It's very strange to go from the world of education wonks to the world of the parent. The debates that I read about on the education blogs, the recent research from scholars, and the speeches from the Secretary of States aren't trickling down to the public.
I often ask friends how they like their schools. They usually say that they like their schools, particularly if their child is getting good grades and if the teacher is a nice person. (People will also say that they like their particular Congressional representative, even though they say that they hate Congress. I think it's the same phenomenon. People think schools need to improve, but they like their local teachers.) If they have any criticism, they usually say that the school could use more computers.
Parents need more help evaluating their schools. If they had more information, they could be better advocates for change. They need to look beyond the experiences of their particular kids and look at the performance of the entire school.
Here are five tests for your schools:
1. How Does Your School Perform on State Tests? While I don't believe that standardized tests tell us much about particular kids (some kids test well and others don't) or the quality of particular teachers, it does tell you something about the performance of the entire school. If large numbers of students do poorly on a standardized math test, then something is wrong. It could be the fault of the teachers, the administration, or the students. Whoever is at fault, that's not good.
2. How Does Your School Deal with Struggling Students? What happens to those kids who do poorly on standardized tests or classroom work? Good schools identify the kids with problems, calls the parent, and comes up with a plan. Bad schools wait for the parents to come to the school or ignore the problem entirely. Good schools keep the struggling students in a regular classroom for as long as possible and pull the students out for extra help during specials. Struggling kids do more work, instead of less. Teachers provide after-school help. Bad schools put all the struggling students in one classroom, where they are given less challenging work. They don't communicate with parents.
3. How Much Writing Occurs? Good schools have more written assignments. Tests include writing portions. They have daily writing assignments in their Language Arts class. Teachers provide feedback on rough drafts and train children to write an essay. Bad schools rely on multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank tests. They do not have daily writing assignments.
4. Does Your School Welcome Parents? Good schools have an open relationship with parents. Parents feel comfortable talking to school administrators. They provide volunteer opportunities for parents to tutor other students or participate in school activities. Bad schools discourage parent involvement and conversation. How many parents attend the PTA meetings? Poor attendance may be a sign of low parental influence.
5. Is the Principal In Control? Good school leadership is a critical component of a good school, but it's the hardest one for parents to assess on their own. Pay attention to the community gossip about the principal. If other parents roll their eyes when talking about the principal, it's not a good sign. Ask your child, if the principal ever comes into his/her classes. Set up a meeting with the principal and ask them about their future plans for the school.
Notice that class size and technology aren't on this list.