The Skinny on “Great” Schools – Can They be Summed Up By a Number?

When buying a home, how do most buyers go about researching schools?  If you said by going to the schools and requesting tours the same way they do houses, you’d be wrong.   Most buyers simply scroll their finger or mouse down the page of whatever real estate website they happen to be on and check out the number they get from Greatschools.org.  Many buyers do not even really know what greatschools.org is, but will restrict their search to towns with a certain school rating or above on Zillow or Redfin.  In the absence of truly doing any due diligence, this is an easy way to guarantee that the school district is good, right?  Well…maybe, maybe not, but we’ll get to that shortly. 

Firstly, what is greatschools.org?  From their website:

GreatSchools is the leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their child.

GreatSchools’ trusted ratings and school information help parents find the right school for their family and improve schools in their communities.

Most buyers rely on these ratings but have never really seen the website, nor any of its myriad resources, information and articles.  All they are really aware of is that notorious 1-10 rating system, because its interface is embedded in many real estate search engines.  However, these numbers are not meant to empirically slap the label “bad” or “good” on any particular school, and those with high scores are not necessarily inherently better than others that have lower scores. Greatschools.org is the first to admit that – they even published this video on why.  Nonetheless, most buyers will disregard a school district that’s less than a certain number, even though they have no idea what those numbers really mean.   

Here’s the thing, schools cannot be summed up by a number from 1 to 10.  They are not Victoria’s Secret models, folks.  There is much more to a school than simply test scores, diversity or any other singular factor.  What makes a school “good” varies from family to family, and even child to child, because each has unique needs.  You alone know your kids, and know the sort of environment in which they will thrive.  There is no one size fits all when it comes to education.  This may be difficult to apprehend, but a 9 or 10 school, may not be “good” for you.  In fact, it may be quite the contrary.  I had a friend that bought a million dollar home in a very in demand Westchester town where the school was a 10, only to have to put it on the market during the market crash.  He explained that the school was not right for his daughter.  She was underachieving and, he felt, being pigeon-holed.  She had a few rough years during early adolescence, and because the school was so small with many cliques, there were a lot of preconceptions and judgments that were difficult for her to escape, even as she personally evolved.  The school was the wrong fit, because although it was a 10, it was like a small cage hindering her growth.  He ended up moving to a town with a school district rating of 6 on Greatschools.org.  The result?  His daughter excelled.  It turned out that being in a fishbowl was not the right fit for her.  She went from being a C+ student, to achieving top honors, attending an Ivy League school and graduating Magna Cum Laude.  Another client moved to a town targeted for its 10 rated schools.  Her daughter did well, but her son found the pressure to achieve overwhelming and he was crumbling.  The school did offer support up until middle school, at which point, she explained, they pressured her to put her son into private school.  She did just that, and had to shoulder private school tuition on top of exorbitant taxes.  He did much better in private school and also ended up going from getting straight D’s to getting into a top 3 Ivy league school.  Another colleague’s sister lives in a town with one of the most lauded public school districts in the country.  Her daughter felt she was not being challenged, and desired to enroll in more advanced courses but was met with resistance by the school administration.  Although she is a straight A student, her scores on some of the advanced placement tests are just a little above average.  Her mother suspects the administrators fear that her scores, and likely those of other students in a similar situation, would bring down the overall school average were more advanced courses thrown into the mix.  So in essence, this woman is paying $40k per year in taxes to live in a school district that she feels is inhibiting her child by denying a growth-stimulating curriculum, and with whom she routinely has to battle!  I have countless examples I could offer, but as you can see, in these examples the schools that were rated 9 and 10 were not good for these particular families.

From a financial perspective, it’s worth noting that buying a house in a town with school ratings of 9 or 10 in Westchester County comes with a very high premium.  If you do not have a budget of $900k or more, do not wish to cram your family into a shoe box, and will not consider a tear down, it is nearly impossible to find one.  And when that golden unicorn does come on the market at a decent price, you will quickly find it’s all a ruse, as you get trampled by dozens of other cash waving bidders.   Let’s talk about the taxes in those towns… schools with higher ratings tend to command a higher budget, which no one really contests because they are so good.  Higher budget means higher taxes – sometimes MUCH higher – and here’s where most homeowners groan.  Yet it’s a necessary evil (and tremendous sacrifice) associated with being in a coveted school district.  

