From Pedagogy-Driven to Market-Driven Theme Development

Arsalan Sufi, EDST 240 Final Paper


Several American schools have curricular themes. For example, the Grand Rapids Public Schools website (2016) includes a page for the district’s twelve “theme schools,” each of which has a “customized curriculum” and “unique academic offerings.” The schools’ themes include environmental science, arts and music, Montessori, dual-immersion, and college prep. As this list demonstrates, school themes range from general educational models to specific subject-oriented themes. Montessori and International Baccalaureate schools are good examples of the former; STEM and performing arts schools are good examples of the latter. New Haven’s public school system also emphasizes theme (field notes). The system includes many magnet schools, which by definition have “focused theme[s] and aligned curricula” (Magnet Schools of America, 2016).

Theme goes hand-in-hand with the school choice model. Unlike the traditional neighborhood school model, the choice model gives parents the flexibility to choose where they send their children to school. To remain competitive in a choice system, schools market to parents, and theme is one of the mechanisms by which schools differentiate themselves. Parents (consumers) differentiate between schools (products) based on their themes; schools (producers) accordingly use themes (product features) to attract more parents.

Students have varying needs, and in theory, a choice system should allow parents to choose schools that accommodate their children’s specific needs. But the choice associated with theme doesn’t always meet this goal. Although theme development may have once been rooted in pedagogy, it seems that theme development is increasingly being driven by the market forces associated with the school choice model.


Throughout this paper, I reference my and my classmates’ field notes from two New Haven choice fairs, which took place on February 3, 2016, and February 6, 2016. Each student in our class titled “Cities, Suburbs, and School Choice” visited at least one of the two fairs. Our approaches to collecting field notes varied. Some of us were more detached and, rather than engaging in conversations with participants at the fair, listened in on conversations. Others had conversations with students, parents, teachers, and school administrators. Among those of us who took the latter approach, some of us identified ourselves as Yale students conducting fieldwork while others pretended to be parents or students. We pooled all of our field notes together. These field notes will be cited throughout this paper using the following format: (student name, field notes). When no student name is included, the field notes are being referenced as a whole.

What It Means to Shift From Pedagogy-Driven to Market-Driven Development

The notion of shifting from pedagogy-driven to market-driven development is a bit abstract at this point in my paper. A study of the charter school movement, which has experienced a shift from pedagogy-driven to market-driven development much like school theme, will help make this notion more concrete.

Shanker’s Original Vision Versus Today’s Manifestation

The charter schools of today are very different from the charter schools that the father of the movement, Albert Shanker, envisioned. In 1988, Shanker proposed that groups of teachers be allowed to set up schools within their own schools to find ways of “reaching the kids that are now not being reached by what the school[s] [are] doing” (p. 12). Whereas Shanker wanted teachers to start charter schools, many of today’s charter schools are being started by entrepreneurs (Ravitch, 2010a). Shanker observed this transition himself and quickly revoked his support for charter schools. When Baltimore let Education Alternatives Inc., a for-profit business, take charge of nine of the city’s public schools in 1992, “Shanker was appalled” (Ravitch, 2010a, p. 125). Another important difference between Shanker’s charter schools and today’s charter schools involves the schools’ student bodies. Whereas Shanker wanted charter schools to support unmotivated students, today’s charter schools have become “havens for the motivated” (Ravitch, 2010a, p. 145).

From Teachers to Entrepreneurs

Both of these shifts can be linked to the school choice model. Milton Friedman’s pro-voucher argument provides an explanation for the first shift from teachers opening schools to entrepreneurs opening them. Friedman (1997) states that “The most feasible way to bring about a gradual yet substantial transfer from government to private enterprise is to enact in each state a voucher system that enables parents to choose freely the schools their children attend” (p. 341). Friedman views a market system as the solution to America’s education inequality problems and school choice, specifically vouchers, as the means to that end. By giving parents the funds to send their children to schools outside the traditional public school system, he believes that demand for these schools will grow, a profitable market will be created, and private groups will seize upon this opportunity. Although vouchers and charter schools represent different approaches to school choice, many of Friedman’s ideas also apply to charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run. In giving parents this new schooling option and providing private entities with the funds necessary to implement the option, the government has created a profitable market, one that entrepreneurs are indeed seizing upon. More generally, at the heart of school choice, whether in the form of vouchers or charter schools, is a “belief in the power of deregulation” (Ravitch, 2010a, p. 127). This deregulation makes it easier for private entities to set their foot in the education sector.

From Supporting the Unmotivated to Supporting the Motivated

The second shift from charter schools supporting unmotivated students to becoming havens for the motivated is largely explained by self-selection bias. But this shift, too, can be linked to the market forces associated with school choice. One of the fundamental market-based assumptions of the school choice model is that poorly performing schools will close (Ravitch, 2010a). This assumption is analogous to the capitalist notion that good businesses remain open and bad businesses close in the face of competition. By exercising their power to choose schools, parents will presumably pull their children out of failing schools. Or in the case of charter schools, the schools’ charters won’t be renewed. To start a charter school, an organization must obtain a charter from a state-authorized agency. The charter lasts for a finite number of years, and for it to be renewed, the charter school must meet performance goals set by the state-authorized agency. In short, the school choice model leads to heightened school accountability.

