Book Review: The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools


I’m going to try not to over think my son’s education. He’s not even two yet, but I have concerns. The other problem or blessing, living inside the District of Columbia are the overwhelming choices we have for Junior’s education. Should we choose neighborhood public schools, public charter schools, Catholic school, free Pre-K, staying with daycare until kindergarten? With the DC School Lottery we can pick up to 12 public schools and/or charter schools, which is great on one hand but the abundance of choice provides a paradox of choice.

Michael Petrilli’s 2012 book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools was mentioned several times in an article I was reading as part of my research to understand if my son would be okay in a not so bad/not so great/okay neighborhood school. The author was looking at schools in the Washington, DC area, mainly the upper northwest, Bethesda, Maryland area. He uses examples from outside the area as well, but it seems more useful to parents in DC who have to make the choice to send their children to an urban school.

I’m glad I read the book because, although I was aware of different teaching styles, I never really gave that much thought to what those teaching styles really meant. Actually, I never realized how much a visceral reaction I would have to a particular value found in schools that promote “thinking outside the box” and provide a more touchy-feely environment. It could be my own upbringing, it could be the geography of where I was raised, or something else, but I’m not fond of children calling adults by their first names. In this, I am like many of the African American parents in his book. My husband, who is white, at first was attracted to the idea of child-centered learning, like many other white parents in the book. We will try our best to figure out where is the most effective environment for Junior and his particular learning style.

Speaking of race, Petrilli does not shy away from this touchy topic. This I found very helpful. Our son is bi-racial but he may grow to look less racially ambiguous and more African American. As I’ve read about the challenges Black boys face in education, even middle and upper-middle-class boys of color, I am looking for anything to help our son beat the depressing odds. In this book I found some answers, pointers to tools, and topics we need to explore more for our particular situation.

However, the book wasn’t so much written with us in mind, it is mainly for middle-class white parents (possibly in the DC area) who want the benefits of a diverse school environment but have concerns about safety and academics. The benefit of a diverse environment is to make kids “fluently multicultural,” providing the skills to understand and connect with others and developing the ability to be comfortable crossing cultural boundaries. Unfortunately, many racially diverse neighborhood schools, and some charters, east of the Park have worrisome test scores. Overall, those white students with involved parents do well, but there are things parents need to watch out for or take into account. Judging a school purely by the test scores on the MySchools profile page, isn’t the best tool. Petrilli suggests using other data to drill down into and past the scores to find out if a child would do well in what may appear to be an underperforming school. Though not mentioned in the book, the exercise did have me clicking on the “School Report Card” (under Additional Resources) of various elementary schools’ profile pages and discovering something I didn’t know I wanted for Junior, “Physical Activity Time”.

The book was published by and the author was an executive vice-president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, DC think tank with a focus on education.


  1. I am so glad I stumbled onto this post. I feel as though you were in my head. Just ordered book.

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