API: Affluent Parents Index?
If there's one thing that drives home prices it's neighborhood desirability, and if there's one thing that drives neighborhood desirability, it's schools, and if there's one thing that drives school desirability, it's API (Academic Performance Index) scores. Yet I wonder how many of us understand much more than this simple formula. Or can, or want to. Or should.
Believe me, I know why parents place such emphasis on education—for many buying in this area these days, excelling in a rigorous, make-or-break educational system has been their ticket to a far more promising future. Work with the young professionals driving up prices in the marquee school districts today and you'll soon understand that "brain drain" is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Silicon Valley benefits from talented, driven folks who understand, as few of us can, the value of a superior education, and naturally they want the same for their kids. And the beauty of API scores is that they quantify something vitally important yet not easily quantified: education quality. But that's also their danger.
Those of us who buy homes or help people buy homes often assume that the higher the API score, the better the school. We look up test scores on the Internet, then casually toss off "that's a great school" or "that's a lousy district" as if we were education consultants. Considering how valued a good—no, make that a stunningly great—education is in this area, assuming that API scores do not lie can lead to: 1) an obsession with something that may be only one part of the picture, and perhaps a misleading part at that, and 2) the further assumption that we can now expertly assess the education offered by various districts and schools, and the rise or decline of the quality of that education over time.
Maybe yes, maybe no. There's a district in San Jose that my clients tell me is touted these days as "the new Cupertino", with test scores soaring along with home prices. About a year ago I happened to meet someone who teaches in that district, and with my usual discretion I asked her, "Do you teach to the test?" She looked stunned, then nodded her head yes.
So who cares if a district teaches to the test? It keeps the scores high, which keeps the parents happy, which keeps the district happy, and presumably the kids get some benefit too. But it reminds me of a remarkable admission made by another client who went through that kind of laser-focused education: "I can answer your question. But I can't tell you if it's the right question." Maybe the take-away here is that in education, as in life, different approaches produce different results. Not necessarily better or worse results, just different results.
I have a feeling that trying to quantify education outcomes is a lot like the real estate economist's attempts to quantify home-buying outcomes. The latter ignores the many emotional and inter-personal elements that go into a successful home-buying outcome, either because he doesn't know they exist, or because they don't fit his algorithms. The industry studied, whether it's public education or real estate, is labeled a failure based on one-dimensional but crowd-pleasing results.
But I guess what brought things to a head for me was yet another client's observation that the white students at a poorly-regarded, primarily English Language Learner K-5 school, which we'll call Brand X, tested higher than students attending highly-regarded (not to say widely worshipped) K-5s in a nearby district, which we'll call the Holy Grail Unified School District. And it's not like the whites are an over-achieving 2% of the student population at Brand X; no, they make up 35%.
That's smokin', API-wise. Yet I've never had a buyer tell me, "I want a home in the Brand X attendance area", an attendance area that, by the way, includes some of the most conveniently-located yet affordable housing on the mid-Peninsula. So who's getting the better education? And, really, what is a better education?
Well, I know that none of us are going to stop looking at—and secretly worshipping—API scores anytime soon, so I'll give you what I think are a few tips on accurately assessing education quality. Of course, I'm no education expert either, and maybe I'll just make things worse, but somehow I don't think so.
First of all, don't focus only on a school's average API score. Look at how the various sub-groups test, as my client did. That becomes increasingly more important as you move from elementary to middle school to high school. Why? Because middle and high schools draw from larger, and typically far more diverse, areas than K-5s. And just assume that any school drawing from an area with lots of apartment buildings is going to have a lower average test score, no matter how affluent the city is as a whole. I see this time after time. Demographics aside, that school is going to have a more transient population, which makes it more likely that kids never get enough time to find their groove in the classroom and that their parents don't (and can't) get involved.
If you're on Greatschools.org don't ignore the "Teachers & Students" tab. How many teachers have emergency credentials? How many students are English language learners, or qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches?
And by all means check out the parent reviews. Yes, I know that virtually every school, no matter how poorly or highly regarded by home buyers, gets four stars out of five. I also know that opinion can vary widely about the same school. Four parents in a row swear by the school, and then there's one who wouldn't send her dog there. So learn to read between the lines. Size up how reviewers with minority opinions express themselves, although I understand that a seriously frustrated parent can find it hard to be coherent. Did their child have a learning disability and fall through the cracks? (Or not fall through the cracks?) Did an angry parent give a school just two stars because "the principal is hard to reach", not realizing when he posted on August 29th that he was one of many parents trying to reach the principal? And don't bother wading through all forty-five reviews going back to 2003. Just read the ones from the past year or two. Apparently things can change quickly at a school, depending on...what? Principals seem to get most of the blame or credit, and principals seem to come and go frequently (there may be a positive correlation here).
Be aware that the local buzz for a school may be based far more on a superficial knowledge of average test scores than on an in-depth knowledge of the overall quality of education. Every district, even the most highly-regarded, has a step-child, the school that all right-thinking parents avoid. Lomita Park in the Millbrae district, McKinley in the Burlingame district, San Mateo Park in the San Mateo-Foster City district, Menlo-Atherton in the Sequoia Union district, Fremont in the Fremont Union district, Eisenhower in the Cupertino district, even Paly in the Palo Alto district...yet often you'll find some of the most enthusiastic parent reviews for these schools.
And finally, just resign yourself to the fact that, as the title of this post suggests, API scores have a highly positive correlation with parent affluence. It's not that affluent parents are smarter, but that public funding isn't enough to make a good school great. That comes from parents affluent enough to write checks to the education foundation, or able to take time off work (or not work) to volunteer in the classroom. That comes from parents who aren't working three jobs to pay the bills, and who have enough financial stability to stay in one place long enough to settle and become part of the community.
Which brings me back to the importance of reading parent reviews. PTAs are an integral part of a school's fund raising, and successful fund raising is what separates the highly-regarded schools from the also-rans. You probably assume, as I did, that every school has a PTA, even if it's not a great PTA. Then read that, until a few years ago, a certain local K-5 didn't have any PTA, good, bad or indifferent, and you begin to understand not just why its API score is so low, but also the challenges its teachers and staff (and parents and kids) face. And you might begin to understand that "good school/bad school" isn't that simple.
copyright © John Fyten 2012 Site Map Home