Although heightened accountability in and of itself isn’t harmful, the specific accountability measures that are being used to evaluate schools, most notably standardized tests, pose problems and help explain why charter schools have become havens for the motivated. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to test more and to increase sanctions for schools that don’t meet testing standards (Goertz and Duffy, 2003). This increased focus on testing combined with the already heightened accountability for charter schools has encouraged charter schools to push lower-performing students out. Take Success Academy, a high-performing charter school network in New York City, for example. The network has come under scrutiny for a “Got to Go” list maintained by one of its schools (Taylor, 2015). Making the link between school choice, accountability, testing, and exclusion of unmotivated students even more explicit, Ravitch (2010b) has found that “Some charter schools ‘counsel out’ or expel students just before state test day” (p. 7).

Transitioning to Theme

The charter school movement provides a salient example of a shift from pedagogy-driven to market-driven development. Although I won’t be looking at charter schools exclusively in my exploration of theme, the ideas that have been presented thus far aren’t isolated. Many of the same market forces that have caused charter schools to drift from their pedagogical roots have also influenced the development of school theme. Heightened accountability via testing, for example, is one of the primary forces that has led to the development of the “no excuses” model. The model, which can very well be considered a theme, is often described as militaristic. In addition to focusing on test drills, the model sets “clear and precise expectations for student behavior, dictating how students dress, enter a classroom, walk up the stairs, show attention in class, organize a binder, and pass in papers” (Golann, 2015, p. 3). The model seems to have limited grounding in pedagogy. For example, many students in these highly structured schools never learn how to navigate unstructured environments, like college. As a result, even though no-excuses schools produce high test scores, many of their students don’t complete college within six years (Golann, 2015). School leaders even recognize this but simply don’t “see a way to give students greater freedoms without compromising school order and achievement” (Golann, 2015, p. 12). In other words, they recognize the pedagogical flaws in the no-excuses theme but adhere to the theme because of a market force, namely the value placed on testing.

One market force associated with school choice that hasn’t yet been discussed is the importance placed on attracting parents. The rest of my paper focuses on this force. A brief history of theme and school choice will help give some context.

A Brief History of Theme

Early 1900s Theme Development

Although school theme is often associated with magnet schools, which took off in the 1970s to encourage desegregation, the history of theme in the American education system can be traced back much further. The first American Montessori school, for example, opened in Tarrytown, New York, in 1911 (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008). The model is far more freeform than the aforementioned no-excuses model as “Children are free to move about the room, selecting materials with which to work” and forming groups as they wish (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008, p. 2574). The model fizzled out in the US not long after its introduction and didn’t resurface until the 1960s (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008).

Despite the Montessori method’s short-lived initial phase in the US, the discourse around the method provides important insights. In short, the discourse, whether positive or negative, was pedagogical in nature. This is unsurprising given the nature of the Montessori method itself and the larger American context into which the method was being introduced. Regarding the former, Maria Montessori developed the elaborate educational philosophy over several years, building off of earlier work with special-needs children (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008). Montessori was an educator, and her model had strong pedagogical underpinnings. Regarding the latter, American education reformers were already engaging in a debate about how to best educate young children in the early 1900s (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008).

The Montessori method’s most established critic was William Heard Kilpatrick, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008). After visiting several American Montessori schools, talking to American proponents of the method, and meeting with Montessori herself, he concluded that her methods were built upon faulty science and that she was misunderstanding child development (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008). Although later education research would actually validate Montessori (Whitescarver and Cossentino, 2008), the nature of Kilpatrick’s criticisms is important. Both he and Montessori were concerned about the method’s impact on children. They weren’t concerned about parents’ perceptions of the model or the general desirability of the model.

Post-Civil-Rights Theme Development

Fast-forward to 1975. In Morgan v. Kerrigan, the United States Court of Appeals declared that magnet schools were a legal vehicle for desegregation (Goldring and Smrekar, 2002). Previous efforts to desegregate schools using busing had been met with resistance (Goldring and Smrekar, 2002). Magnet schools were to serve as an alternative. These schools would offer “specialized curricular themes” and would “provide a range of programs to satisfy individual talents and interests” to attract urban and suburban, minority and white parents alike (Goldring and Smrekar, 2002, p. 17).

Attracting white parents was critical. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the United States Supreme Court established a distinction between de jure and de facto segregation (Minnow, 2010). De jure segregation was produced by explicit policies; de facto segregation was a matter of fact, something that occurred independent of explicit policies. After Milliken v. Bradley, only de jure segregation needed to be addressed (Minnow, 2010). An indirect result of this case was increased white flight, which only resulted in de facto segregation (Minnow, 2010). Magnet schools sought to combat this by attracting white families and preventing them from fleeing to suburbs (Goldring and Smrekar, 2002).

