The Demographics of Newsweek's Top Schools
Newsweek has a list of 500 high schools that are "beating the odds" -- meaning that their students have good outcomes despite high poverty rates.
Unfortunately, the magazine's methodology does not address the fact that all poor children are not interchangeable. Charter schools are often accused, for example, of skimming off the brightest kids and then claiming success when those kids get high scores. And it's well-known that race still predicts educational achievement after parental income has been removed from the equation.
So, are these schools really "beating the odds," or are their student bodies disproportionately made up of lower-risk poor kids? I don't have the energy to look at all 500, but I did analyze the top 20 using the real-estate site Zillow, which provides an impressive array of data about high schools -- including the ethnic breakdown of student populations (not that any home-buyer would desire such information in this post-racial era of ours).
Even setting aside the fact that some of these schools are charters, most of them are not exactly educating a demographic cross-section of the nation's low-income kids. Poor children in this country are about 24 percent black, 35 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. But on average, by my count, Newsweek's top 20 schools for poor kids are 16 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic -- and 25 percent Asian. (Spreadsheet here.)
To be clear, there's a fair amount of variation. Two Georgia schools are heavily black, one almost exclusively so, for example. (Though singling these schools out for praise requires us to note that when they're excluded, the average percentage of top-20 schools that's black falls by half.) One in South Dakota is one-third Native American.
By and large, though, however high these schools' poverty rates may be, they are benefiting from a serious demographic skew. Every last school on the list might be doing great things for its students. But the rankings don't prove it.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen