How Online Real Estate Companies Are Making School Segregation Worse


Online real estate finders like Zillow and Trulia now let homebuyers shop for properties and schools at the same time. When Jack Schneider, the author of a new book, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality, tried to get these school ratings tools to recommend his own daughter's school in the diverse community of Somerville, MA, he couldn't. Instead the sites inevitably steered him to schools in pricier—and whiter—suburbs. That's because the real estate sites rely on test score data as their measure for determining which schools are the best, what Schneider refers to as "demographic data in disguise." In the latest episode of Have You Heard, Schneider and AlterNet education editor Jennifer Berkshire, discuss how test scores and other current metrics distort our picture of school quality, often fostering segregation in the process, and what a better measure looks like. 

Have You Heard: Explain why these real estate sites end up steering families away from diverse schools, like those in Somerville, MA where you live, and towards whiter, more affluent schools in the leafy suburbs.

Jack Schneider: The short version of the story is they measure quality by the number of middle class and affluent white students in a building. That's not, of course, what they would tell you. So, for instance, their methodology is that they take standardized test scores, proficiency scores and then they balance those against growth scores, which I suppose is slightly better than just using proficiency scores. Then if you're a high school student, they also bring in SAT scores and graduation rates. So, most of these figures correlate pretty strongly with family income, parental educational attainment, and as a result of those things with race, family language. So the use of test scores as a measure of school quality is extremely problematic because a school could be doing a fantastic job at all of the things that we want schools to do, not just helping students acquire academic content in a way that can be tested by multiple choice tests. But, it specifically could even be doing a great job at that.

Have You Heard: You describe how this becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic where people get scared away from schools with low test scores while setting off what's essentially an education arms race over schools in the most expensive, least diverse communities.

Schneider: One of the most troubling pieces here is that because schools are valued by people and because they are associated with a real estate premium, homes in "good school districts" end up being more expensive, which means they price out lots of kids who might not have had high test scores. They become available to students who are going to have high test scores wherever they go and so you have a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and a kind of feedback loop here where affluent parents are attracted to schools with high test scores and because they move there, the schools then have high test scores. The reverse is true in communities like ours, although again this is beginning to change, where you see parents are scared off by low test scores and because of those particular parents do not choose to move there, they do not bring their high scoring students with them.

Have You Heard: Public schools have been resegregating in recent years, and one of the arguments that you make is that this resegregation reflects a shift in the way that Americans understand the purpose of education. Explain.

Schneider: The segregation of the American schools is obviously much older than test scores, but what we've seen for the past several decades is a re-segregation of American education. You know, a big part of this is tied to people seeing schools as a private good rather than as a public good. If schools are a public good, then we are not in competition with one another for good schools. If they're a public good, we want everybody to be involved and actually the more mixed our student bodies are, the better. But, if schools are a private good, then we are in competition with each other. Then the value of my education is dictated by its relationship to the value of your education. So, if I'm getting a little bit more and a little bit more status than you, then that's good. Whether or not I'm learning anything, I mean learning is really incidental here.

So in economics this is called a positional good. So, all I really want is to come out on top. There is no sort of standard of excellence that I'm striving for. This can be tied to the increasing belief among Americans that they live in a meritocracy, that education is the way to get ahead. There's a lot of evidence that indicates that we don't see a lot of economic mobility across quintiles, so folks born in the bottom 20% of income earners, are actually likely to themselves grow up and earn incomes somewhere in the bottom 20% or bottom 40% and this seems true for those at the top. But there is this very strong belief in meritocracy and the role of education in meritocracy and there's been in increasing arms race over the past several decades is particularly middle class parents have really worked to ensure an advantage for their kids. To get their kids into the right preschool, then the right elementary school, so they can go to the right middle school, the right high school and eventually the right college. Increasingly, as we've seen more students attending college, now the aim is to get them into the right graduate school.

Have You Heard: You set out to create a better measure of school quality, and one of the things that you found was that this view of education as a private good really didn't correspond with how parents, teachers and students see their own schools. They don't see education as just another product to be consumed.

Schneider: That simply isn't the way that most parents, once their kids are actually in a school, at least most parents who I talk with, that's simply not the way that they are understanding the school. The school is not a product, the school is a community that they are a part of. So, they learn the good, the bad, the difficult and they want to roll their sleeves up and get to work. The same is true of educators, right? So, educators can be steered away from schools. They look at schools that have been labeled, they're stigmatized, that's like, that's not exactly the kind of place that I want to work. But, once they're in a school community, educators are so willing to acknowledge flaws and to work really hard to try to strengthen those communities, but community is the word there.

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