Unlike the discourse surrounding Montessori schools in the 1910s, which revolved around pedagogy, the discourse surrounding magnet schools revolved around both pedagogy and marketing. These schools were going to address the needs of individual students, an idea grounded in pedagogy. Yet at the heart of this pedagogical desire was really a need to attract white parents, parents who otherwise wouldn’t send their children to urban schools. Market-driven undercurrents were beginning to form.

Present Theme Development

In the 1990s, the school choice movement gained traction (Ravitch, 2010a). Since then, many districts have adopted choice systems and have accordingly introduced magnet and charter schools. New Orleans provides an extreme example. After Hurricane Katrina, the city decided to rebuild its education system almost exclusively with charter schools (Jabbar, 2016). As school choice has become more prevalent, so has theme.

The Prevalence of Theme

To set the stage for my exploration of the dialogue between parents and schools regarding theme, it’s important to understand the prevalence of theme in present-day American school districts.

New Haven Public Schools

To understand just how prevalent theme can be, consider New Haven, a district with a large number of magnet schools. As the New Haven Public Schools website (2016) excitedly notes, the district is “home to the largest magnet program in Connecticut!” Even a cursory look at school names is telling. The following are all K-8 schools: Celentano Biotech Health and Medical Magnet, Brennan Rogers School of Communication and Media, Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet, and Davis Street Arts and Academics School (Sufi, field notes).The fact that these schools are all K-8 schools illustrates just how early the emphasis on theme begins. In addition to the district’s magnet schools, many of district’s neighborhood schools and both of its two comprehensive schools have themes (Sufi, field notes).

Comprehensive Schools and Theme

The fact that the district’s comprehensive schools also have themes merits discussion. All students gain acceptance to the comprehensive schools (Sufi, field notes). As a result, students who don’t get into any of the choice schools that they apply to can, and likely have to, attend these schools. The comprehensive James Hillhouse utilizes a school-within-a-school model with four academies: College and Career Academy; Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, and Action Academy; Law, Public Safety, and Health Academy; and Social Media and the Arts Academy (James Hillhouse website, 2016). This division into academies is actually quite explicit; the academies each have their own principal (Sufi, field notes). Wilbur Cross, New Haven’s other comprehensive high school, doesn’t divide itself as explicitly as James Hillhouse as the school still has a single head principal (Sufi, field notes). Like James Hillhouse though, Wilbur Cross has constituent “career-themed ‘academies’”: International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, Business and Fine Arts Academy, Health and Culinary Sciences Academy, and Law and Public Service Academy  (Wilbur Cross website, 2016).

The specialization of these comprehensive schools is surprising given their role as catch-all nets. What does this specialization mean for the students who attend a comprehensive school because they didn’t get into any of the choice schools that they applied to? It’s very possible that they won’t have a vested interest in any of the school’s focus areas. Although this issue is partially alleviated by the fact that the schools have multiple themes, the options are still finite. A more general, more fluid school would probably serve these students better. This raises the question: Why do the comprehensive schools have themes to begin with? It’s possible that parents have come to think of theme as a necessity. The comprehensive schools could alternatively translate their academies’ themes into elective classes, allowing students to specialize only if they choose to do so. The benefits of theme would be retained, and the downsides would be minimized. Yet this isn’t the case. It seems that the existence of outlets for specialization is less important than the explicit framing of these outlets as themes, that the pedagogical benefits of theme are overshadowed by parents’ perceptions of theme.

New Haven Choice Fairs and Theme

The importance of theme was highly visible at New Haven choice fairs. Many schools put items relevant to their themes on display. Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet displayed several student-made paintings of owls (Sufi, field notes). James Hillhouse Law, Public Safety, and Health Academy had a CPR dummy at its booth, and one STEM-focused school had a 3D printer at its booth (Sufi, field notes). More importantly however, conversations between parents and school representatives often involved theme. When asked what she looks for in schools, one parent commented, “I want to know what their theme is, what their mission is” (Nelson, field notes).

The Dialogue Between Parents and Schools: Parents

Two important points have been established: 1) the school choice model encourages schools to attract specific parents, a phenomenon grounded in the history of theme and school choice, and 2) theme is prevalent, especially in districts with large magnet programs. The stage has been set for an exploration of the dialogue between parents and schools with respect to theme, a dialogue that I intend to show is far removed from pedagogical concerns.

Parents’ Role in the School Choice Process

Even though decisions regarding theme affect students more than anyone else, parents are arguably the biggest consumers of theme. Many decisions regarding theme, especially in the case of younger students, are made by parents. This doesn’t seem surprising. While at a New Haven choice fair myself, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How could 5-year-olds be expected to know what they want to focus on academically?” There are exceptions to this rule. A mother this choice fair instructed her child to see if she liked anything, referencing the school booths (Cobb, field notes). Likewise, a handful of high school students could be seen visiting booths on their own (field notes). Nonetheless, for younger students, it was usually parents who were leading discussions at booths (field notes).

