Suburban schools not always great

A prominent California legislator from an inner-city district recently told a friend of mine that there were no poor-performing schools in the wealthy suburbs. This is a common perception among legislators, the media and parents, but it stands at odds with the facts.

In 2008, there were 528 schools where 20 percent or less of the students were classified as disadvantaged, but where 40 percent or more of students failed to reach proficiency in math or English in at least one grade level. More than eight out of 10 of these schools are in ZIP codes where the median home price is $300,000 or higher.

That is the finding of “Still Not as Good as You Think,” a new report from the Pacific Research Institute. The report examines sets of regular public schools in California with predominantly non-disadvantaged student populations and significant proportions of students who fail to score at the proficient level. The findings expose hundreds of underperforming public schools in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods across the state. Some of these schools are in iconic areas of wealth such as Malibu.

At Malibu High School, four out of 10 juniors scored below the proficient level on the 2008 state English test. Worse, around three-quarters of students taking the state geometry and algebra II exams failed to reach proficiency. The underachievement at Malibu High occurred despite the fact that the school is in a ZIP code with a median home price of $1.5 million, is overwhelmingly white and has few disadvantaged students or English language learners.

In the ZIP code of La Costa Canyon High School in Encinitas, the median house price is more than $550,000. Three-quarters of the students are white and only around one in 10 students is disadvantaged. Yet, four out of 10 juniors taking the state English test and six out of 10 students taking the state geometry and algebra II exams failed to achieve at the proficient level. Further, seven out of 10 juniors tested “not ready for college” in English on the California State University’s 2008 readiness exam.

Such poor performance is occurring despite the reality that parents at many of the schools are highly educated. At Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, home of the Claremont Colleges and nicknamed the town of “trees and Ph.D.s,” almost two-thirds of parents have had graduate school education. Yet significant proportions of Sycamore students at multiple grade levels, such as second-grade English or fifth-grade math, fail to reach proficiency.

In addition, most of the schools in these affluent neighborhoods have high levels of fully credentialed teaching staffs. At Sycamore, 100 percent of the teachers possess a full regular teaching credential, yet student outcomes are disappointing.

Even if middle-class parents were aware of the underperformance of their neighborhood public schools, many would be hard pressed to find alternatives given their high mortgages and other debt. They are trapped in gilded cages. That’s why middle-class Americans should look at Sweden, which has a universal school-choice system where funding follows every child to whichever school, public or private, that parents feel best meets the needs of their children. The program is widely popular and has resulted in broad improvements in student achievement.

Stockholm County governor and former education minister Per Unckel says: “The universal character of the (school-choice) program is the key message we would like to send. Choice is for everyone, whatever income you have. The right of the kid is to get a good education. If the public sector cannot offer it, he or she should have the right to go somewhere else.”

Parents and policymakers assume that because schools in the suburbs have nice lawns, new buildings, good sports programs and caring staffs that high student achievement is the natural result. The evidence shows otherwise. That’s why it’s time to look for ways to empower parents of all income levels to make better educational choices for their children.

Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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