 What I do not comprehend is why most buyers, to whom schools are a primary consideration, do not put a fraction of the amount of research into them as they do their home search.  Buyers will spend countless hours and days on the internet touring every available property on the market.  They rarely put that kind of footwork into the school search.  They are content to let a number from 1-10 define their perception of a particular school district, and dictate the amount they will spend to be in it.    Well, here’s a tip: real estate in towns with lower school scores tends to have lower home prices and, shhh… lower taxes as well.  Why the latter?  Well, school budget, which influences how much is spent per student, is also factored into the school score, and the budget is what determines how high the district taxes are.  So doesn’t that alone make it worth doing a little more research to see if that 4 rated school is really that bad? 

And how truly reliable are these greatschools.org ratings?  Well, one elementary school in a Northern Westchester town went from a 9 to a 6 in one school year.  Same teachers, same test scores, same students (only difference being the entering kindergarten classes).  Why?  Must be those stupid Kindergartners.  Great Schools claims to have revised their criteria as of September 2017 to incorporate more data into their ratings than just test scores, though that still accounts for a large piece of the pie.  In this example, the elementary school rating dropped despite the student body consistently scoring high on state-wide testing.  The reason given is the following:

 “Students at this school are making less academic progress given where they were last year, compared to similar students in the state.  Low progress with high test scores means students have strong academic skills but that students in this school are making smaller gains than similar students in other schools.”

Ummm…what?  Last time I checked, gains were measured by test scores…so high scoring low progress seems like an oxymoron to me, but I am no expert.  It doesn’t help, of course, that this statement is not sourced, cited nor linked to any specific, verifiable data.  They just kind of slapped a number on the statement, like an order of chicken McNuggets, and called it a day.  It would seem that their algorithmic interpretation of data is just that, an interpretation, and therefore difficult to qualify.  This is evidenced by the fact that there are other websites out there, like Niche.com, offering sometimes conflicting ratings on the same schools.  Yet both draw their data from the same source, the NYS Department of Education reports.

niche

If the ratings can vary so much from website to website, and even within Great Schools itself, what does that say for the reliability of that little number at the bottom of the Zillow page?  Can you really trust it to give you the full picture on any school?  Probably not any more than you can trust the Zestimate® to provide an accurate estimation of a home’s value.  You wouldn’t rely on that to make an offer on a property, so why would you rely on a number to decide which school to send your kid?  If the former greatschools.org rating system, which had been in place for almost a decade, was so flawed that a school’s number plummeted with a slight criteria adjustment, how scary is it to consider the thousands of home buyers that based quite possibly the largest financial decision of their lives on that data?  

When initially researching schools, at least take the time to at least check out the NY State Department of Education School Report Cards.  This is the site that has the data on which Great Schools claims to base their scoring system, and has a lot more reliable information.  However, nothing –  no statistical data nor matrices – can or should substitute a site visit to the school, and asking lots of questions.  As with real estate, what looks good (or bad) on paper may or may not be the right fit for your family’s individual needs.

I will conclude with a reference to another mistake many buyers make, which is disregarding a school district because of the high school ratings.  I find that the majority of my first time buyer clients have very young children if they have any at all.  Their children will not be going to high school for at least a decade.  As you can see, school ratings can and do vary from year to year on these websites.  A lot is going to happen in that time frame, and lord only knows if these buyers will even be living there anymore by the time their kids are ready for high school!  So why even consider the high school’s rating?  There is no way to determine how it will measure against your personal benchmark in 10 years, when the student body, faculty (and possibly even principal) have completely turned over.  Furthermore, it is common for high schools to have lower ratings than respective elementary and middle schools in many school districts.  Why?  Usually do to the sheer size.  The larger the student body, the lower the overall test score percentile.  That’s pretty much the law of averages.  But schools that are larger may have more amenities, courses, advanced placement and extracurricular offerings.  For example, remember that elementary school that dropped from a 9 to a 6?  Well, the high school in the same district rose from a 6 to an 8 just as quickly, in part because Great Schools claims to now incorporate considerations like percentage of AP course enrollment and extracurricular activities into their algorithm!  If you do have a high school age child and know that he/she excels in a certain area, like art or science, and there is a high school that offers a lot for that, your child may still excel there regardless of it’s numerical rating on greatschools.org.  This, again, is where research comes into play. 

Bottom line: your school research should be at least as important as your home research.   How many houses have you toured?  Couldn’t you take a day or so to tour some schools as well?  Why not contact the local schools in any town to which you are considering moving, and find out if they will host an open house or offer private tours to prospective home owners?  Most do, and it’s worth taking advantage of.

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