Different Ways of Interpreting Theme

Lower-income, less-informed parents and affluent, well-informed parents interpret theme differently. Ancess and Allen (2006) support this idea broadly, noting that “[themes] are read differently by different constituencies that have varying degrees of access and varied perspectives” (p. 409). Lower-income, usually minority parents tend to champion a “utility-based” approach to education, where education is seen as the means to an end, often a stable career (Lewis-McCoy, 2014, p. 57). They accordingly seem to take theme at face value. Utility-focused parents who send their children to STEM schools likely do so because they want their children to be equipped for careers in engineering and medicine.

Conversely, more affluent, usually white parents tend to champion an “abstract” approach to education, focusing on abstract ideals like intellectual exploration (Lewis-McCoy, 2014, p. 57). These parents seem to find theme unimportant at face value; instead, they focus on the secondary messages that theme conveys. Ancess and Allen (2006) describe exactly this phenomenon, claiming that themes are “code for social, economic, and academic status, race, post-secondary opportunity and ambition, and peer-group composition” (p. 409).When providing examples of codes, Ancess and Allen (2006) note that STEM themes are code for “academically high-performing students” (p. 409). As a result, abstract-focused parents who send their children to STEM schools may not do so because they want their children to pursue STEM careers; they may actually do so because they process STEM themes as indicators of school quality. Ancess and Allen (2006) describe several additional examples of codes: Career themes such as health or business are code for “workforce orientation rather than college ambition”, and social justice and leadership themes are often found in poor communities (p. 409).

Codes in New Haven

The notion that themes are codes, and that well-informed parents care about theme because of these codes as opposed to the themes themselves is heavily supported by my and my classmates’ observations of New Haven choice fairs. Beginning with the notion that well-informed parents don’t take themes at face value, one parent of a student at the Sound School, an aquaculture magnet, noted that her daughter was not at all interested in the school’s theme (Kentor, field notes). Given the many teachers and directors that she greeted (Kentor, field notes), this parent was clearly engaged in the school choice process; it wasn’t because she was uninformed that she sent her child to the Sound School. Rather, she actively decided that the misalignment of her daughter’s interests and her school’s theme was unimportant. In a similar spirit, two parents at the booth for High School in the Community Academy for Law and Social Justice asked about the school’s treatment of subjects outside the school’s theme (Borowski, field notes), possibly because they wanted to ensure that their students received well-rounded educations.

Regarding the notion that parents process theme as code, an administrator at one of the New Haven choice fairs noted that some of the most sought-after schools in New Haven are STEM schools with programs in robotics and computer science (Kentor, field notes). These programs demonstrate to families that the schools are both advanced and well-funded. In general, the schools with “clear and cogent” themes, specifically STEM and arts themes, attracted the largest crowds at the fair (Kentor, field notes). Schools with more general themes, on the other hand, send very different messages. Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, which is one of the few neighborhood schools in New Haven, has a focus on literacy (Ali, field notes). Some parents may infer from the school’s “bare-bones” theme that the school is less advanced and that it’s geared toward English-language learners (Ali, field notes). The booth for the school did indeed appear quite empty (Sufi, field notes). This reminds us that codes can be positive and negative.

Transitioning to Schools

The key takeaway from this section is that parents, especially affluent, well-informed parents, have a relationship with theme that involves inferences much more so than pedagogical concerns. Given that schools in choice systems focus marketing efforts on affluent parents because of the social capital that they can offer (Cucchiara, 2008), we’re led to the question: Are schools aware of how these parents think about theme? And if so, are schools selecting themes to convey messages for marketing purposes instead of thinking about the pedagogical implications of theme? The answer to both of these questions appears to be yes; this is the focus of the next section.

The Dialogue Between Parents and Schools: Schools

District and school officials’ relationship with theme complements parents’ relationship with theme. These officials are aware of the processes by which parents evaluate themes, and they develop and market their themes accordingly.

Codes and Theme Development

Districts and schools are very aware of the messages that theme can convey. Ancess and Allen (2006) provide an example in their exploration of theme as code. At the time of their study, the Pablo Neruda Academy for Architecture and World Studies had far more male students than female students. This wasn’t intentional; rather, it had to do with the fact that “architecture signals ‘male’” (p. 409). When the district realized this, Pablo Neruda’s principal was actually advised to add the word “arts” to Pablo Neruda’s name so as to encourage more female students to attend the school. In other words, he was encouraged to offset the effect of one code with another.

A choice fair representative for New Haven’s West Rock Author’s Academy Interdistrict Magnet shared a very similar experience. Although West Rock Author’s Academy focuses on writing skills, the district had pushed the school to simultaneously focus on science and technology (Negrete, field notes), likely because the district is aware of how parents, advantaged and disadvantaged alike, perceive schools with STEM focuses. (“Advantaged and disadvantaged alike” meaning that both perceive STEM schools positively, albeit for different reasons.) Adding a STEM focus to the school’s existing literary focus would essentially mean that the school has no theme, which isn’t a bad thing. But it raises the question: Why even label the school as being themed? Isn’t a STEM-literature-themed school just a general school? This example shares certain parallels with the earlier mention of New Haven’s comprehensive schools. There’s an emphasis placed on framing schools as themed, in this case even when the school isn’t themed.

