Does a "good" school district mean your high school student will be successful?

By Rajkamal Rao  

Image Courtesy: Zillow

When families hunt for homes, an important consideration for at least four decades has been the reputation of the school district. In North Texas, Frisco, Plano, Coppell and Carroll ISD rank relatively high in the minds of home shoppers; Ft. Worth, HEB-ISD and Lewisville, not so high.

While there are many reasons to buy a home in a particular area (such as proximity to one's work place, shopping, ethnic neighborhoods, highways, friends, extracurricular activities for children and asset appreciation), doing so only because of the reputation of the school district may be suboptimal given the changing K-12 environment in today's public schools. That is, a good school district does not automatically translate into student success in learning, academics, and extracurricular activities.
But the reputation of the school does matter when it comes to college admissions, especially at the elite institutions. In a provocative article in the Atlantic, "Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene," writer Caitlin Flanagan describes all that is bad with private high schools (hyper-aggressive parents arguing about students' grades, uber-school buildings that cater to students' every need, and outrageous annual fees including some schools that charge more than $50,000/year). But she concedes that the one advantage that sets private high schools apart is that they send huge numbers of students to the most elite colleges.

Flanagan sources her information from the "Best High Schools In America" website which ranks all high schools (public and private) on a single objective measure: the number of students a high school sends to top colleges. With over 12,600 records, PolarisList says it is the largest aggregator of Harvard, Princeton, and MIT matriculation data for US high schools.

In North Texas, the following schools send the most high school students to Harvard, Princeton, and MIT (data based on graduating years 2015-18).
  1. Plano ISD (all three high schools):  27 out of 4,065 students
  2. St. Marks Academy (Private): 21 out of 86 students
  3. Hockaday (Private): 16 out of 120 students
  4. Greenhill (Private): 5 out of 120 students
  5. Coppell HS: 5 out of 725
  6. Flower Mound HS: 3 out of 856
  7. Centennial HS (Frisco): 2 out of 548
  8. Frisco HS: 1 out of 449
Flanagan's point is well made. Your odds of getting into elite institutions are much higher if students attend private schools. But not everyone can afford their high costs. For the rest of us who depend upon a public school education, Plano appears to be the best pick.
Attempting to frame the entire discussion on one objective measure (the number of students a high school sends to top colleges) is impractical and meaningless for most families. We want to assure them that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is one of the the best state education departments in the country and provides hard-working students an excellent choice of colleges and careers. We hope that this post will help lower the financial stress on families trying to save or borrow extra money - simply to be able to afford a "good" school district.

Curriculum standards

In 2015, the TEA dramatically changed the curriculum standards for every public school in the state. It introduced four tracks to get students to be college-ready, and each track requires 26 credits to graduate. It introduced the idea of endorsements using which high school students could "specialize" in defined streams, such as STEM or Business & Industry.

In most cases, TEA curriculum standards exceed the requirements of even the most elite colleges. Stanford requires three years of foreign language (Language other than English) study in high school. With the DAP track, the TEA requires three years of LOTE study. With the Foundation track plus an endorsement in Arts and Humanities (available in every school district in the state), a student must take four foreign language credits, one higher than what Stanford needs. So, whether a student is in Frisco or Lewisville or East El Paso, she can easily meet the foreign language requirement if that is what she wants.

Then, there are curricula set by national and international organizations. While high school performance continues to be crucial, it is now even more important to differentiate a student's profile by taking Advanced Placement (AP) or IB courses. These are taught in school but culminate in external evaluation by the College Board or the IB Organization. Practically every school district offers AP courses, so, here too, a single school district is not decidedly superior.

Learning opportunities

One area where "good" schools historically differentiated themselves was in the learning opportunities offered to children, by offering a wide variety of electives, honors and CTE courses in school. But today, the trailing schools are not far behind, thanks to an important development: online learning.

In Texas, students from any public school district (frankly, even those who are home-schooled) can take a variety of online courses from TXVSN or UT High School. Both are fully accredited by the TEA and school districts are required to honor courses completed online. Some schools impose limits on how many online courses one can take in what year and nearly all schools do not provide weighted GPA grades for courses completed online, but prior complaints from even a few years ago that a student is completely shut out of taking a desired course because it is not offered by the school are no longer relevant.

