Do You Have Good Schools?

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.

 

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25 thoughts on “Do You Have Good Schools?

  1. We pass the first 4 definitely; apparently we were a little weak in 4th grade math 2 years ago, but the school made improvements the following year. #5 I agree is hard to know. I lean towards our principal being fairly in control. I do hear about him being in the classrooms sometimes. He personally observed E after our penultimate IEP meeting and then called me to say the committee changed its mind and would support an IEP. But he is kind of a mild-mannered person, and it’s always hard to know what he’s thinking. Maybe that’s a plus in his situation.

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  2. I would say that the schools my children have attended have all been good schools, particularly when compared with national benchmarks. On the other hand, over time, my personal list of trouble signs has evolved.
    1) State test scores. Most useful when broken down by categories. A school system might look worse because it has different demographics. An average score for the entire system may be very different from the average scores for subgroups.
    School-level test scores can also mislead. If a school houses the district’s gifted & talented program, its overall scores will be better than the average, but that doesn’t mean that the classroom experience is better for a child who isn’t in the gifted & talented program.
    2) Struggling students. This becomes a philosophical issue. I know families whose children were supplied with extra services during school–but the intent was to keep the children functioning well enough to forestall parental demands for IEPs. In other words, the school’s definition of a child learning “well enough” was “just well enough to prevent an IEP.”
    3) All writing is not equal. If the writing is creative and personal, it’s not as useful as expository and persuasive writing. My eldest child did a great deal of writing with Writer’s Workshop in school. I would not say that it improved her academic writing.
    4) PTA attendance is relative? If things are going well, turnout will be low at school meetings. If parents are worried, turnout will be very high. It’s a bad sign to see lots of fathers at PTA meetings, because that usually means that both parents have decided to attend.
    5) A good principal will be disliked by some in the school community. It’s a bad sign when everyone loves the principal, because it means he’s never had to say “no” to anyone.
    It’s a worrisome sign when the school institutes new programs. It’s not that the curriculum should be set in stone, but sometimes schools turn to new programs because they know they have a problem. It takes two or three years to become accustomed to a new program, so if it works well, it’s nice to have your child in the third year’s class.

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  3. 3) Are writing assignments actually corrected? Is it clear, based on the corrections, where the grade is coming from? Is the grading fair?
    Our private school just lost the elementary principal. I don’t know yet what the circumstances are (did she resign or “resign”?), but it’s very awkward to lose her in the middle of the year, particularly since sometime this year, the junior/senior high students will be moving into a separate new building, so the elementary principal is going to be more important as time goes on.
    Speaking of parent involvement, a year or two ago, I was visiting a public elementary school in our fancy pants suburb (the neighboring grocery is a sort of museum of food). The school actually had a sign in the hallway saying that all of the school’s teachers are equally wonderful, so please don’t ask for a particular teacher for your child. I’m sure they have their reasons for arriving at this policy, but it has always left me with a bad impression of the administration’s attitude toward parents. 1) I have my doubts that this policy is followed 100%. 2) It simply is not true that every teacher is equally wonderful with every child. Maybe it would have been better with some sort of addendum that the school is happy to hear about any special issues involving your child (“Chloe is timid and anxious and would do better with a calm, gentle teacher”), as opposed to bare statements of teacher preference.

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  4. Is there such a thing as too much writing? Our school tries to do so-called “writing across the curriculum,” but both my HS and MS kids know that writing about how you solved a particular math problem is . . . not really helpful. Or they even force a writing component into gym/P.E.

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  5. #2 is huge for me, and it’s how I knew the middle school where my son went was not a good school. When homework was slipping and therefore his grades were falling, I did not find out until the situation was so dire, there was very little anyone could do. I want information as soon as there appears to be even a small problem–two or three missed assignments or something.
    That’s the biggest difference between where I (and Geeky Girl) am now and Geeky Boy’s middle school. No kid is allowed to fall through the cracks. Parents are notified. Teachers step in. All kinds of extra help is offered. And that’s just for kids who are slipping. More serious problems get even more support.
    I never felt welcome at our former middle school. The school was huge–about 1200 students. Grade-level principals came and went. The main principal was generally not liked and had her own kids in private schools (a sure sign of problems, in my book).
    I think a lot of parents argue for more technology because it makes the school look good on the surface, but if you don’t have the foundation for it–good teaching and a strong community–it’s not going to help at all and might even hurt.