Top-Down Theme Development

The above two examples reveal the top-down nature of theme development. District officials, who are more removed from students than school officials, are making the recommendations. A bottom-up approach would make much more sense, with those closest to students, namely teachers, making pedagogical recommendations to school officials. Indeed, this sort of approach would bring us much closer to Shanker’s vision for charter schools.

Lubienski (2003) makes an important observation: In competing for students, schools “tend to emulate established conceptions of schooling rather than use their autonomy to try substantively different approaches” (p. 396). Even though school choice advocates emphasize innovation, school choice in practice requires schools to play it safe. There’s little incentive for schools to let teachers innovate and drive theme development. Instead, higher-ups, who know how parents perceive theme, are given the decision-making power.

Theme as a Tool for Signaling Fit

Wilson and Carlsen (2016) expand the notion of theme as code. Not only do schools use theme to send messages to parents about resources and rigor; they also use theme to suggest who belongs at their schools. The example of Pablo Neruda, the architecture school that was encouraged to add “arts” to its name so as to attract more female students, skimmed the surface of this idea. Wilson and Carlsen (2016) study charter school websites as tools for signaling fit, and they find that these websites use implicit discourses involving race, culture, diversity, and academic achievement. Ironically, this approach exacerbates many of the divisions in society that school choice seeks to remedy as it creates sub-markets. In their analysis of the Twin Cities metro area, Wilson and Carlsen (2016) identify four types of charter schools: elite and international, culturally specific, results-oriented, and progressive. With the exception of the progressive charter schools, each type seems to target a specific population. For example, the results-oriented schools’ websites emphasize the achievement gap, implicitly appealing to lower-income and minority families.

Drifting from Pedagogy

Of the four types of charter schools that Wilson and Carlsen (2016) identify, only the progressive charter schools discuss academics in terms of concrete pedagogical processes. The elite and international schools emphasize general intellectualism. The culturally-specific schools used similarly vague language, and the results-oriented schools emphasize accountability measures such as test scores. Once again, the focus of theme development seems to be less on what is best for students pedagogically and more on what will successfully attract parents or subsets of parents.

Teachers and Students

Teachers and students have limited say in matters of theme yet are arguably the most impacted by theme. Their voices add an interesting and important perspective to my argument.


In a review of the small themed high schools that New York City opened in 2005, Gootman (2005) noted that many of the recruited teachers at these schools had only a passing interest in the theme. Given the shortage of teachers in US, this raises a valid question: If we’re having trouble hiring teachers as it is, how are we going to find enough teachers interested in specific themes like architecture? And if we do have to hire teachers who don’t have an interest in the theme, what is the experience of these teachers like? Gootman (2005) also notes that, at some of the theme schools, “the people who helped develop the theme have already left.” This could result in incomplete or unfinished curriculums, burdening teachers with the task of filling in the curricular gaps.


Students frequently change their minds with respect to academic interests and career choices. A New Haven school administrator even noted that only 10% of the students that she has gotten to know have stuck with the same magnet theme when transitioning from middle to high school (Kentor, field notes). What happens when a student’s interests change? Or as Gootman (2005) asks, “What happens… when a sophomore at a culinary schools decides that architecture is his passion?”

In addition to to the students who change their minds, what about the students who attend a themed school because they had no other options? This brings us back to the earlier discussion of New Haven’s comprehensive schools and the fact these catch-all schools have themes. The experiences of students who are interested in a school’s theme versus those who aren’t can be radically different. Gootman (2005) includes a powerful example. When Mr. Sanchez assigned an architectural project with an accompanying essay, Jennifer Quintero “produced an ornate model and an essay indicating that she really got it.” On the other hand, another student who wasn’t interested in the school’s theme wrote, “This building has elevators to. This building gots 6th floors. 1st and 2nd floor is a video game store.”

Why This All Matters

There’s nothing inherently wrong with themes. As Jennifer’s example in the above anecdote illustrates, when a student is interested in a school’s theme, and the theme is implemented well, the outcomes are great. Students are inspired. Problems arise when we consider how theme is developing.

Misusing Funds

As a result of the shift from pedagogy-driven to market-driven development, school funding may be allocated to theme-related purchases without considering whether the items will actually improve students’ learning experiences. Similarly, a school may purchase an item to display at a choice fair and never use it. Several schools at the New Haven choice fair tied descriptions of theme to descriptions of resources. Aces Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet, for example, mentioned their school’s focus on technology in conjunction with the fact that students use iPads and Chromebooks (Sufi, field notes). Similarly the Brennan-Rogers School for Media and Communications advertised its green room, and the Barnard Environmental Studies School advertised its nature center (Ali, field notes). This isn’t to say that these three schools don’t use their advertised resources. It’s only to say that this could happen if theme continues developing as it is. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, an entire school may be built with a certain theme in mind, and that theme may then be changed, requiring much of the building to be repurposed. This was the case for New Haven’s Celentano Museum Academy, which was repurposed as Celentano Biotech, Health, and Medical Magnet (Appel, 2014).

