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The Diverse School Dilemma: A Book Review

By Nancy Poon Lue

Diverse Schools ArtFamily’s education decisions start long before college visits. That is the message at the heart of The Diverse School Dilemma by Michael Petrilli, an easy-to-read personal narrative of the author’s search for the right school for his children. It echoes many of the key questions I am often asked when people learn that I attended inner city public schools prior to matriculating at Harvard College.

Petrilli, president of a DC education reform think tank and a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, succinctly dissects the questions raised by families who want to look beyond pure academic statistics and outcomes to consider the broader picture of a compelling school experience. For the author, and the families he profiled in this book, learning side-by-side with peers from different socioeconomic and racial background was a critical element. As Petrilli puts it, “Is selecting a diverse public school a responsible choice or an unreasonable risk?”

In just 119 pages, Petrilli blends research data, facts about school choices, and the anecdotal voice of parents who have gone through this process to answer this question. He opens up his family’s decision-making process as they evaluated their neighborhood schools, local charter schools (tuition free publicly funded institutions which generally operate independently), “private public schools” (public schools that, based on geographic boundaries, are homogenous), as well as private schools.   He lays out the factors, including school safety, curriculum, teacher quality, level of parental engagement, facilities, and class size, which are typically considered in addition to traditional quantitative measures such as test scores. As Petrilli aptly points out, while test scores provide an important snapshot of student achievement, they can also be deceptive if considered by themselves since they don’t reveal a school’s impact on its students’ year-over-year academic gains as well as knowledge attainment on non-core subjects.

By clearly enumerating the benefits and risks in each of these elements as they relate to diverse schools The Diverse Schools Dilemma gives parents much needed insights into how to weigh these factors based on each family’s risk tolerance and preferences. One family Petrilli interviewed decided that the social benefits of attending a diverse school outweighed the disadvantages of a less rigorous math curriculum and a lack of an arts program, both of which could be remedied for them through supplementary tutoring and afterschool activities (made affordable by not having to pay private school tuition). Of course not every family will have the same set of options (even the author admits that his first choice for his eldest son was a private school that was not affordable) and not every family will consider all of these same factors, but Petrilli lays out the foundation from which most families should begin their evaluation process.

Reading The Diverse School Dilemma was like having a thoughtful conversation with another parent. I appreciated the summary of research facts and background, but I most enjoyed Petrilli’s candid portrayal of how his family navigated this tricky process where there is often never a perfect solution. As most parents are trying to figure out what will be best for their children in the long run, I would have loved it if Petrilli had included interviews and any data points on alumni of the different schools types he profiled so that parents can have some perspective on the possible long-term impact of such a difficult decision.

As an alumna of diverse inner city public schools, the benefits as well as disadvantages of my early education followed me well into college, graduate school, and my professional life. So for me the section entitled “Why Peers Matter,” which focused on the influence peers have on a child’s vocabulary development and learning style starting at a young age, resonated strongly. Petrilli also offers practical tips for parents wrestling with school decisions, such as attending a PTA meeting and doing school visits outside of formal scheduled tour hours, in order to assess a school’s fit for your family.

Nancy Poon Lue is the General Manager of the EdTech Innovation Lab at GSVlabs. She was formerly a Senior Advisor and head of strategic planning at the U.S. Department of Education.  

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