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Your Zip Code Probably Won't Make Much Of A Difference To Your Kid's Education


Kids DreidelThis editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?'

I’m from Harvard, Massachusetts – but not the Harvard that you’ve heard of.

It’s a small town in central MA, with one elementary school, one high school, and one stop light.

When people learn where I’m from (after verifying my allegiance to the Red Sox and Dunkin’ Donuts) they often ask about my schooling, having heard that Massachusetts has the best schools in the nation.

They’re not wrong: across numerous measures of student achievement, the Bay State ranks at or near the top in the nation.

But while national statistics are valuable, they provide an impartial view of school quality. They’re also not much help for most American parents searching for the best attainable school options for their kids.

Plus, I’m not suggesting that everyone moves to Massachusetts. It’d get awfully crowded.

"Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire are academic super states."

At GreatSchools, we often field questions about the best places to live based on quality of education. From the national perspective, there are states that clearly rise to the top when looking at student achievement: Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, to name a few academic super states.

But in an effort to predict what regions will have the best schools in 20 years, the numbers can be deceiving.

School quality is not measured in black and white, so statistics must be analyzed in conjunction with additional factors.

What’s more, today’s picture of school performance is probably more reflective of the efforts of the past 20 years than what will happen in the next 20 years.

Looking to the future, we would do better to discuss trends that will continue to shape the education landscape and drive school quality. Here is some advice on four trends to watch – and pitfalls to avoid – when identifying the best schools in the future.

1) So called "successful" schools must provide a strong academic foundation – but take care in interpreting the stats.

Mastery of core academic skills like reading, writing, and math is the foundation of any quality education, but measuring schools’ success in those areas is not as straightforward as one might assume. We find the highest reading and math test scores in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, where students are twice as likely as their peers in West Virginia or Mississippi to be proficient.[1]

But looking at the likelihood of a child’s success throughout school would lead us to Wisconsin or Vermont, states that boast the best high school graduation rates in the country. However, high school graduation requirements vary considerably state by state, so we might look for places where high school graduates are most likely to attend college, revealing further complexity.

For example, while Mississippi has the second-lowest graduation rate in the country (62%), it is first in the nation for college-going rate among high school graduates (77%). Furthermore, overall trends mask the reality that to an alarming degree, high achievement for some does not mean high achievement for all.

In the District of Columbia, white students in 4th grade score highest in the nation in math proficiency (81%), while black 4th graders in D.C. rank third-to-last in the nation on that same test (9%). 

"Overall economic activity in an area is an important consideration for school quality."

Bottom line: the question of quality is highly dependent on what we mean by success – and for whom. Selecting the best schools based on any one of these elements would be tantamount to a doctor giving a clean bill of health based on your blood pressure alone.

You want to look at a variety of academic metrics to get the full picture.

MORE: 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?' at The Great Debate →

2) Strong local support will be necessary for quality schools to thrive.

With around 90% of public school funding coming from local or state governments, there is great variation in school funding levels state-by-state. Compare, for example, the $17,750 provided per student annually in the state of New York to Arizona’s meager $6,448 per-pupil funding rate.[2]

Furthermore, overall economic activity in an area is an important consideration for school quality, as it drives the local tax revenue (i.e., the government’s ability to pay). It may not be a coincidence, then, that four of the five highest-performing states we mentioned (MA, MD, NJ, and NH) also rank in the top ten for personal income per-capita.

But once again, looking at any one of these points alone is insufficient. For example, California ranks #14 in the nation in per-capita income, but #42 in per-pupil funding for K-12 schools, a disparity that many attribute to the state property tax limit that has been in place since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, and blame for California’s placement near the bottom of the pack in student achievement. Looking to the future, state policies will continue to have a huge impact on local school funding and overall quality.  

Local support for education can take many forms beyond funding, such as how much school districts recognize the essential role of parents in supporting their children’s education. Take Miami-Dade County, for example, where the Parent Academy’s parenting classes, available to all in the county, include infant care, reinforcing reading lessons at home, and dealing with bullying in school.