An Additional Source of Inequity in School Choice Systems

Differential access to information is a critical source of inequity in choice systems. The differences between how less-informed and well-informed parents process theme is yet another example of this differential access. This particular issue is complicated by the fact that few marketing officials will admit that there are secondary messages conveyed by themes. As a result, not only is this information hard to access; it really can’t be accessed without social capital.


Themes are convenient as they make it easy for schools to distinguish themselves from one another. They also allow well-informed parents to make inferences, and schools to target these parents accordingly. These market-based uses push theme further and further away from its pedagogical roots. Only if this trend is reversed, and theme is returned to its pedagogical roots, will theme begin to satisfy the pedagogical goal of the school choice model: giving every student access to a school that meets his or her specific needs.


I was only able to find so many anecdotes involving teachers and students at themed schools. Their voices are incredibly important, and I wish I’d been able to include more from their perspective. Similarly, although I was able to find research on how well-informed parents process theme, I wasn’t able to find as much on how less-informed parents process theme, besides Lewis-McCoy’s discussion of the utility-based approach to education.

This all points to a more general limitation. Because of the limited time that I had to work on this project, I was unable to attain IRBs and perform interviews. This would’ve allowed me to fill in the aforementioned gaps in perspective. Likewise, if I had more time, I’d love to collect field notes in other districts to see if my claims regarding New Haven can truly be extrapolated to other choice districts.


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West Haven, CT

Arsalan Sufi and Chris Rice


West Haven

West Haven is an incredibly dynamic suburb. It’s undergone rapid demographic change over the past two decades with a substantial increase in its minority population. Much of this dynamism has to do with West Haven’s proximity to urban New Haven. Unlike suburbs further away from New Haven, West Haven exists right at the boundary between city and suburb. This makes West Haven a fertile ground for studying social mobility, class tensions, and race tensions. This also makes answering the question of whether or not West Haven is desirable difficult. Whereas urban minority families may view West Haven as a step forward, suburban white families may view it as a step backward.

We present the data that we’ve collected in the following sections. In addition to describing trends, we do our best to provide explanations for those trends.

Population, Race, and Ethnicity

General Trends

West Haven’s total population has remained relatively constant since 2000, hovering around 54,000 residents [1]. However, the racial and ethnic breakdown of the suburb has changed significantly over the past few decades. The suburb’s minority population has been growing at a steady rate since 1990. In 2000, minorities constituted roughly 30 percent of the population. As of 2014, they constituted 47 percent of the population [2]. Since the overall population of West Haven hasn’t changed significantly, this means that white population is shrinking, both in terms of percentage and in absolute numbers. In other words, as minority residents are moving into West Haven, white residents are leaving. It’s very possible that the most affluent residents are moving to the wealthier adjacent suburbs of Orange and Milford. This pattern of moving further away from the city and into wealthier suburbs is common and tied to American consumerism [3].

Specific Trends

These population changes haven’t been uniform across the suburb’s constituent census tracts. Consider census tracts 1547 and 1550, located in the southwestern and eastern sections of West Haven, respectively. Census tract 1547’s white population dropped by 2 percent from 2000 to 2014. Over the same timespan, census tract 1550’s white population dropped by a much larger 35 percent [2].

The two census tracts in southwestern West Haven, 1547 and 1548, have historically been the whitest in the suburb and have remained the whitest even as the demographic breakdown of the suburb has changed [2]. We’ll return to these two census tracts when we discuss the economic state of West Haven.

More Hispanic minorities are moving into the suburb than black minorities. In 2000, 9 percent of West Haven’s population was Hispanic, and 16 percent was black. By 2014, the Hispanic population had increased to 19 percent, almost equaling the 21 percent black population. West Haven’s Asian and Native American minority populations have remained small [2].

Hispanic Migration

Figure 1. West Haven’s Hispanic population by census tract in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right).

Origins of Incoming Minorities

The incoming minorities are likely migrating from New Haven. The southwestern section of New Haven, which lies adjacent to West Haven, has a very high minority population. Census tract 1405 in southwestern New Haven, for example, is 56 percent Hispanic and 34 percent black [2]. Also notable is the fact that the incomes of minority families living in New Haven are lower than the incomes of minority families living in West Haven [4]. The families moving from New Haven to West Haven thus may be up-and-coming urban minorities hoping to reap the benefits of suburban life.

Economic State

Median Household Incomes

Income Increases

Figure 2. West Haven’s median household income by census tract in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right).

At a surface level, West Haven appears to be ascending economically. Every census tract but one has experienced an increase in median household income since 2000, even after accounting for inflation. Just like the population changes in West Haven however, the income increases haven’t been uniform. Whereas most census tracts experienced income increases between $5,000 and $10,000, the two southwestern census tracts’ incomes increased by $16,000 and $35,000 [4]. As noted earlier, these two southwestern census tracts are also the whitest in the suburb.

A quick anomaly worth mentioning: although the black population in the two southwestern census tracts is low, less than 5 percent in both tracts, the median household income of black families in these census tracts is notably higher than that of white families. In 2014, the median household income of black families in census tract 1548 was roughly 30,000 dollars higher than the the median household income of white families [4]. These families could be a part of a growing black upper-middle class in West Haven.

