The Problem with “Great Schools”

Numbers often obscure the truth

Ali McKay

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Photo: iStock/Getty

If you have young kids or use real estate websites like Redfin or Zillow, you’ve probably seen the school ratings from GreatSchools, an organization that describes itself as “the leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their children.” My kids’ school is rated a “4”. That’s out of 10. [August 2019 update: the school is now a “2”.] When I was in school, 40 percent was not a grade that my parents or I would have been happy with. There would have been a fair amount of freaking out about a 4 out of 10. And yet my children, and all of the other 330 kids in that school, are learning, having fun, and occasionally misbehaving or letting off steam. They are being kids. The more I think about it, the more I wonder how a building full of people — actual kids, teachers, parents, and staff — can be described by a single number.

I am very happy with our school, even though it has some pretty significant challenges. It isn’t a “4” to me, or to most other parents I’ve talked to. I have friends at other nearby elementary schools with ratings of “3”, “4”, even “2” — they also love their schools. So why is our school’s GreatSchools rating not in alignment with my experience, and so many other people’s experience? As it turns out, these school ratings aren’t just inaccurate: they perpetuate the inequality that they aim to reduce, exacerbating segregation and resource hoarding in the process.

First, a little bit more about my experience. I knew our school was remarkable when we toured it. I saw a young girl put her arm around the shoulders of a classmate (who appeared to have significant special needs) and guide her carefully through the library. This act of care stuck with me, but mostly, I just saw lots of cute kids. Many were students of color, some girls wore hijabs (headscarves), and there was a wide range of disabilities and special needs. It was clear to me that this community was a better reflection of the world than a school that is white, privileged, and segregated. So, we left our more white, privileged, and segregated school — which, incidentally, has a GreatSchools rating of 7 — and moved our children to this school.

Our new, lower-rated school has provided exactly the kind of education my kids need…

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Ali McKay

A white mom committed to integration, equity and anti-racism | Working to live my values | Parent Advisory Board www.integratedschools.org