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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why Your Local Public High School Is Probably Better Than You Think (a repost of sorts)

Status reproduction is a process highlighted by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu; it refers to how the status of a person, group, institution, etc. is reproduced by virtue of its status. Consider, for example, college football programs. The best high school players generally want to play for the top programs, which makes it easier for those programs to recruit and attract more of the best players, which in turn helps them remain top programs. This can be true even if they don't have great coaching. Because of the level of talent they attract, they often win in spite of the coaching on the field.

A similar process occurs in many industries. Take the venture capital (VC) industry, for instance. Most entrepreneurs hope to receive funding from top VC firms, not just because these VC firms are seen as being more "wise," but also because their ties with the top attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers raise the probability the entrepreneurial companies will succeed. What this means for VC firms is that the top (i.e., the high status) VC firms often have their "pick" of the entrepreneurial companies to fund, while lower status VC firms do not. Moreover, top VC firms will typically be able to command better terms with their investments, such as getting a larger stake in the start-up's equity. To illustrate, imagine two VC firms, X and Y, with X being a high status firm and Y being a low status one; if both invest $1 million dollars in entrepreneurial company Z, all else being equal, X will get a greater share of the company Z's equity than will Y. Then, if company Z goes public, X will reap higher profits than will X.

What does this have to do with high schools? Status reproduction among them as well. Imagine, for example, two schools: A & B. Available teachers have been randomly assigned to both so that the teaching quality at both schools will be the same. The schools differ, however, in that most of the best students attend A and most of the worst students attend B. It doesn't take a genius to see that school A will score better on various standardized tests, enjoy a higher graduating rate, send more students to college. But it won't do so because of the teaching but because it attracted more of the best students.

Now, consider a slightly different scenario with the same two schools, except this time their average performance on standardized tests is a combination of innate student ability and teaching quality. On their own (i.e., without teaching) students can score between 0 and 50 (out of 100), but with teaching they can raise their scores by 0 to 50 points. So, for instance, a student with the highest innate ability (50) who receives the best possible teaching (50) will score 100 out of 100, and a student with no innate ability who receives the worst possible teaching will score of 0. Now, imagine that the average student ability at school A is 45, while the average student ability at school B is 30. This means that in order for B to score as high (or higher) than A, the quality of teaching at B has to 15 points better than A. Now, imagine a scenario where school B has the best teachers in the state and add 50 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 80, while A has good but not great teachers who add 40 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 85.

To be sure, these two examples are stylized, but they illustrate how school performance is not necessarily an indicator of teacher quality. To be sure, at one time school A may have had some of the best teachers in the district, and that's why it initially attracted better students, but that doesn't mean that it still has the best teachers. Unfortunately, a lot of parents interpret scores and graduation rates in just that way, and consequently (if they possess the requisite resources) they send their kids to schools they think are better but actually might not be. Currently in Silicon Valley, the divide between school A and school B type schools tends to lie between private and public schools, and among public schools, the divide is typically between those in wealthier neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

Divides such as these are almost certainly overstated. My own daughter (Tara) attends a public school (Del Mar) that some folks still see as having a bad reputation. However almost all of her teachers have been excellent, and she has been accepted into the top two public universities in the U.S. (UC Berkeley and UCLA), two of the top regional universities on the West Coast (Chapman and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo), along with UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, and Sonoma State. In other words, if parents paid less attention to test scores and more to teacher quality, they might realize that their local public high school is probably better than they think it is. Acting on such a realization could save them a lot of money. It would also help boost public schools at a time when they're under attack.

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