• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Kids, Conscience, and Consciousness

"Good schools," buying a home and inequality.


June 14, 2015

Anyone who doubts the tight connection between test scores and socioeconomic standing is invited to go househunting.

In preparation for the new gig at Brookdale, we’ve put our house on the market, and we’re looking for a place to live in New Jersey. Putting our house on the market is labor-intensive and emotionally fraught, but elements of it are straightforward enough. The buying part is more complicated.

We’ve both lived in New Jersey before -- TW spent most of her life there, and I was there for 18 years -- but not in Monmouth County specifically.  We had spent time on the Shore -- it’s where we got engaged -- and had caught a few concerts at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, but we didn’t learn the local reputations of Monmouth school districts. We’re learning them now, with some level of urgency and with outsiders’ perspective. With The Boy starting high school this Fall, and The Girl starting sixth grade, we want to make sure they get schools worthy of them.

There’s no shortage of school rankings. Some of them are done by the state, but the really influential ones are done by a private, for-profit magazine (New Jersey Monthly). The magazine rankings are as powerful within the state as the US News higher ed rankings are nationally. As near as I can tell, its power arises from a gap between the desire for information in easily digestible form, and the relative scarcity of information like that.  (In my time at CCM, I remember being told that NJ Monthly penalizes schools that send higher percentages of graduates to community college, even if they subsequently transfer and thrive.  True or not, I remember it a decade later.) GreatSchools.com and homefacts.com also offer easily understood ratings, though their respective provenances aren’t entirely clear.

As a professional educator who’s relatively fluent in education policy debates, I can rattle off all the reasons to be skeptical of, if not openly hostile to, school rankings. They’re proxies for economic class.  They reflect standardized test results, which are both narrow and skewed. They can become self-fulfilling on the extremes, as wealthier people make strong districts stronger, and people with options abandon the districts on the bottom to the people who don’t have options. I get all of that.

But I’m also a parent of two specific children. Even granting parental bias, they’re great kids. I want them to have great school experiences, both academically and socially.  

And that’s where kids, conscience, and social consciousness sometimes pull in different directions.

From a pure parental perspective, the argument for getting into the most high-achieving, “desirable” district we can afford is open-and-shut. TB and TG are wildly smart kids who will rise to the expected level; I want the level to be high. That strategy also has the benefit of higher resale value for a house, since other parents make the same calculation. But it also involves pretending not to know certain things, or deciding not to care about them.  

That’s hard. I want the kids to know that the world is larger and more diverse than the Honors track in a competitive suburban district. And while I want my kids to “win,” I also know that the game is rigged in a host of ways.  

In a more perfect world, differences among schools would be differences of personality, rather than quality, and you could just send your kid to the local public school wherever and be confident that s/he would get a great experience. If that happened, I think we’d see a great leveling of property values. Those who paid a premium to get into a “good” district could be expected to fight any such leveling, on the grounds that they’d lose the premium they’d paid. Which, in fact, they would.

In political discussions, we sometimes talk about school quality as if it were a pure win for everyone. But “good” districts only carry premiums because of the contrast to “bad” districts. Lose the latter, and the former will take a serious hit. They can be expected to respond accordingly.

I adopted the “Dean Dad” label years ago to capture the two roles that occupy most of my waking hours. (“Veep Dad” doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I’ll keep “Dean Dad” as my Twitter handle.) The two roles are similar in some ways; when I started, the major conflict I saw was logistical. But in the case of househunting, the two roles conflict conceptually. I want to make a point, and I want to do right by my kids.  

Ultimately, I’d like for us not to have to choose. That’s the world to work towards.



Back to Top