We need to choose a middle school for our son. How do we make an informed decision?

By Reese McGillie

School choice is a recurring theme on this blog. It manifests in a number of different ways and has been explored through a number of different dimensions.

For example, families may choose to reside in a certain neighborhood so that their children are able to attend a particular school while others may be making a choice about whether their child should attend a public, private or charter school. Some families in Seattle enroll in option schools through the district, while the number of families homeschooling continues to grow as well.

In the Seattle area, choice is a privilege that not all families benefit from. Economic privilege is inextricably linked to school choice — school performance (as measured by assessment scores) correlates to median household income, so higher-performing schools tend to be in the higher-income areas of the city. And since school assignment is typically determined by area of residence, for those families with limited financial resources, the ability to choose a school that works for their children may be nonexistent.

And what happens for those who possess the privilege of school choice? Conventional wisdom and research both agree that classroom experiences are predictors of a child’s long-term success. So choosing a school for your child inherently feels like a high-stakes decision. For those lucky enough to have options, there’s an imperative to leverage all available resources as a means to create the most positive experiences possible for their child, ergo a functional, successful trajectory into adulthood.

As a parent who does have the privilege of choice — and who has used it to find school homes for my two sons — I recently found myself in the middle of all of this again. My eldest child will be entering sixth grade next fall. And since he currently a K-5 elementary school, we are presented with the opportunity to choose where he will attend middle school.

Of course, one option is to send him to wherever the district assigns him, and all things being equal that is definitely our top choice. But as we went about investigating this matter, we realized that we were at a pivotal point in our parenting. The transition from elementary to middle school felt scary and hard not just for our son, but to me and my husband as well. But because of what we both know about choice and it being a privilege, we wanted to wield that privilege responsibly and mindfully to suss out any unconscious bias in our decision making.

In the U.S., the transition from elementary school to middle school corresponds to a child’s transition from middle childhood to adolescence. There are significant physical, social and emotional changes happening for kids during this time, and their families are pulled along on this rollercoaster ride.

Americans have lots of emotional baggage related to middle school experiences — there are seemingly endless movies and books that explore the tropes of middle school social/emotional dynamics. All of this culminates in families having a strong desire to make the “right” choice for their children when they move on to middle school, but the trouble is, there’s no agreed-upon methodology for going about that. So, even for folks fortunate enough to have options, this feels really difficult.

Making an informed decision about anything requires research. Researching a potential school for your child can be done in a number of ways — talking to other families in the community who have school-aged children, using data to research potential schools, or even asking educators in your community for their opinions.

For my family, talking to other families and educators netted what you’d expect: lots of anecdotal musings like, “I’m hearing good things,” or “My friends sends their kids there and they love it.” Or even, “We sent our child there and it wasn’t a good experience.” But really, it was hard to feel like we’d learned anything we could hang our hats on.

In my day job I’m an analyst, so I find comfort in data and in knowing that even if a particular choice doesn’t yield the outcome that I want, at least I attempted to inform that decision with something empirical. So when faced with the decision of which middle school to send my child to, data was the thing that I felt like we could rely on the most.

As far as I know, OSPI (the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) is the best resource for finding data on schools in Washington State. OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K-12 public education in Washington. They record and compile a lot of data about Washington State’s public schools on their website. Anyone can access this data, so it’s the first place I went to start trying to wrap my head around this middle school issue.

I was struck by several things during this research process. First off, even though this data is technically available to everyone, it is far from what I would deem as “democratized.” Truly democratized data is readily available to be consumed by all — without the need for someone with technical expertise to facilitate consumption of said data.

To get data on Seattle schools, you have to know what you are looking for in the first place, and I’d argue that the average person doesn’t necessarily know enough about the nomenclature of education to issue an effective search query that would easily find what they want.

Of course there are third-party sites like Schooldigger.com, who have made a reasonable attempt at creating cross-tabulated views of school data to facilitate research. But they are not comprehensive data sources and their bias is toward ranking schools based on test scores, which is problematic for a number of reasons that we won’t explore in this post.

To find the data that I wanted to look into using OSPI data sources, I literally spent hours searching and then cross-tabulating data from a number of different sources — and again, keep in mind that I’m someone who is well-versed in working with data.

It started to feel like OSPI was gatekeeping school data, and whether intentional or not, this is a real barrier to informed choice. And I thought of all the other families trying to make decisions about education just like my family,but that they might be limited by an inability to leverage some of the tools at their disposal due to their complexity. Or worse yet, they might be families who were led to believe that they don’t have the privilege of choice but who could gain some agency through the democratization of this data.

Eventually, I was able to track down the information that I needed to start to evaluate the matter through a variety of dimensions. While some of my assumptions were validated, I came upon many other surprising insights, and I started to wonder if families would make the same or different decisions if they could see more or better data -- and if school districts did the work to make that data available and digestible for everyone.  In my next post, I’ll share more about what I discovered.

Reese McGillie is a data scientist, yoga instructor and occasional superhero. She lives in the south end of Seattle with her husband and their two sons, who both attend Seattle Public Schools.

Reese McGillie (right) with her two sons

Reese McGillie (right) with her two sons