Wednesday, July 04, 2007

School Names

An interesting study from my friend Jay Greene and his colleagues. It's about trends in the naming of schools. An excerpt:
Last year, the Fayetteville, Arkansas, public school district closed its aging Jefferson Elementary School, replacing it with a shiny new building on the other side of the highway. The new building needed a name; the school board could have transferred the Jefferson name along with the students but did not do so. Or they could have chosen the name of another president; for example, they could have honored Bill Clinton, who had been a law professor at the university in Fayetteville and later became governor and then president. But if Clinton was thought inappropriate for a school name, the board could have honored the late J. William Fulbright, who hailed from Fayetteville, graduated from its university, and was the university’s president before serving five terms in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, there is no shortage of people the board could have chosen to honor. Instead, they chose to name the school “Owl Creek,” after a small ditch with a trickle of water that runs by the school.

According to our analysis of trends in school names, the same story is playing out all over the country. It is increasingly rare for schools to be named after presidents—or people, in general—and increasingly common to name schools after natural features. In the case of presidents, this trend runs contrary to what one might expect to find. We continuously add to the list of available options every four to eight years when we elect new presidents, while new schools that need names are built every day. Yet today, the number of schools in America that are named after presidents has declined to fewer than 5 percent, and currently an overwhelming majority of America’s school districts do not have a single school named after a president.

This shift from naming schools after people worthy of emulation to naming schools after hills, trees, or animals raises questions about the civic mission of public education and the role that school names play in that civic mission. The names that school boards give to schools both reflect and shape civic values. They reflect values because naming a school after someone or something provides at least an implicit endorsement of the values that the name represents. And school names can shape values by providing educators with a teaching opportunity: teachers at a Lincoln Elementary, for example, can reference the school name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery and the benefits of preserving our union.
Unfortunately, there's no dataset that goes back to 1900 on school names, but I'd bet anything that other interesting trends happened over that time period. For example, there used to be a ton of black schools named after black educators or other admired figures in the black community -- Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Russa Moton, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald, and Lincoln were among the most common names for black schools. But many or even most of these schools were closed in the 1960s and 1970s -- the casualties of desegregation. (Here are eight examples of schools named Douglass that closed, and here's the alumni website for one of them.) Indeed, there used to be a Lincoln School in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but no more. Conversely, the number of Martin Luther King schools has surely risen.

UPDATE: Jay Greene writes to say, "Interestingly, there are only 121 schools honoring MLK out of almost 100,000 public schools nationwide. Even MLK can’t compete with a manatee, hill, or tree."



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