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Parents and "The Company You Keep" Hypothesis

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Some people protest war. Others protest hunger and suffering. Less discussed, but no less common, is a special class of protest reserved for parents: conscientious objection to their children’s troublesome friends. When parents look out into the world, they see peers whose values and attitudes are contagious. And they are notorious for circling the wagons to keep out unwanted intruders.

Which brings us back to the question of whether the school your kid attends matters as much as you think it does. On Monday and Tuesday, I pointed out that the differences between schools in improving test scores are actually quite small. However, I argued that schools do offer different kinds of opportunities to learn, and parents’ anxiety about where to send their kids to school is partially about their kids’ academic futures.

Amidst all our wonky talk about school choice and academic quality, it’s easy to forget that parents are acutely concerned about what kind of kids are going to be over for play dates. Most parents intuitively buy into the maxim, “You are the company you keep,” and believe that peers are going to affect the person their child turns out to be. Ignoring the emotional dimension of choosing schools leads us to a cookie cutter - and ultimately myopic - understanding of this process.

I’ll give you the bright side of parents’ worries, and then the dark side. Parents reason that their kids are going to spend most of their waking hours surrounded by their peers. They want their child to be flanked by kids who are well-behaved and respectful of the learning process. Parents would also prefer that the other parents at their school share their approach to parenting. For example, they’d like to know that their five year old isn’t watching "Showgirls" and hitting the bottle after they’ve dropped him off.

Parents also know, especially when the kids are young, that the parents of their kids’ friends are going to become their friends. So parents need to be able to see themselves in the other parents at the school. As Ryan, the husband of a San Francisco mom who’s blogging about her school search, said, “I liked the [parent] tour guides. I could see myself being their friends. We're going to be spending a lot of time at Alice's school, and we want to be in a place where we feel like we can connect with the other parents.”

Here’s the dark side. NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider tracked parents' use of a school search website in DC (DCschoolsearch.com), and documented which features of the schools parents looked at, and in what order. Guess what the heaviest hitter was? Demographics. Socioeconomic and racial composition play a large role when parents are choosing schools. (More on whether parents choose school quality or school racial/class composition; see also Mark Schneider's book - Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?).

Economists might argue that this is “statistical discrimination” – essentially using group averages about performance when we have insufficient information. Certainly, on average, learning conditions are worse at schools with high proportions of poor and minority kids. A less cheerful take, of course, is that this is animus-based discrimination.

Regardless of your interpretation, my point is that parents’ choices are as much about "the company" as they are about school quality.

Image credit: 4th grade, Linwood Elementary School.
4 Comments

Your reasoning is sound but the evidence you've used seems iffy. In general, parents may look most frequently and often at demographic info (as opposed to what - test scores, which many of them know doesn't tell you much? and is does looking at disaggregated test scores looking at demo info or looking at indicators of academics?). But we don't know that they're looking at demographic indicators to glean information that leads them to believe that families like theirs at at the school. Perhaps they are looking for diversity, if school assignment plans don't already control that. Perhaps they're looking for evidence of achievement gaps being filled, or at least narrowed. In terms of the play date question, I believe that many parents are looking for demongraphic diversity - when that's available - so that that playdates are with kids who may NOT be ethnically/racially/socioeconomically similar. (Of course, the reverse is also true.)

That is not to say that your argument doesn't resonate. I work frequently with parents in my own community in the process of choosing schools for their kids, and often serve as one of those parent tour guides at my own kid's school. I know well the power of personal connection and persuasion and along with other parents, am working to pull more families "like us" (which in this specific case means from our neighborhood enrollment zone) into the public schools. We're working hard to get parents to choose public rather than independent and there's a lot of potential in that, as for many years, many of our neighbors have chosen to eschew the public schools specifically on the "no kids like mine/no friends for me" basis. Most of the decision making comes down to personal connections when school quality is decent.

"A less cheerful take, of course, is that this is animus-based discrimination. "

Why do you think low income parents so often want to get their kids into middle-class schools? Animus-based discrimination?

Income, race, and SES are excellent proxies for academic achievement. Bad parents are those who put their own ideological preferences in front of their kids' academic needs.

Any fix to schools can't require economic desegregation. All that will do is annoy the suburbs, who will send their kids to private schools and weaken their support for public ones.

One effect that hasn't been mentioned is that it's believed by many people (and is very likely true) that academically involved, educated parents put a lot of effort into improving their kids' education, and will mostly likely have the effect of improving the school their kids go to while doing it. They will give money for supplies and enrichment programs; they will complain about bad building maintenance and about teachers and administrators they see as incompetent or unresponsive.

Some educators may see the concerns of these parents as misguided -- but other parents, in the process of choosing schools, probably share many of the concerns, misguided or not, and see the presence of middle-class parents at a school as indication that people who share their educational concerns are comfortable with the school.

Hi Jill and Cal,

Jill, check out this link - it provides more info about the research on parents' choices and race/class composition:
http://eduwonkette2.blogspot.com/2007/10/do-parents-choose-school-quality-or.html. I agree that these quantitative studies don't tell the whole story - qualitative studies are more insightful about parents' thought processes. If you're interested, email me and I'll dig some up for you.

Because of the creep towards resegregation that we've seen, I am not convinced that the fraction of white parents seeking substantial diversity is large.

Cal, I'm not sure the question about motives can ever be definitively settled -just wanted to put the possibilities out there.

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