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The misperceptions of Durham schools

Besides this blog, I tend to hang out online over at city-data.com, which has a forum on life in the Triangle.  And as you can imagine, two of the big topics that come up frequently in regards to Durham are crime and schools.  This message board has a tendency to perpetuate the fear-uncertainty-doubt that so many people relocating to the Triangle have about these issues in Durham.

To some extent, the message board suffers from the problems that Jeff Stern highlighted in his excellent Indy piece last year on the Bull City's image: residents of the much larger Wake County have stereotypes about Durham from the news media, but may not have experienced them first hand.

Here's one classic example -- excerpts from two posts from the same person on city-data:

I'd suggest you check into the crime statistics for Durham.  They are not good.  And...the Durham County school system has issues of its own. 

Most of my clients that work in Durham or RTP prefer to live in North Raleigh or Cary or Holly Springs.

Sorry that my opinion is not better but it IS my opinion.


And there is another [Durham] neighborhood I've heard good things abuot...something "Hope".

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these words come from a Realtor based in Wake County.  This individual doesn't know the Bull City well enough to have heard of Hope Valley or Hope Valley Farms (two of the best-known areas in Durham), but certainly knows us well enough to be aware that there's a ton of crime and issues in the schools.  Or so one assumes if one only looks at the averages.

Let's focus today on the latter of these: Durham's schools.

Of course, the interesting thing when you take a look at Durham's schools is that, on a disaggregated basis, they perform about the same as Wake County schools, within individual student categories.  These numbers are published by the Durham CVB each year:

Average SAT scores, by ethnicity (2005):
White: Durham 1132, Wake 1060 (national: 1068)
African-American: Durham 868, Wake 901 (national: 864)

End-of-grade reading at or above grade level, grades 3-8 (2005):
White: Durham 93.8%, Wake >95.0%
African-American: Durham 73.2%, Wake 79.1%

These numbers tell me a couple of things.  First, and obviously, we have a national crisis in terms of the education that African-American youth are receiving. That's a complex issue that goes beyond schools and into issues of historic discrimination, underserved neighborhoods, trends in families, and failures of public policy in housing and financial support.  On the local level, it looks like the numbers in the Triangle mirror the trends in the nation -- inexcusable as they are.

The second thing I learn from these numbers, however, is that most folks moving to the Triangle never see them.  They instead see aggregated numbers showing the level average of school performance. These numbers ignore the fact that Durham is a significantly more racially and socioeconomically diverse community than almost any other in the Triangle.  It's like the asterisk sometimes added to baseball statistics to highlight that there are extraordinary circumstances to why Joe Slugger got so many home runs in a year.  You can't understand Durham's numbers without the asterisk.

In the end analysis, though, no one reads asterisks or footnotes.  We look at the bottom line number and make our decisions.  It's a rational action in human behavior to minimize uncertainty.  We seek out heuristics, or mental short-cuts that help us to understand our surroundings, doubly so in a complex world.  "Great schools" have great scores, right?  Or so you'd think.

And this is doubly true of individuals looking to move to the Triangle who aren't interested in a close textual reading of school statistics in any one district, but who are looking at every place from Alamance County to Zebulon to try to find the right home for them.  And in the bottom line numbers, frankly, the cities and towns that have done less to be inclusive, less to foster and promote diversity, have school numbers that "look" better, on paper, than Durham's.

To my mind, and thinking about this from a national perspective, it's one of the great failings of our current obsession with tests and measurements for our schools.  Because the 'bottom line' number in every community has as much to do with the level of diversity the community celebrates as with the performance of individuals within the various sub-categories.  And this is to say nothing of important factors that don't show up in any standardized test: appreciation for the arts, early exposure to world cultures, instilling compassionate and humanitarian values in our youth.

The communities with "great schools" across the nation tend to be racially homogeneous and socioeconomically exclusive.  Personally, I chose to live in Durham because it wasn't either of those things.  You couldn't pay me enough to live in Cary or Clayton or, God forbid, Wake Forest.  When my kids someday get to go off to schools here locally, I feel secure knowing they're going to get a good education and see a truer representation of what America really looks like than they'd see if we raised them in a Truman Show-like caricature of a community.

So let me just take this opportunity to say: I think Durham's schools are doing great work and making great progress.  No asterisks needed.



As a parent of a DPS student, I agree that Durham schools are doing well, and are open to changes that lead to improvement. Deciding on which school to send my kids is difficult, but because of all the GOOD choices out there.

DPS is not perfect, but I wonder if that Wake Realtor read the recent Indy article talking about Wake County schools. Or, heard the griping from parent of Wake schools students about the never-ending cycle of reassignment, threatened forced year-round, and general overcrowding.

On second thought, maybe Durham is growing fast enough already and we should let the misconceptions continue, lest we be needing to build several schools a year just to keep up (without the benefit of actually having those profiting from that growth helping to pay for those schools! Anyone see those signs on I-40 this morning? Made me want to scream!)


Thank you for this post. I am a DPS teacher and I am very proud of the work we do here. The people I know in Wake, Orange and other areas around here are always asking why I stay here, instead of trying to find a job in a "better" school/district.

My job isn't perfect, but I work in a school with a dedicated staff and students who care about their education and their future. I don't know what more I could want.


When i first moved to the Triangle in 1993, i got the "you don't want to live in Durham" message from a realtor. I decided that i'd be the judge of that, and so far things have worked out all right for me.

Alas, for my teenage daughter, Durham's public schools have not turned out to be a good fit. Hard to say where the responsibility lies.

Responding to Phil - i don't think Durham's reputation is much of a problem for precisely the reasons you mention. If our growth takes place at a more manageable pace because some people are disinclined to live here, that's only a bad thing for the profiteers.

Kevin Davis

R.: I just wanted to say "thank you" for being a teacher! I have tremendous respect for good folks like you who help to bring along the next generation. And that extends to teachers in every school district... though I'm certainly thrilled we have you here teaching in Durham!


And that Wake realtor may also be in violation of State and Federal Fair Housing Laws that prohibit "steering" clients to or away from an area. I wonder if the NC Real Estate Commission would like to read his/her comments. I can't believe that an agent would actually post something like that on-line where it is documented.



Where does your daughter go to school?




I don't mean to be creepy. I just mean, public or private.



I taught in East Durham for 4 years. The staff was wonderful and so were the children. When our wonderful Principal retired back in October 2010, we got a Principal that, within two months, got rid of a few members of our staff family, including myself. I had a perfect teaching record and she decided that I had a problem with the black students and she had me terminated. The superintendent didn't care that I was losing my livelihood or my health insurance or my ability to pay my mortgage and take care of my kids. Racism goes both ways. And, yes, the new Principal is black and so are some of my family members and good friends.

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