Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that families should be informed about the quality of high schools and student outcomes when choosing where to send their children to school.

Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.
Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.

Most parents want their kids to go to college. A poll released last week by Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that nine of 10 black families want to send their kids to college, and half of those also want their kids to get advanced degrees. Among Latino families, 95 percent of respondents to a 2009 national poll said they view sending their children to college as an ‘essential part of the American dream.’”

Yet parents in Denver are not consistently demanding the schools that will put their kids in the best position to attend college.

Perhaps there are misconceptions about school quality — or the persistent belief that students can succeed regardless of school. Many families see big high schools like Lincoln, Kennedy, East, Thomas Jefferson, Bruce Randolph and North as providing opportunities for all students, regardless of race, class or ability. Families believe that some of these schools may not work for some, but that their kid has a fair shot if they work hard and go to class. After all, the Harvard poll mentioned above found that fewer than 5 percent of respondents thought their child’s school was “poor.”

The fact is that for most students the numbers tell a different story. Only four African American students (3 percent) from East, nine Latino students (3 percent) from Lincoln and three Latino students (3 percent) from Bruce Randolph are likely to get a bachelor’s degree — not great odds.

Perhaps many parents know they are sending their kids to mediocre or bad high schools, but just don’t have better options. The fact is that while the number of high-performing high school seats in Denver is growing there are very few open seats (most are filled at the sixth grade for the good 6-12 grade schools). DSST schools, one of those high performing high schools had only eight open seats for the ninth grade and zero for the 10th grade (all of the other seats were filled in the sixth grade or with existing families!). Regardless of whether parents understand the quality of their school choices or have good options, most parents and kids in Denver aren’t in schools that would put their kids in a position to succeed in college.

How to choose a good high school?

Despite the high demand for poor schools, any realtor can tell you that plenty of parents of all colors and races know that getting into the right school will stack the cards heavily in their child’s favor. Hardly anyone is surprised to hear that school consultants are now commanding thousands of dollars to help parents get their kids into the best schools. So what is in their black box?

Some observations from the lists-
• Rich Colorado ski towns have some good high schools (Telluride, Aspen, Crested Butte, etc.)
• Charter high schools are disproportionately good (Peak to Peak, DSST, Vanguard, Liberty, Classical, etc.)
• You don’t have to live in a million dollar house to go to a good public high school, but it sure helps (DSST, Kiowa, Buena Vista, Swink, DCIS, East, etc.)
• Some districts (Denver, Boulder and JeffCo) have good high schools no matter how you judge them.
• Suburban high schools can be good, but it is surprising to see how many that have good reputations do not show up on these lists.
• Good high schools can be found in rural, suburban and urban communities in Colorado.
• There are no good high schools that serve a percentage of low-income students above 47 percent free/reduced lunch, and few above 25 percent free/reduced lunch.
• Colorado, as a whole, does not do very well on national high school comparisons. Once again, the Colorado Paradox comes into play. We import lots of college-educated adults but do a relatively poor job educating our own kids.
• You can get a good high school by selecting students for achievement or the arts (D’Evelyn and DSA).

It’s no great secret. There are three good ways to evaluate public high schools on paper (the next step is visiting them, taking a look at the boys’ restroom, and asking hard questions of their staff). Like looking for a car, it’s a good idea to look at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver because both provide a helpful lens for understanding the virtues of a particular car.

When looking at high schools, it is a good idea to use multiple tools. Here are three good ones.

  1. Colorado School Grades:  Ties schools to state ratings, taking into account student growth.  The School Grades’ website also allows a user to easily compare schools and rank them on the state’s measure.  The problem is that this high school growth metric only measures growth from ninth to 10th grade.  We need a metric for the growth from entering to leaving high school.  This ranking is heavily weighted to TCAP scores and ACT scores but does not account for pass rates on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams (unlike Newsweek or the US News lists).
  2.  Newsweek: Heavy emphasis on AP/IB offerings and course taking (30 percent). Only 10 percent of score goes to AP/IB pass rates with no adjustment for student population in terms of poverty.  Not surprisingly, schools serving the most wealthy students get the highest rankings, so this ranking is more reflective of the school community wealth than the power of a school to support student learning.
  3.  US News and World Report:  US News contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop a fairly complex methodology that begins with an analysis of whether the school under or over-performs relative to the average student in the particular state. If the schools over-performs, there is an additional analysis of AP/IB participation and performance.  Please see the technical appendix for more details here.

The ranking tools are much better than they were a decade ago, but still have room for growth. For example, we should be able to find out how students do once they leave a particular high school. How many were prepared for college? How many went? Where? How did they do? We have the ability to answer some of these questions now because we are tracking students as they move between high school and college, though school rating tools haven’t yet incorporated this (complex) data.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive and elite high schools do track college matriculation data. It’s big part of any marketing for Brearly, St. Pauls or Spence. The college matriculation metrics for these schools measure the percent of graduating class accepted to “Ivy/Stanford/MIT.” Notably, they do not measure number of students that attend local community college, or even schools like CalTech or Amherst. The schools have a clear goal. The Forbes top 20 private schools have an “Ivy/Stanford/MIT” acceptance range of 20 percent to 40 percent. Do we really still believe that wealthy kids are naturally smarter than poor kids?  Someday soon it would be nice to see what these same numbers are for the best public schools in US.

We’ve said it so many times before that we won’t beat the dead horse here. We do need more good seats. We realize not every parent has the option of buying a house across the street from Bromwell. (By the way, one way to level the playing field would be make every quality seat available through a lottery so that not just rich families living in the Country Club neighborhood have access to schools like Bromwell.)

Still, we parents must continue to use smart tools to evaluate and choose the best high schools because, ultimately, policy-makers and education entrepreneurs will respond to our demands. If families continue to say ‘we’re pleased with the status quo’ by choosing the lowest performing schools, low performing schools will persist and results will be predictable. The dream of nine of 10 parents will continue to be just that.