What do we mean by “a good school”?
Is it a school where all children are loved and respected and made to feel safe and valued? Where trained and caring educators know all students can succeed and work hard to help them reach their potential? Where children smile and laugh when they walk through the doors and enjoy being with each other and their teachers?
Or is it a school where most of the students are middle- or upper-class and at least a clear majority are white? Where families can provide their children with healthy food, a comfortable home and enriching after-school activities. Where average test scores are high, and GreatSchools ratings are near the top.
Most of us would probably say it’s the former. But how often do you encounter people casually using the terms “good schools” or “better schools” to refer to the latter? I see and hear it all the time, from ordinary folks, from elected officials and political candidates, and even from smart journalists writing about diversity, equity and social justice. A couple of examples:
In a New Yorker profile of Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, Sheelah Kolhatkar tells about Warren’s research on how economic pressures were forcing middle-class families into bankruptcy. “The cost of raising a child — of paying for groceries and health care, and especially of buying a home near a good public school — was rising sharply,” Kohatkar writes (emphasis added).
And in an excellent New York Times story on school segregation, Emily Badger recounts how neighborhoods have become more racially and economically stratified as “higher-income families pursue the neighborhoods that come with the best schools.”
Now I know these are throw-away lines. The writers aren’t trying to make pronouncements about school quality. But by adopting this widely accepted shorthand – using “good” and “best” to mean the “most affluent” schools – they are buying into a harmful stereotype that schools in wealthy neighborhoods are, by definition, good, and schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t.
Language matters. It shapes how we think about schools and society, like it or not. Journalists and editors owe it to their readers — and we all owe it to each other — to use it carefully.