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  6. Amy P, I think the parent requests for teachers must be really funny, if you sit down to read them all at once. Our public school seemed to have a policy that, if you asked for a teacher by name, your child would NOT have that teacher. Thus, everyone tried to specify the teacher they wanted by other means. “Johnnie needs a male teacher.” (There is one in the grade.) “Johnnie needs a teacher who encourages creativity, such as Odyssey of the Mind (there is one teacher involved with it.)” etc.
    I think parents as a whole know which teacher is abysmal. They may know who is competent. I have found that the teachers we have found to be excellent aren’t necessarily appreciated by other parents. The best year my daughter had in that school, the school didn’t know who would teach which grade the next year. Thus, the staff put together compatible groups of children. Often, the strongest teacher will end up with the most rambunctious class. That year, they didn’t cluster all the loud kids together, all the quiet kids together, with the kids who could go with the flow scattered among the classes. So, I am open to the idea that the entire parental input charade might be a total waste of time.

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  7. I try to avoid schools where they refer to the teachers as “educators”. It’s a sign that they’re trying to distance themselves from the parents by implying professional academic knowledge about children is the best or the only kind of knowledge. Also, I avoid schools where the teachers call you (the mom) Sally, and insist that you refer to them as Mrs. Mankley. Also, if a school boasts phenomenally high numbers (fifty percent of our kids get into the GT program, which accepts 4 percent across the district), it’s usually a sign that something fishy is going on (lots of kids being held back, lots of Kumon, lots of being prepped for the test, etc.)

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  8. My daughter’s elementary has nailed #1 and #4. We’re doing well on #2 and #3. Not so hot on #5 but I’m not sure how much is because of #4.

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  9. “Thus, the staff put together compatible groups of children. ”
    I think this is how our elementary school does it. They work on grouping the kids together in classes first, then assign teachers. I am going to try to have input on E’s teacher next year, mainly because one of the teachers is a talker, and I am so afraid E will just tune her out.

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  10. I don’t really have a good idea of the teachers that my kids haven’t had yet (except for the really wonderful middle school science teacher who is glowingly pregnant now and probably won’t be around when I want her). There were a couple of obvious personality mismatches that the administration steered my oldest away from. I didn’t need to tell them that, but we’ve had a couple of meetings, and oldest got sweeter and less law-and-order teachers. The ideal teacher for oldest would be sweet and cunning, rather than do-this-do-that. The latter approach would probably have led to a lot of unproductive standoffs and conflict.
    Another issue is that my husband’s college department is informally very involved with the school, which means there is some potential for weirdness. When the wife of one of my husband’s grad students was our son’s pre-K teacher, I did my best not to breathe down her neck. I didn’t say anything, but it was definitely a relief not to get assigned other college acquaintances (my husband’s colleague’s wife, another graduate wife), particularly for our higher-maintenance child. (When I was in school, I got a friend of my family as my 4th grade teacher. For whatever reason, that was not a huge success.)

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  11. “I think this is how our elementary school does it. They work on grouping the kids together in classes first, then assign teachers.”
    When I talked to the principal that we are losing a year or two ago, she mentioned that she was trying to work out a grouping that would have our more high-maintenance child in a separate class from another high-maintenance child, there being usually two classes per grade.

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  12. Your note at the bottom cracks me up…Simply because before I sent kids to school, I used to think that class size and technology were THE best indicators of a great school. (I went to private schools my whole life where every other sentence in the brochures mentioned class size and number of computers per child.) In fact, when I was deciding where to send my kids to school, I seriously considered private school simply because the class sizes were smaller.
    But I didn’t, and we love our public elementary school. Your list makes me feel even better about it. Thank you.

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  13. “I seriously considered private school simply because the class sizes were smaller.”
    I like small class size if only because nobody can say “I have 11 other children to think about” with a straight face, whereas “I have 29 other children to think about” sounds much more plausible.

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  14. The girl is in SK at a private parochial school here in downtown Toronto. The class sizes are for the most part average but it’s a small school – about 180 students from SK-grade 8.
    We pass on all criteria. The small size is both lovely and challenging. It’s intimate and a great community of fairly like-minded,well educated, hippy-dippy families. We’re near the university so many parents are academics as well. It’s diverse economically with about 1/3 of the school families on subsidy.
    On the challenging side is that it’s like any small community – there’s no hiding. That annoying guy? You see him every morning at pick up and drop off. But that’s community – you learn to get along with everyone. And you get to be “that annoying guy” for someone else.

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  15. Writing every day is not an indication of good teaching. I would argue quality assignments and feedback are more important factors in assessing a school, especially in middle school, like Amy said. I know your situation personally, so I know that J is not getting either, but it’s really important to make the distinction.

