The modeling death spiral for public schools
There was recently a New York Times article about how the public schools have become super segregated by race.
I’m wondering how much of this can be explained by income rather than by race in combination with the obsession we all have with test scores. Let me explain.
If I’m living in a neighborhood with a neighborhood school and the school seems pretty good, then depending on how picky I am I might just stay living there and let my kids go there.
Now assume that suddenly there are test scores available for all the schools in the area, and it turns out my neighborhood school doesn’t do as well as a surrounding neighborhood. Then, depending on how much I think those test scores matter to my childrens’ futures, and how much resources I have, I will be tempted to move to that neighborhood for the “better schools” (read: better test scores).
Over time, people with good resources will move to the new neighborhood, which will become more expensive because there’s competition to get it, which in turn will make it easier for that town to raise local taxes to improve the school, and will also attract parents who really care about the quality of the schools, which will improve the school and presumably the test scores of that school, exacerbating the original difference of test scores.
And of course that’s just what’s happened in this country. My parents moved to Lexington Massachusetts for the schools, and they paid a premium for their house for the location and the school system. So I went to a public school but one that increasingly was attended by richer and richer kids.
Income segregated public schools are the new private schools.
In New York City, where there is more to consider than just your neighborhood, because you can get your kids into schools in other neighborhoods, and there’s a whole network of gifted and talented schools as well, it’s a much more complicated dynamic, but the underlying reasons are the same, and they again have to do with segmentation modeling: we know which schools do well on tests and we avoid poorly testing schools if we can.
The availability of the test scores is huge- if I’m thinking of moving to a new city I can just look up the SAT scores of the high schools in the area and try to find a place to live which is in one of the highest-scoring towns.
This is what I call a death spiral of modeling, and it’s the same idea I described here when insurance companies have too much information about you and deny you coverage because you need insurance so bad. And it’s very difficult to get out of a death spiral, because to do so you need to reset the whole system and re-pool resources but in this case people have already moved out of town.
Questions I am thinking about:
- Is it dumb to care so much about test scores? On the one hand I don’t want to take chances on my kids, so I will opt for the conservative route, which is to think they should be surrounded by kids who test well, because certainly in extreme cases that kind of thing is likely to be contagious behavior. But maybe we have exaggerated ideas about how contagious these things are or how important test scores really are to our kids futures. How would we test that and how would we disseminate the results? And what if we found out that everybody has been acting totally rationally?
- Which begs the other question, namely how can we get this system to work better overall for the average student that would be realistic?
- Note that in the above discussion I haven’t talked about the teachers at all, which is strange. But from my perspective, our system is all about concentrating kids who test well together, and it’s not all that clear that the teachers matter, although I’m sure they do actually. What am I missing? Is there a way of solving this death spiral problem through awesome teachers?