate you bringing this problem to light, as I agree with you that this is an issue all over our country.

    • PaulBarnwell



      Thanks for stopping by.  I’ve never taught at a “good” school, and I often wonder what it’d be like.  No matter where we teach, of course, there are students with a wide range of intellectual goals (or apathy).  

      I don’t blame parents for wanting their children to be surrounded by families who seem to share their same ambition, but it’s a shame the way it leads to negative labeling and widely varying expectations based on where kids go.  


      • BriannaCrowley


        My experience is the opposite of yours–my short teaching career (currently in year 7) has been spent at a “good” school. Mostly white, affluent, suburban community with great test scores and facilities. In my classroom, however, I have the privilege of teaching not only the “typical” high achieving student, but also the students labeled “at-risk” for any number of reasons (many of which seem to relate to socioeconomic status). So this grants me even the slightest window into the greater struggle my colleagues across the country are having. The way we label our students, our schools, and ourselves (“I’m an AP teacher…”) seem to be extremely damaging to the oft-touted goal: Offering a free and equitable public education to all students. 

        Your post relates to Bill Ferriter’s recent blog about the correlation between test scores and poverty. Despite the inescapable correlation, we still have educators and policy-makers constantly beat the drum of improving teaching practice to improve test scores. This misses the point. Improving teaching practice will improve the learning experience and effectiveness of education, but it simply can’t balance the difference between the education offered in “good” schools (read: well-resourced with embedded cultures of success) and “failing schools” (read: under-resourced and forced cultures of disenfranchisement). 

        Also, I posted this to CTQ’s GOOD.is profile to prompt more discussion. Thanks for the great post!


        • PaulBarnwell

          Thanks for sharing Brianna. 

          Thanks for sharing Brianna.  Another one of the saddest things that happens in “failing schools,” as many have pointed out, is that the test scores become more important than educating the whole child, a trend that completely misses the chance for an equitable public education for all.

          If I were an informed parent, I might not send a student to my own school due to the crazy emphasis on testing, despite the fact Fern Creek offers some amazing opportunities for students. 

  • NancyGardner

    Public relations

    Your post is sad, but true.  I also think we all have to make a concerted effort to talk and write about all of the “good” things happening in our schools.   We spend so much time battling negativity that we often forget to talk about the good stuff that happens everyday, in all schools across the country.  I work in a district that has always focused on that positive PR–even had a commercial about our district in the 80s (yes, it’s a public school district–and not a wealthy one).   We are like the classroom theme of “success breeds success”–students are proud to come to our schools, teachers are proud to work in our schools.  Whining and negativity doesn’t help us, but teachers working together and celebrating success together can produce positive results and lots of “good.”

    • PaulBarnwell

      Celebrating successes at

      Celebrating successes at schools that might not be perceived as “good” is certainly key!  My school got labeled a “failing” school four years ago, and we’re still digging out of a negative perception hole.  

  • marsharatzel

    Offering an alternative view of what’s important to parents

    I wasn’t quite sure what to make of your post….I enrolled my own children at an elementary school that I deemed to be “good”.  I thought it was good because of the smallish class sizes, the faculty that had been there for years and years while demonstrating lifelong learning/innovation attitudes, a commitment to reading instruction that wasn’t just basal based but also included lots of novels, a math curriculum which included the principal offering mathaletics instruction every Friday afternoon in the library and a very hands-on/inquiry approach to science and social studies.  Did it have a high level of free and reduced lunches?  Yep and honestly I saw diversity as more of an asset than a detriment.

    Nothing on my list included income level or racial makeup.  Now it may be because I’m probably considered one of “those” parents because I was a single-mom, low income and have always had to hold down two jobs to support my kids.  (Still am working those 2 jobs because now I have college loans to payoff for them! even though they are long gone from my home.)

    No doubt some people will chose schools based on income levels or race.  I think you short-sell parents if you think the attributes you listed are top on their list.  

    • PaulBarnwell



      We need more voices like yours, parents who really consider what a school has to offer, then making informed decisions.  Unfortunately, many parents don’t have a choice.

      There are at least 1,000 students, mostly white, who live in the “resides” area where I teach, but they don’t come to school at Fern Creek.  Our school has an award-winning Communications and JROTC departments, innovative food studies and digital media curriculum, and other unique offerings.  I’d like to find out why so many of the parents don’t send their students our way. 

      I think it’s naive to discount th deep biases many parents (mostly white, middle/upper class) have towards schools with higher levels of poverty and minority students.

  • ReneeMoore

    The schools for other people’s children

    Paul, I’ve been thinking hard about your comments and Marsha’s. Here in the Delta where I live we still have a dual school system: the public schools are for children of color and those poor whites who can’t scrape together enough to send their children to the private academy. And each county has a private academy–these were established during the long fight against the Brown decision in what was known as the “massive resistance” to integration. I’ve blogged about the lingering struggle over integration here in the town where I live and how has it affected my own children. 

    If I just looked at the situation here, I would be tempted to think it is just another Mississippi anomaly. But in fact, we have a two-tiered educational system throughout the country, and there has always been a very strong pushback in this country against the idea that every  child really deserves the same quality of education. The schools that serve children of color in this country have always been underresourced and had to do the work of educating children in spite of the many unnecessary and dehumanizing obstacles placed in their way. Frankly, American public opinion has never been kind towards the poor…we tend to blame the poor for their poverty and think they should be grateful for whatever scraps society throws their way, or to their children.  This has gone on so long, that when we use the terms “good” or “bad” schools, most people do have a mental image of schools populated by children of color. Popular, exaggerated media images of Black schools as dangerous, out of control places doesn’t help either. 

    What do our words really reveal about America’s true position on public education? The richest nation on earth should only have “good” schools and “better” ones, not “bad” or “poor.”  And who’s children deserve to go to the “bad” or “poor” schools? Why do we even tolerate the existence of such disparity in our country? Because it’s happening to somebody else’s kids???

  • Pam P

    Former Realtor here….the “good school” codespeak

    As a person who spent 10 years as a licensed Realtor, and my family has been in the business going back further than that, I can definitely attest to the fact that “good schools” is code for “white schools.”  When I get asked the question, “how are the schools” I don’t even take that bait.  I simply say, “well, that depends on what your definition of “good schools” is”.  I’ve also had educators as clients who have told me on the QT that blue ribbon schools here in NJ, and I’m sure all over, are under such pressure to keep their blue ribbon status, which is tied to real estate values, that those school systems are known to out and out rig the test scores….changing answers, etc.  And for those kids who they feel won’t do well on the SAT’s, they are actively discouraged from even taking the test, so as not to bring the averages for their districts down.  So if a school system has high state test scores, you can’t rely on them being real scores.  

    I myself bought in a 50/50 mixed township, mostly because you got more house for the money (imagine that in a mixed neighborhood….LOL) and my son attends public school here.  But I have had older family members concerned about that, and they can’t understand “how these black people can afford to live in these houses.”  I say, “Uh, because they have JOBS….hello!  Whoever lives in the house next door is obviously in the same economic class as me, therefore, they are my kind of people.”