Unemployment Rates and Poverty Levels

Whereas rising household incomes suggest that West Haven is ascending, increasing unemployment rates and poverty levels in pockets of the city also suggest that disparities in the suburb are widening. Unemployment rates in a handful of census tracts have increased significantly. In tract 1550, rates rose from 3.9 percent in 2000 to 14.6 percent in 2014 [5]. Poverty levels have also increased in a handful of census tracts, specifically in the suburb’s central region. In tract 1542, the percentage of families living below the poverty line increased from 5.8 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2014 [6].

Classifying West Haven Using Owen’s Typology

To better understand the processes of economic ascent in West Haven, we’ve attempted to classify West Haven using the neighborhood types identified by Ann Owens in her paper on ascending neighborhoods [7]. Interestingly, it seems there are two distinct sections of West Haven.

The two southwestern census tracts, which are the furthest out from New Haven, resemble an “upper-middle-class white suburb.” They have high white populations, but their housing is too old to be considered a “new white suburb,” and their education levels aren’t high enough to be considered an “affluent neighborhood.” The median years houses were built in the two tracts are 1959 and 1952, whereas the housing in most new white suburbs was built after 1970 [7]. Likewise, whereas half of the residents in an affluent neighborhood have bachelor’s degrees [7], only a quarter of the residents in southwestern West Haven have bachelor’s degrees [8]. Interestingly, the education levels in southwestern West Haven aren’t significantly higher than the levels in the rest of West Haven where, in most census tracts, roughly a fifth of residents have bachelor’s degrees [8]. Thus, the relative wealth in southwestern West Haven doesn’t appear to be a result of increased education levels. One possible explanation is that some southwestern West Haven residents have accrued their wealth over generations [7].

Meanwhile, the rest of West Haven resembles a “diverse urban neighborhood,” given its high minority population and proximity to urban New Haven.

Owens has documented economic ascent in both upper-middle-class white suburbs and diverse urban neighborhoods. Regarding upper-middle-class white suburbs, she specifically notes that they are “more likely to experience ascent over time, suggesting a transition of these neighborhoods to an extremely affluent status reflecting the increase in economic segregation over time” [7, p. 358]. This observation aligns with our earlier observations. Although West Haven appears to be ascending, economic segregation also appears to be on the rise.



Zoning laws have guided development in West Haven, contextualizing the shifting population patterns mentioned in previous sections. Southeast West Haven is composed of a central business district surrounded by multi-family residences. South of the business district is shoreline commercial retail. At the heart of West Haven is its only affordable housing project, 15 Glade Street. The affordable housing is surrounded by other multi-family complexes. There are two large swaths of land in central and northern West Haven zoned for industrial planned development. The proximity to these industrialized spaces may explain why property values are relatively low in West Haven compared to other nearby suburbs [15]. These low prices may further explain why the minority population has been increasing.

The more affluent southwestern section of West Haven consists almost entirely of single-family detached residences surrounded by open spaces along the shoreline. The region is entirely residential, unlike the rest of West Haven, which consists of a blend of residential and commercial areas [15]. Some residents have made it clear that the commercial areas deter wealthier families who hope to provide a safe environment for their children. When describing a commercial area, one commenter on the New Haven Independent explains, “no parent would want their kid to be raised anywhere in that neighborhood to begin with” [16] highlighting the assumption that the parents who do raise their children in the area must not care as much about their wellbeing.


There are 525 homes/apartments up for sale/rent in West Haven. Of these listings, 27 are rentals, 256 are homes for sale, while the remaining 160 are listed as “pre-foreclosure.” This last fact is particularly interesting because Zillow defines the pre-foreclosure stage as “the period between the time in which a Notice of Default or lis pendens has been issued to the homeowner and after the property is sold at a foreclosure auction” [17]. This might suggest that the families who live in these 160 listings are facing financial troubles. Nevertheless, this value shouldn’t be taken at face value because the definition is broad and could include families that have paid their debts.


Retail in West Haven consists primarily of department stores such as Wal-Mart, Sears, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Super Stop and Shop. The suburb also hosts many auto shops: Monro Muffler Brake and Service, G B Wheels, Saveway Tire Center, NAPA Auto Parts, Star Tires Plus Wheels, Discount Tire Center, Sherwin Williams Automotive Finishes, and Larkin Tire East [12]. It’s possible that many of West Haven’s blue-collar residents work in the automotive industry. West Haven is also home to a small Turkish enclave neighborhood [13]. This explains the presence of Makkah Halal Meat and Istanbul Import Market.


Minority Student Population

Minority Students

Figure 3. The minority student percentages in West Haven’s public schools over time.

The minority student population in West Haven’s public schools has consistently increased since 1990, reflecting the general increase in West Haven’s minority population. However, the breakdown of the minority student population reveals an anomaly. Although the number of Hispanic students has increased considerably since 1990, the number of black students has remained almost constant despite increases in the suburb’s black population [14].