While learning online is not for everyone, this is increasingly the path chosen at work and higher education institutions worldwide. The state of Arkansas requires high school students to complete at least one online course for credit, in recognition of this trend.

If a student is firmly opposed to taking online courses, he can always register for dual credit courses at brick and mortar institutions, like community colleges and even local universities.

What about teacher quality? This is a subjective measure and we all have our favorite and not-so-favorite teachers. But one thing that has changed the K-12 landscape is the popularity of Khan Academy, a resource available 24x7, on demand, for free. Khan Academy has largely neutralized the teaching advantage of "good" school districts.

A common argument for buying property in "good" school districts is that because of their ability to receive more funding based on higher property tax assessments, they are able to invest more for school infrastructure and operations, like paying teacher salaries.

But to a large extent, municipal bond markets have neutralized this advantage. In fewer than 6 years, HEB ISD has raised more than $500 million for school investments, all through bonds. Also, the state of Texas sends billions of dollars to disadvantaged school districts.

On the flip side, with so many high-earner and motivated families moving to wealthy school districts, competition among learners is fierce. Such a breakneck contest for that extra point on a test has resulted in high levels of stress both among students and parents. Many families engage in additional tutoring and academic practice, simply to keep up with the competition.

In some cases, competiton has veered into becoming unhealthy. Some students try to cheat or otherwise game the grading system simply to get a high enough GPA to improve class rank.

To limit unhealthy competition, starting the 2018-19 school year, Plano ISD started to not publish the weighted average GPA and class rank on report cards, until the second term of the 11th grade. This is the equivalent of a tennis chair umpire only announcing your points in a match but not disclosing the points of the player across the net. This is a terrible decision because students do like to know how they are doing when compared to their peers.

Many families have asked me this question: Is it time to get out of a "good" school district and move to one which is less competitive in which a student's class rank can potentially improve?  This is a serious question because an improved class rank at the margins could potentially earn a student automatic admission to the University of Texas. The Texas Top 10 rule does not differentiate good high schools from bad. Further, graduating from an under-represented school district could make a student's profile more appealing to top colleges.

Just think about the logic here. Families which have paid a premium to buy a home in a "good" school district years ago are now considering leaving it to go to a "bad" school district. If this logic makes sense, why buy in the wealthy district in the first place?

Class rank considerations
You need a minimum of 26 credits to graduate from a TX high school. Most students begin earning high school credits in the 8th grade.

Class rank is an important metric in TX and is computed for ALL high school classes. If you're moving to TX for the 10th grade, make sure that your destination school honors your student's earned GPA with weights. Unfortunately, most school districts will not commit to evaluating your transcript until after you move, so you must be ready to fall behind in class rank.

By state law, the class rank computation has to be finalized by the end of the 11th grade, with an update permitted after the first 9 weeks of the 12th grade. So, college admissions in the state largely rely on the 11th-grade class rank and the 12th-grade performance is practically irrelevant for most students. So, if you're moving to TX for the 10th grade, your student can only earn a fair class rank for the 10th and 11th grades, because credits earned until the beginning of 10th grade are subject to school district interpretation.

At UT Austin, 75% of the 10,000 incoming freshman seats are automatically granted to those in the top 6% percent of each high school class. No other factor is considered. If your student is not in the top 6%, he or she has to compete for the 2,500 seats in the holistic pool. Last year, there were 47,500 applications for those 2,500 seats from all over the world - resulting in a selectivity of 5.5%, no different from Harvard or Yale.

Residency considerations for in-state tuition

The 3-year rule to claim TX residency applies to those seeking an independent domicile provided the student graduates from a TX high school. Once the student establishes this domicile, he or she can continue to claim TX residency for the purpose of in-state tuition regardless of the residency or work status of their parents.

The 12-month rule applies to students who wish to claim a "dependent" domicile. To earn this, the student's parents must establish a home or work presence for at least 12 months. Once this condition is met, the student can claim in-state tuition.

There are several ways to prove residency in these situations. The rules are easiest for US Citizen and PR families but a little more complicated for those on H-1B or L-1 visas.


Buying a home is an extremely private decision and should remain so. But the reputation of the school district alone should not drive the home buying decision because changing K-12 trends no longer make a "good" school district essential to student success.

In fact, there's increasing evidence to the contrary.

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