On Relocating and the Madison Public Schools

Penelope Trunk:

Three years ago, I made a decision to move from New York City to Madison, WI based purely on research. I put economic development research together with positive psychology research. Then I combed the Internet for city statistics, and I moved. (If you want to read the research I used, I linked to it all in this post.)

I had never been to Madison in my life, and you know what? It was a good decision. Except for one thing: I ignored the data about schools. I didn’t believe that a city known for progressive social programs and university filled with genius faculty could have poorly performing public schools. But it ended up being true, and all economic development research says do not move to a place with crap schools—it’s a sign that lots of things in the city are not right.

8 thoughts on “On Relocating and the Madison Public Schools”

  1. I had to look and see what Ms. Trunk was talking about after her comments here – especially the tone of her comment: “a university filled with genius faculty” having poorly performing public schools. I couldn’t help but wonder what her agenda was when her article didn’t enlighten us as to what her personal disappointments were with the Madison School District or her local schools.
    So, I read the blog (which is mostly about what to look at when moving to a place you have never been before – who does that?) and followed her links. The data on elementary schools comes from Schooldigger.com and the ranking is based on the following for elementary schools:
    WKCE scores
    Ethnicity Enrollment by school
    Student/Teacher ratio, and something called:
    Madison Housing Market (how stable are real estate prices and what are housing prices). So, higher housing prices, better schools? I’m just guessing that that is what this is supposed to mean.
    She also looks at a Newsweek article that ranks high schools using a system developed by Jay Matthews:
    # of AP, IB and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students / # of graduating seniors.
    There have been discussions about the pros and cons of these tests on this site and I don’t really know how I feel about any of them. I do think this all seems like a rather minimal amount of information on which to base her comment about crap schools.
    So what does her blog say to me? It says she moved her looking for a good place to start a business and hasn’t been disappointed – that’s a good thing in my mind.
    It says the schools are poorly performing but really, there is no indication in the blog about what specific experiences she has had that led her to this conclusion. Instead she sites rather generic data from sources that I wouldn’t probably look at.
    And finally, public school are losing 5% of their state aids so that business can profit. Of course, I think that’s a terrible investment of tax dollars – short term business profits over public school funding. From reading past articles of hers in the WSJ, I doubt Ms. Trunk would agree.

  2. I totally agree with the last comment. I did the same thing, since I thought Ms. Trunk’s comments about “crap schools” seemed a bit irresponsible, and also ended up at the Schooldigger.com website. Interesting website, but not particularly insightful about schools. I wish more people understood that test scores in isolation don’t tell you anything about the quality of education in a school. It’s easy to rank schools based on test scores, but it’s misleading to try and equate that to some kind of quality ranking. Test scores are an important piece of information that all schools should pay attention to and use to inform school improvement, but using test scores in isolation to try and compare schools is a pretty meaningless exercise.

  3. She is wrong. There are many ways to look at data and sites such as the one she used focus on average performance. In many cases, that is a silly statistic. Average includes students who your child is completely incomparable with.
    The question to ask is “for my child, how are the schools relative to others?” By “your child” I mean children with similar socio-economic and parent backgrounds.
    Take a look at http://madschools.blogspot.com/ where I compare students who are not “economically disadvantaged” and you’ll see surprising differences from the average.
    Of course she is right in some cases. There are plainly terrible Madison schools. Any school incapable of decently educating children without pre-existing background problems is just bad. But there are excellent Madison schools as well.
    You plant beefsteak and plum tomatoes in your garden. Your neighbor plants just beefsteaks. All summer, you water them, carefully fertilize them, pick aphids off, etc. Your neighbor does almost nothing to his tomatoes. All yours though get very large for their variety. In the end you weigh them all and have an average tomato size of 4 ounces. Your neighbor ends up with an average tomato size of 12 ounces. Is your neighbor a 300% better tomato grower than you?
    Averages don’t make sense in all situations.

  4. I agree with Jill’s comment that test scores alone don’t tell you much about a school. I’m not sure that looking at test scores in the context of socio-economic and parent background is useful either though. It seems to too simplistic to evaluate a whole years worth of teaching and learning using one standardized test.

  5. Consider the source… depth and anaylsis may not be in the cards here. Had never heard of her, so Googled the name. The Wikipedia profile included the following:
    Critics point out that Trunk has numerous inconsistencies in her resume. Her own online bio for Hatchette books contradicts elsewhere the number of companies she says she founded prior to Brazencareerist.com. She has given talks at universities listing Yahoo! as an employer even after she had been fired from the company. She has also changed her name numerous times, making it difficult to track her prior career history prior to her most recent re-christening as “Penelope Trunk,” an entirely fictitious name.
    In her Hatchette books biography, she also states “As a career adviser, Trunk realizes that a bio is not so much factual as aspirational.”

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