One potential explanation for this is that black middle-class families are sending their children to private schools. In his case study of Rolling Acres Public Schools, L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy notes that “The reputation of Rolling Acres Public Schools among white families was stellar, yet among black families, particularly the black middle class, RAPS was viewed as hazardous for educating black children” [9, p. 140]. Perhaps black middle-class families feel this way about West Haven’s public schools and have the financial means to send their children elsewhere. The median household income of black families in West Haven is higher than that of Hispanic families [4], so black families may indeed have more school choice agency than Hispanic families.

Test Scores

Test Scores

Figure 4. West Haven 3rd graders and high schoolers’ scores on the SBAC. ELA stands for English and Language Arts.

Regarding scores on the SBAC, Connecticut’s new standardized test, nearly all public schools in West Haven (elementary, middle and high) underperformed relative to the state. There was one exception however, visible in Figure 4. Edith E. Mackrille Elementary’s 3rd graders performed better than the state in both math and reading [10]. This school resides at the border between the affluent southwestern census tracts and the less affluent central census tracts. Interestingly, Seth G. Haley Elementary, which lies at the heart of the affluent southwestern census tracts didn’t perform nearly as well as Mackrille [10]. This suggests that neighborhood wealth and school performance don’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s possible that the most wealthy parents are sending their kids to private schools outside West Haven, directing their resources away from the public school system.


On, no West Haven school receives a GreatSchools rating higher than 6 out of 10. These relatively low ratings aren’t surprising given that they’re based primarily on test scores. However, the user ratings for West Haven’s schools are reasonably high, usually around 4 out of 5 stars. Some positive comments include: “I am a current Junior at West Haven High. I personally have had a great educational experience,” “WHHS is a great school u get what u put in,” and “I got great writing classes there.” Of course, not all comments are positive. One less positive comment states: “Unfortunetly as a public school it has been caught up in the degradation of schools by unions, local, state, and national politics” [11].

Perception vs. Reality

Negative Perception

The news tends to portray West Haven in a negative light. Running a search for West Haven on the New Haven Register’s site brings up several stories about crimes. There are only a handful of positive accounts among the generally negative accounts. Comments on articles are similarly negative: “Good start to Friday news with another West Haven resident in cuffs. That town doesnt need a carousel, the land should be used to build a jail big enough to hold all these idiots if thats possible,” and “West Haven was a great town prior to the 90’s….anyone still living there AND owning property needs to get out ASAP” [16]. The chronology in this second comment is important. The commenter marks 1990 as the cutoff date for when West Haven was desirable. It was also around 1990 that West Haven’s minority population started to grow.

The crime rates in West Haven reflect the general trend that we have identified throughout this report; they are lower in the wealthier single-family residential areas to the southwest and higher in low-income areas with multi-family housing. Minorities moving into eastern West Haven may not only be causing white flight, but also informing the assumptions that white residents have about the crime that is occurring in the city. Perhaps this dynamic is fueling the negative perception that some residents have of West Haven and its future?

A More Positive Reality

Community posts on Facebook groups made by West Haven community members are much more positive and tend to reveal the characteristics of a tight-knit group of concerned citizens. West Haven – What’s Happening, for example, is a group composed of 2,897 members that “posts information of events and activities” in the city [18]. Recent posts demonstrate a more desirable side of West Haven, one in which neighbors happily attend each other’s events and are supportive of one another’s causes. Communication is free flowing and no negative comments are to be found. It may be that this forum specifically facilitates this type of communication; however, this is certainly a side of West Haven that is not perpetuated in the media. After taking a deeper, unbiased look at the suburb, it starts to become much more desirable.

Works Cited

  1. Social Explorer, Population Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  2. Social Explorer, Race Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  3. Cohen, Elizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.
  4. Social Explorer, Income Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  5. Social Explorer, Unemployment Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  6. Social Explorer, Poverty Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  7. Owens, Ann. “Neighborhoods on the Rise: A Typology of Neighborhoods Experiencing Socioeconomic Ascent.” City and Community 11.4 (2012): 345-369. Print.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. Social Explorer, Education Data Set. Web. 9 February 2016.
  9. Lewis-McCoy, R. L’Heureux. Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Print.
  10. Busemeyer, Stephen, and Matthew Kauffman. “How Did Your School Do On The Connecticut SBAC?” Hartford Courant. Hartford Courant. 27 August 2015. Web. 21 February 2016.
  11. GreatSchools. GreatSchools. Web. 21 February 2016.
  12. Google Maps. Google. Web. 21 February 2016.
  13. Turkish Cultural Center Connecticut. Turkish Cultural Center Connecticut. Web. 21 February 2016.
  14. Elementary / Secondary Information System. National Center for Education Statistics. Web. 9 February 2016.
  15. “Zoning Regulations.” City of West Haven. City of West Haven. Web. 21 February 2016.
  16. New Haven Independent. New Haven Independent. Web. 21 February 2016.
  17. Zillow. Zillow. Web. 21 February 2016.
  18. “West Haven – What’s Happening.” Facebook. Facebook. Web. 23 February 2016.