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  16. You’re right, Tammy. The quality of the assignments is critical. How would you tell a parent how to distinguish between a quality writing assignment and a crap assignment?

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  17. Laura, I recommend the book, Boy Writers, by Ralph Fletcher.
    As a parent, I don’t like worksheets. I think it’s better to ask children to write complete sentences each day. Not essays, at least at first, but sentences. I know the pressure for standardized testing has increased the time spent on multiple choice exercises, and I think it’s awful.

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  18. Thanks for the book recommendation, cranberry. They have two other Fletcher books at the library (in digital format) and I just checked them out.
    My daughter loves to write so she never needed feedback on getting her writing. But, the boy just started writing a little bit, and he needs more encouragement to get the sentences down. It’s interesting to watch the difference, and I look forward to reading this info.
    My daughter has found Gail Carter Levine’s “Creating Magic” to be very useful. But, I think it’s oriented towards teaching a child who wants to write how to refine their craft, rather than teaching them how to write.

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  19. My middle child attends an all-boys school. They are very good at teaching boys to write well. I’ve noticed that they don’t ask the boys to write about their feelings in the earlier grades. They do ask them to write about why a character in a book, for example, chooses to take a specific action. As the boys grow older, they begin to write about their opinions, but not their feelings.

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  20. I think 2-5 are great, but they are kind of hard to research before your child begins at the school.
    I think state test scores track socio-economic status too closely to be of much use in evaluating school quality. You probably know that for New Jersey you can find out what quintile your school’s test results fall in within each income quintile. But even there, my (admittedly impressionistic) observation is that income disparities tend to overwhelm differences in school quality. It makes it easier to pick out successful schools in low socio-economic neighborhoods, but rarely lets you know about weak schools in higher socio-economic neighborhoods.

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  21. M’s school meets all of your criteria, with the possible exception of number one. The scores aren’t bad–the school has been in the top 20% of Indiana’s public schools the past two years and thus named a “4 Star School” (a big deal here). But the school lost 4 star status this year–scores were down slightly. Even with 4 star status, her school doesn’t perform as well as the suburban and private schools nearby. I guess it just depends on what you mean by “performs well.”
    However, in keeping with some of the previous commenters, at M’s school, 60% of the kids receive free or reduced price lunch. Minority students are also the racial majority at her school. You don’t see either of those factors at the private or suburban schools.
    If you break out the kids who get free/reduced lunch, you see that they do not perform nearly as well on those tests as do the kids who don’t get free lunch. And I’m not just saying that in theory’ Indiana’s DOE website lets you break out scores in that way, and this is true at M’s school. Students with higher socio-economic status at her school–like M–are doing great on those tests (100% pass rates in many cases). Students with lower status aren’t doing as well, though they are doing much better than kids with similar SES at other schools in our district.
    Due to those reasons, I think her school meets the criteria.

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  22. One more thought about class/teacher assignments: M’s school has the the best way of doing this that I’ve ever seen.
    At the end of the school year, the current grade level teachers (in M’s case, second grade) sit down with the principal and together plan the assignments for the following grade (third grade). The current teachers understandably know quite well the children and the other teachers, and they work hard to match the children with the teachers they think are the best fit. There are only two classes per grade at her school (it’s one of the smallest elementary schools in the district), so that makes such an approach possible.
    The principal comes to the meeting with the list of parental requests and to make sure the classes are balanced–equal distribution of gender and race in each class, high achievers and behavioral issues are mixed up, etc. Parental requests are considered as long as they don’t disturb the mix of the class.

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  23. “How about, “Does your school system nurture children’s talents and encourage their natural love of learning?” ”
    I also prefer this kind of qualitative criterion, on which my childrens’; school passes with flying colors. From Laura’s descriptions, I’m guessing that J’s school fails.
    Another criterion I use is whether I, fundamentally, believe that the teachers and other personnel of the school are working in the best interests of the children, including my own (and have the expertise, time and knowledge to do so). If I do, I can trust them to pick the right mix of teachers and classes.
    But, these are deep criterion, that require a strong knowledge of the school, your children, and what happens in the classroom. I see Laura’s list as being more process based — what markers can you look for more quickly to see if you’re likely to have what you really want?
    And I agree that some markers (technology, for example) are poor predictors of whether the other more important things are happening.
    I disagree about class size, though. I do think it’s a marker (unless you have that and nothing else).
    I also think that test scores do nothing more than reflect SES of the student population. This might be useful. And it might be useful to know if high SES students are scoring low or low SES students are scoring high. But that’s rare.

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