The movie is out, the reviews are written, and now the ground game has begun. (A new site, DoneWaiting.org, promises to turn “Superman” fans into reform advocates.) But as my good friend Rick Hess argues, much of the actions urged by the film’s producers and promoters are either banal (read to your child!) or worse (stand up for standards!). Rick wants people to vote for reform-minded candidates, which is fine. But what if you really want to make a direct impact on the system, and especially on the education of low-income kids? There’s one obvious step you can take: choose a diverse public school for your own children.
Here the research is much more compelling than for charter schools or the other promising strategies outlined by the movie. Years of desegregation studies showed that African-American kids performed much better when they attended integrated schools. More recent, and more sophisticated, “peer effects” research (by the likes of Carolyn Hoxby and Eric Hanushek) finds much the same. Rick Kahlenberg has been shouting from the rooftops that poor kids do better in “middle class” schools–which is why, in Gerald Grant’s words, there are no bad schools in Raleigh.
Davis Guggenheim starts his film by driving by inner-city public schools to which he couldn’t imagine sending his offspring. But if he and his friends all made a collective decision to send their kids to such schools, they would improve overnight. This isn’t just wishful thinking; all around the country, affluent families are choosing to send their children to racially and socio-economically integrated schools, in places like Cambridge and Berkeley, but also in less likely spots such as Alexandria, Virginia; Stapleton, Colorado; and Miraloma Park, California.
This is no easy decision, to be sure. I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, a very diverse suburb of DC, and my wife and I are agonizing about whether to stay or go, mostly because of the schools. (Our oldest son is only three, so we have some time.) In fact, I’m writing a whole book about this agony, and all of the pros and cons of sending your own kids to a school with a sizable number of poor children.
But let’s face it, reformers: As long as we’re working to fix the schools of “other people’s children,” we’re only going to get so far. An Inconvenient Truth inspired people to vote for environmentally-friendly candidates, but it also motivated (some) people to ditch their cars, consume less energy, and change their lifestyles. The education corollary is simple, Davis: Stop at the closest public school, fix it up, and send your kid there.