Done “Waiting for ‘Superman’”? Send Your Kid to a Diverse Public School

By 09/28/2010

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The movie is out, the reviews are written, and now the ground game has begun. (A new site,, 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.

Comment on this article
  • Liz says:

    Dear Michael, I would be very curious to know what you decide. I sent my daughter to one of the better public elementary schools in Buffalo, NY (there are many failing ones I wouldn’t consider sending her to) and she had a stomach ache every day. She has a reading difficulty and they pretty much put her in the lowest reading group and ignored her. So many public school teachers I know end up sending their kids to catholic or private schools. I’d like to see them put their kids in the schools that they teach in or tone down the school choice rhetoric.
    I see that your town, Tacoma Park has a median income of around $64,000. In Buffalo it’s about $30,000. From what I can see, it’s cost of living and racial diversity are very similar.
    I just think that everyone should have good schools to choose from, whether or not they have a choice of private schools or moving to the suburbs…

  • Pete says:

    Michael, 42 years ago we re-intergrated Madison St. D.C. adjacent to Carter Baron Park by being the first white family to move back into this lovely neighborhood after the white flight caused by the MLK riots in DC. We were welcomed by our African-American neighbors not for who we were but for what our emergence portended for the value of their homes. Ardent liberals, we sent our first child to the local elementary school, Brightwood, which she also re-intergrated, and, in fact, was the only white student among 600 or so. Two weeks later we were called in by her kindergarten teacher who advised us in stern terms immediately to send our daughter to any private school. The teacher had 30-plus low income students, and she planned the first half of the year around personal hygiene ,and our daughter knew the curriculum already. Although our daughter had been bored but uncomplaining, we then sent her to a nearby Montessori school. Subsequently, we looked more closely at our neighboring families and found: 1. Every family had at least one spouse in the DC schools;2. Every family had only one child;3. Every family sent their one-and-only to a private school; 4. Every family thought we were damn fools to have sent our daughter to the public school in the first place.

  • Jenny says:

    Love the article. My kids attend the high poverty (90%) elementary school down the street. They are thriving. They don’t need their 11th grade service project to have empathy and build relationship across economic and cultural lines. They have that opportunity everyday at school and in after school playdates. We are the better for it and I hope our community and the school as well.

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