If you’ve been in the housing market lately, either looking on Redfin, Zillow, or any number of the home-buying websites that list properties for sale, and you’re a parent, you most likely scrolled down past the dozens of photos of the house and looked right at the rating of the local public schools. Those ratings, however, are not made up by Zillow or StreetEasy or any number of listing aggregation websites. Instead, they’re made up by GreatSchools, a nonprofit website that ranks public schools nationwide and aggregates those rankings on a 10 point scale. Anything below 4 is below average; a ranking of 5 or 6 means average and 7 to 10 is “above average.”
For many parents, making a decision on buying a new home or renting a new apartment involves a number of decision matrices; the ranking of the public schools in their areas is obviously and logically, one of them. But, according to reporting from Mother Jones, GreatSchools methodology when it comes to making the ratings is flawed — and could contribute to neighborhood segregation and therefore, school segregation efforts across the country.
Mother Jones found in a massive long-form article that GreatSchools, a platform that has existed since the 1990’s, has a complex formula for tabulating how schools rate on a 1 to 10 rating system. But that formula, they report, relies super heavily on test scores, rather than other meaningful matrices. And test scores are a flawed data set to rely on, for many reasons, but mainly because test scores are often considered a tool of segregation.
Why Great Schools Might Be Racist
Schools with higher test scores tend to be majority white and very affluent school settings, whereas schools with lower test scores tend to be more racially diverse and have a lower neighborhood wealth surrounding the school, which can lead to less funding, which can lead to lower achievement. The vicious cycle repeats itself and schools become worse off. And, given that test scores are not highly correlated with the future success of kids, and are more strongly correlated to racial and economic backgrounds of the students in the school buildings, some experts suggest that GreatSchools is more a demographic tool than a tool of measuring a good school.
While no one can blame a parent for looking at a GreatSchools rating of a house they are looking at and turning the other way when they see the school is ranked at a 3, it’s those very same individual decisions that can lead to massive changes in neighborhood value. Duke University researchers, per reporting from Mother Jones, found that the gap between average home prices near better-rated schools increased by over $16,000 compared to average rated schools — and that the areas that had higher-rated schools attracted mainly white and Asian residents.
Neighborhoods near lower-rated schools experienced the inverse effect: the gap in property values near lower-rated schools decreased by about $16,000 over the same time period, as well, and white and Asian residents left the areas. Basically, the study concluded, access to information like that provided by GreatSchools, which gave schools a tidy ranking on a number scale based largely on one aspect of the school itself — test scores — contributed to increased neighborhood segregation and, therefore, the segregation of area schools.
“Broader access to information increased segregation because high-income families could more readily leverage school ratings to move to neighborhoods with better schools,” the researchers wrote. “In this case, knowledge was indeed power, but only for the powerful.”
The Charter School Connection
Add that to the fact that the most major donors of the nonprofit program are all major proponents of charter schools, or as they vaguely refer to it, “school choice,” like the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg’s philanthropic arm, and Arnold Ventures, and it begins to look like GreatSchools is a tool that could do far more harm for public schools, and integration of those schools, than good.
Most school rating systems, which pull from federally available data like test scores, teacher ratios, discipline rates, and racial makeup, don’t actually ask people what they want out of their schools. GreatSchools as a website does include interviews from community members and school parents — but doesn’t include those interviews as a weighting metric in the ratings.
What parents want might not be what Great Schools is telling them
When one researcher featured in the Mother Jones article asked parents what they were looking for, people said they wanted qualified teachers who connect with students and who have long tenures, rigorous curriculum, a safe school environment, and a well-rounded one that helps kids try out many different passions. None of that is something that can be shown on a number scale. That’s where GreatSchools falls short. But for many parents, it might be what makes them choose one house over another.
And of course, parents should have the right to make decisions on homeownership based on the schools that are in the area of that home. But to limit their search to what GreatSchools tells them might help further segregate the neighborhoods they are looking at.