Similar parent support efforts have cropped up around the country to wide acclaim, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and San Diego Parent University. Comprehensive and sustained parent empowerment programs will be an essential ingredient to building excellent and equitable school systems.

MORE: 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?' at The Great Debate →

3) Great schools will foster creativity and nurture a love of learning.

While important, student achievement data don’t necessarily get at some of the most important questions that parents have, such as the degree to which students are engaged at school. Beyond providing solid foundational academic skills, outstanding educators nurture a child’s enthusiasm for learning.

A positive school climate that fosters creativity, promotes social growth, and emphasizes skills like team-building and character development, can have a tremendous impact on school quality. An explicit focus on social and emotional learning, as is being embraced by school districts in Chicago, Cleveland, and Anchorage, Alaska, will continue to drive school quality in the future.

4) Diverse student needs will be met through diverse school options.

School districts across the nation are morphing from monolithic top-down systems to diverse groups of school options with innovative models such as dual language immersion and science-focused college prep.

When parents have options, a family’s school choice can be driven by their children’s interests and needs rather than enrollment boundaries. Cities like New Orleans and New York City are taking radical approaches to providing parents with choices and giving schools the freedom to innovate, with the aim of providing every child with access to a school that is both high performing and fits her needs.

MORE: 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?' at The Great Debate →

"The best schools may not be defined by their zip code, but by their capacity to embrace all resources – in school, at home, and through the web."

It May Not Be Where You Live, But How You Live

To be sure, school quality matters. But there are a couple reasons why increasingly, where you live may matter less in determining your child’s chance of success.

Study after study has shown that, regardless of a child’s socio-economic background or where she goes to school, the degree to which her parents are involved in supporting her education may be the single most important factor in promoting student achievement.[3]

Additionally, the rise of the Internet in education will have a powerful leveling effect by providing access to world-class content and instruction to all kids.

Khan Academy, which “flips” the traditional classroom model to free up more time for one-on-one teacher-student interaction, and Rocketship Education, which supports kids in at-risk communities by integrating web-based and traditional instruction, are just two examples of innovation that will grow along these lines.

Thus, the best schools in 20 years may not be defined by their zip code, but by their capacity to embrace all resources – in school, at home, and through the web.  

While we have a long way to go, these trends leave me feeling rather optimistic. After all, I’m not from the Harvard you know in Cambridge, MA. But I am from the town of Harvard, which even without a fancy zip code was a tight-knit community where parents were involved and creativity was encouraged in and out of school.

In the coming years, an excellent education will not be reserved for the Cambridges or Harvards of the world, but will be ever closer within reach for all parents to access for their children.  

MORE: 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?' at The Great Debate →

[1] U.S. Department of Education, “State of the States in Education,” September 22, 2011. http://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/state-of-states/state-of-states.ppt

[2] “Rankings of the States 2011 and Estimates of School Statistics 2012,” National Education Association, December 2011 http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/NEA_Rankings_And_Estimates_FINAL_20120209.pdf

[3] Jeynes, William, “Parental Involvement and Academic Success,” Taylor and Francis, New York, 2011. 

About GreatSchools

GreatSchools is a national nonprofit that helps parents get a great education for their children. Our programs combine the broad reach of digital media with the power of community partnerships. Last year we reached more than 41 million people, including nearly half of all American households with school-age children.

Our Webby award-winning website, GreatSchools.org, helps families make crucial decisions about where to live and where to send their children to school. With profiles of 200,000 public and private schools and more than one million parent ratings and reviews, GreatSchools.org is the nation’s leading guide to PK-12 schools. In addition, GreatSchools.org offers thousands of articles, videos and worksheets that give parents practical ideas and tools to support their children’s learning.

Headquartered in San Francisco, GreatSchools operates field offices in Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Washington, DC.

MORE: 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?' at The Great Debate →

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