Ok, let’s admit up front that it’s hard to know how to choose a school for your child. Maybe you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a football coach, a computer expert, or an architect, and you’re an expert in your field, but you likely feel unqualified to evaluate a school.
To add to that stress, the impact of choosing the right school has lifelong consequences for your children.
“We find it useful to think about a really great teacher, a top 5% teacher, coming into a school and replacing a teacher who was average. Now that substitution, for just a single classroom, will increase the future earnings of those students by nearly $1.5 million over the course of their careers. And of course a lot of that money will come far in the future, so if you’re worried about discounting, $1.5 million over their careers is the same thing as a quarter of a million dollars deposited in the bank that same year to accrue interest and let the students consume more over their lives. But it’s not just that students earn higher wages, we also see that they’re more likely to go to college, they’re more likely to not just get high-paying jobs but high-quality jobs, they’re more likely to live in high-quality neighborhoods, and even for female students we see that they’re less likely to have children as teenagers.” (John Friedman, Harvard)
So, what characteristics are needed for a school to be great? Of course all schools say they’re great, so how do you figure out what is best for your child?
(Note that when we use the word “school” we are referring to the quality of teachers, the teaching philosophies, the pedagogy, the class subjects, the interactions with parents, the mix of academic and creative, etc. We’re talking about the whole enchilada.)
Start with defining the needs of your child
While parents may feel inadequate in evaluating a school, they definitely know things that aren’t working for their child at their current school.
Is your child ahead or bored at school? Is your child struggling in any subjects? Does your child have special needs that a school needs to be equipped to address? Is there a bullying problem? Does your child have a learning style that doesn’t match with the teaching style of his/her current school? Is there a disruptive student in your child’s class?
Ask the Right Questions
There are three categories of questions that you should consider asking.
First, thinking about your child’s unique needs will lead you to ask a prospective school questions that are specific to your child or your previous experiences.
Possible questions to ask, unique to your child:
What do you do for gifted and talented students?
If there is another child in a class that is disruptive, how do you handle that?
How do you handle bullying?
Do you offer any speech therapy?
Do you offer ESL (English as a Second Language)?
How do you handle under-performing teachers?
Do you offer after school or before school care?
(Insert your unique questions here)
Second, there are straightforward questions that need asking and are more factual in nature.
What are the school’s hours and class schedule?
What are tuition costs?
How many students are there per class?
Annual calendar, school start dates, end dates, holidays
Lunch options, recess schedule
Financial aid information, paperwork, deadlines
Application process, paperwork, deadlines
If it's a private school, is it a value, product, or process school?
Third, the more involved questions don’t have simple yes or no answers, yet they are the key to understanding what the school can do for your child.
More involved questions:
How well rounded is your program? What is the balance of time spent on academics, electives, and creativity?
Describe the breadth and depth of your curriculum in reading, math, science and social studies; how does this compare to other schools?
Tell me about your STEM classes (science, technology, engineering, and math) with specific details for the grades my children would be in.
Tell me about your Fine Arts classes (arts, drama, music) with specific details for the grades my children would be in.
How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom? How do you make the programs interactive/engaging/experiential, fun and stimulating?
Will you walk me through a typical day at your school?
What are the roles of the teacher, parents, and student in the learning process? How much homework will there be? (Does this match up with your expectations?)
What criteria is used to determine student placement in classes?
What is the average class size?
How exactly is learning personalized in your classroom? In the school?
How are assessments designed to promote learning rather than simple measurement?
How will I know how well my student is doing? How often will I be informed?
Do students have leadership opportunities?
How do you support gifted and talented students?
How do you handle manage teacher accountability and effectiveness?
How will my student benefit from attending your school versus any other school in the area?
This blog post won’t try to tell you what the right answers are to these more involved questions. A great school will probably have a lot to share about these topics and their perspective as a school -- they’ll likely talk your ear off if you let them. When you ask the questions, pay attention to the answers but also pay attention to the questions a school may not fully answer or may possibly deflect. Are they excited to share with you what they do and how they do it?
Tour the School
Things you can learn from a tour:
During the tour of the school, you will get a feeling of what it will be like to interact with the school staff.
Ask questions as outlined above.
If possible, tour the school during school hours so you can see the classes with kids in them and teachers working with students.
If possible, meet the home room teachers that will teach your student. If meeting the teachers is important to you, you may want to ask about that in advance so that your tour time is scheduled at a time the teachers are available. As applicable, ask the teachers some of the questions listed above.
Do they ask specific questions about your children and their needs and experiences?
If you live too far from the school to do a tour, you’ll want to schedule a phone call and ask these same questions.
Talk to Other Parents
School’s should be willing to provide a list of parents of current or former students that you can talk to about the school. Parents can give you a perspective that is hard to get from a tour or a website. If possible, try to talk with the parents of children in the same grades as your children.
In what ways has your child improved since attending XYZ school?
What things could XYZ improve on?
What things does XYZ do that you love?
When you think back to your evaluation of the school, what do you think would be helpful for me to know?
Do you feel the teachers and staff communicate well with you?
How well do the students get along? Is there bullying? Are there cliques?
Do you feel the education is worth the tuition?
Does your child enjoy going to XYZ?
Many schools have online reviews from current or former parents. Often these reviews give specific insights to what children experience on a day-to-day basis. The reviews may also summarize the things each individual parent may really appreciate about the school. Negative reviews must be taken with a grain of salt if the majority of the reviews are positive. Studies have shown people tend to remember the negative things they hear more than the positive. Try not to fall into that trap and rely on your leg work.
A school website should provide recent information that can provide some insight into the school. Look for news sections, calendars, blogs, videos, etc. Many schools provide quite a bit of information online.
Check and see if a school is active on social media. If they are, you can probably find examples of fieldtrips or other school activities that your children may experience.
Hopefully this blog post provides some insights on selecting a school for your child. It is a big responsibility that will have a lifelong impact on your children.