Here's the synopsis of the paper I'll be presenting at ASA today:
Almost every reform of high-poverty urban schools assumes one thing: that these schools are bad and everybody knows it. Why, for example, would a kid want to work harder, attend more days of school, sign-up for tutoring, or apply to a different school unless they thought there was something wrong with their current school and the way they're doing things now.
We in the policy realm are absolutely certain that these schools are hellholes that doom the kids to a lifetime of underachievement. But I wondered what the kids thought. So I asked them.
In a pilot study, I surveyed 79 students in college-prep and vocational classes at a high school on the brink of closure. The school is the poorest in its district and has a graduation rate that has dipped below 50% in recent years.
To summarize, the kids reported that their school was about average, that other schools weren't much better or worse than theirs, and that their student body didn't differ significantly from other schools. Kids reported that that students in their school graduated at a slightly above average rate. When asked to estimate the percentage of kids in their school that were African-American, they were spot-on (86%), but when asked to estimate the kids in all other schools in the country that were African-American they were a little off -- the mean response was 68% (actual figure is about 14%).
Perhaps I shouldn't be reporting results of a pilot study yet when I still have a lot of red tape to get through before I can start the final version (please don't steal my idea, I'm just a poor grad student who needs to build up his CV), but I find it interesting.
The reason I'm presenting it at a Sociological conference is because my guess as to what is happening relates to sociological theory (look up social construction or status construction if you're interested). My best guess, based on a very sample, is that people tend to assume that their immediate surroundings are normal unless their is explicit evidence to the contrary. In other words, the only way these students would think their school was abnormal was if they were exposed to a number of other schools that were quite different -- something I'm not sure happens. Of course, it could also be the case that the school is simply not as bad as we outsiders think.