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Are towns with the “best schools” worth paying up for?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 25, 2012 06:39 AM

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Well in my somewhat eccentric view of education, absolutely not. Paying a big premium to buy a home in a town with an elite public school system could be a big waste of your hard-earned money.

I'll take an intellectually curious child with a love of reading any day over some test-taking drone at a big name public or private school.

Sadly, it's possible to graduate today from a reputable college and be woefully ignorant when it comes to the basics of world history, science, literature and economics.

School is valuable for the socialization - learning to show up on time, follow directions, make friends and develop your social skills and personality. That can happen anywhere - your child doesn't need to go to school in a W town or at a prestigious private school to figure out that.

If you are house hunting in Greater Boston, this is far from an esoteric debate - home prices can be hundreds of thousands higher based on the competition to get into a town with highly ranked schools.

Judging by the comments on my recent post about the benefits of buying a house in an "average town," I am happy to see I am not alone in my views.

I particularly loved this comment by DCU:

It's not a choice of "send your kid to the most elite public school in Eastern MA" or "your kid is going to spend the rest of his life in prison".

Right on!

Here's what Engineerchic wrote:

I don't understand the obsession with having the greatest schools. Did everyone in Eastern Mass go to the best high school? More to the point - does anyone really think that their life would be measurably better if only they had gone to a high school that had higher standardized test scores?

I didn't grow up in Mass, and in the podunk little town I was raised in our high school graduated about 40 kids a year. So I went to a local Catholic high school where they actually had cutting edge things like a biology and a chemistry lab.

Even so - the biggest change was the social environment. Everyone wore uniforms, PDAs (public displays of affection) were not tolerated, and there was a generally benevolent dictatorship. When in doubt they could use "because I said so & because your parents paid for you to be here" as the reason you couldn't say this, do that, or refuse to do something.

I'd rather have a nice-enough house in a decent/average town & put the money toward a Catholic school (the one I went to is now just over $10k/yr, so not cheap, but still probably better than the public schools in even the best towns).

Here's what DCUandRevFan wrote:

I also would like to point that it's quite possible to grow up in an 'average' town with 'average' schools and manage to succeed if you are a kid with some amount of focus and determination, as well as guidance/involvement from parents. It's not that crazy of a notion, actually. Basically I agree with EngineerChic. Except I don't even think that private schools are necessary. I went to an average (public) school in an average town (outside of MA) and managed to get into a good college, earn a useful degree and find a company to hire me and pay me a good salary (that allows me to actually be able to afford a modest,comfortable house in a nice town.) It's not a choice of "send your kid to the most elite public school in Eastern MA" or "your kid is going to spend the rest of his life in prison".

A former teacher at an elite public system, Thirtysomething also offers some great advice, urging parents to look at "school culture" rather than just gawking at test scores. The elite systems are hardly immune from the woes of bullying.

I taught in one of the "W" schools for five years. The high school offered excellent academics, on par with the elite prep schools, and did a great job at both preparing and "credentialing" students to attend the top colleges.

Yet I could give you a dozen stories of kids who were bullied through middle school (and in some cases during high school) for their differences. It can and does happen everywhere. Sometimes the "good" schools are the worst, because they are reluctant to aggressively address offenders with wealthy (and litigious) parents. Think of some of the hazing incidents that have made the news in recent years...

I would emphasize school culture ahead of academics. Parents can supplement and reinforce the academics. Very hard to fight school culture. The problem here is that school culture doesn't show up on any of the stats sheets. Easy enough (at least for a teacher) to tell, just by visiting and watching the social interactions for an hour or two (are the expressions "open" or "closed"), but how many house-hunters do that?

My experience is definitely not the norm, but at that "W" school there were probably 10% who experienced significant bullying, and probably 25% whose needs were not wholly met by the system in some form or another. Incidents requiring police intervention to stop a pattern of harassment, a strong correlation between race and students being down-tracked in their academics, a student my first year complaining of sexually harassing comments from another student (I was unaware, but certainly wasn't hearing everything).

And that is at a top-ten school, with a strong academic focus and a fairly supportive school culture. Those numbers are likely worse almost everywhere else.



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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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