Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Truth Behind the Numbers

Yesterday a simple conversation on Facebook promoted me to ask these questions:

  • Why do we define schools by test scores alone?
  • What happens when neighborhoods lose families with children?
  • Do we really choose diversity?
  • Where do we go from here?

Why do we define schools by test scores alone? I realize now that a better question would be, "what happens when we define schools by test scores alone?" When I ask "why?" perhaps I am having a head-banging-the-desk moment, in other words, "Why do we allow numbers to define our schools--why, why why?" But, I digress.

A friend suggested that Zillow is pushing this way of thinking with their national ad campaign in which a white soldier is seen videoconferencing with his white wife about a prospective new home in what is assumed to be a geographically distant community. "Did you get my email?." "Yeah, it's got a great kitchen, but did you see the school rating?" **cut to wife frowning** And the new Zillow radio commercial: Your new home just appears on your phone, in the right school district...

This comment yesterday summed it up: I completely blame the school rating sites. Reality is: low income students will almost automatically mean drops in test scores for a gazillion reasons. But people read that as, "Oh, kids do bad here." So, when people choose schools "by the numbers", they are choosing more affluent neighborhoods with less economic and cultural diversity.

What happens when neighborhoods lose families with children? My neighborhood school is actually a Title 1 school as there are so few families in our neighborhood with kids (a lot of original owners and older owners). So, most of the kids are from the low income housing and rental units. BUT... there is a good mix of students of upper middle class, middle class and poor... just a bit too lopsided. And fantastic teachers and staff.

Recently I was at a party where someone suggested that we are "Manhattanizing" Columbia. Her explanation? We have housing for the upper-middle class, and we have housing for the poor, but have very little housing opportunitinies for solidly middle-class families. This led to a discussion about housing turnover in the villages, how to encourage and support middle class home ownership in Columbia, and how to promote it.

A friend who grew up here commented, I completely agree that Columbia was intended to have a high percentage of families for it to work right. The fact that there are more single person households in Columbia than households with children says a lot. That is certainly part of the discussion.

Do we really choose diversity? Again, this could be a much better question. We? We, who? Ah well. Speaking for my own family--my husband bought the house because it was a midpoint between DC and Baltimore/Towson where he was working at the time, and it was in his price range. And I moved here because of him. Neither one of us chose the Columbia of Rouse and the People Tree.

On the other hand, we are both people who are happy to live in cultural and economic diversity, don't care two hoots about test scores, and want to be good neighbors. So, in a way, we grew into Columbia. When our daughter approached kindergarten age I had heard that Talbott Springs was a "rough school." So I visited the school. I met with the Kindergarten team leader. I came away satisfied that this was a safe and supportive environment.

We have to acknowledge that most people are not choosing Columbia for Columbia. And, if we allow real estate companies to define neighborhood choices "by the numbers" then more and more people will choose less diversity. (In reality we are really talking about socio-ecomic diversity.) And, if this cycle continues uninterrupted, Columbia neighborhoods will not have the balance of families to support our schools.

Where do we go from here? Certain themes seem to run throughout this discussion. Columbia needs to actively recruit more families to live here. We need to get serious about this. And we need to look at ways to support home ownership for middle-class families. We need to fight back against defining our schools by the numbers. And we need to do a much better job educating both prospective and new homeowners about what Columbia is all about.

And one more thing--well, I'll hold that thought for tomorrow. It's about opportunity.



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