BY BRYAN C. HASSEL, PH.D. & EMILY AYSCUE HASSEL JAN 2017
It’s school decision time again in Central Georgia. If you are like most parents, you may be feeling frantic and befuddled, or even ready to use the dartboard approach. Big surprise: Every school claims to be “great!” Relying completely on schools’ claims and friends’ decisions can mislead even well-intentioned parents. So, how can you filter out the flash and make the right choice?
Luckily, there are a small number of questions every parent can ask to identify the best school for each child. These questions work whether you are choosing a first school or considering a switch. They are based on the highest quality, unbiased education research, and apply to schools of all types (public, private, religious, secular, etc.).
Questions 1–4 are the critical factors that most directly affect individual children’s learning experiences. Add to that a few targeted questions about your child’s and family’s particular needs and values (Question 5 gets you started), and you will be ready to choose the best school that fits your unique family and child. Just keep the little mantra “Great School, Great Fit” in mind to stay on track.
Question 1: Do you expect all students to meet tough, grade-level standards?
LOOK FOR: Would grade-level work challenge your child? If not, see Question 2. If so, look for a school that focuses relentlessly on making sure every child masters core subjects. Don’t take the school’s word for it. Look for a high percentage of kids like yours meeting grade-level standards. Scores for children similar to your child in previous performance, parent income, race, and gender are far more accurate predictors of what your child will learn than overall school scores. See the box for information about how to find test results.
AVOID: Schools that make excuses for kids who are behind academically or are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Also avoid schools that pretend none of their students struggle. Even selective schools and ones with mostly well-educated parents have more than a few students who face learning challenges at some point. You’ll want to know in advance how the school will respond.
Question 2: Do you raise goals for individual students beyond grade level?
LOOK FOR: All-you-can-eat learning, no limits for kids ready to learn more. Traditional percent-at-grade-level scores alone don’t tell you much if your child could learn beyond grade level. Seek schools with many kids scoring at the top: for example, compare schools on the percentage of kids scoring at the highest level in the Georgia CRCT exams. Better yet, if the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) is offered in the school, look for schools with many kids scoring in the 90th percentile and up. Look for schools where all children, including those already ahead, experience large “gains” or “growth” during the school year.
AVOID: Schools that say, “Our grade level work is tough enough for all students,” and schools where everyone makes grade level, but few kids scores far above grade level.
Why is this important? Both academically bright children and motivated “typical” kids miss out in schools that limit instruction to grade-level difficulty. One parent sought our reassurance, when her bright son Ned, was not making progress in a school that had touted itself as academically superior. The school’s one-size-fits-all grade-level standards were somewhat above the norm, but well below Ned’s current learning level. The impact was not just boredom. Ned had intense feelings of being “different” socially. Tired of borrowing homework from a neighborhood child attending another school, his parents switched Ned to the neighbor’s school. Ned not only learned more academically; he formed strong, fast friendships.
Question 3: How do you monitor an individual student’s progress?
LOOK FOR: Weekly monitoring of your child’s learning progress is ideal and not at all unrealistic in a school organized to ensure that every child learns. School staff should be able to explain to you in plain language how this is done. Small group or one-on-one contact between children and the lead teacher is almost always necessary for a school to implement effective, frequent monitoring.
AVOID: Schools using end-of-semester or end-of-grade tests only. Also avoid schools that say, “We don’t need to monitor our kids.” Every school has students who need extra help and others who are ready to move at a faster pace. A school cannot detect a child’s changing learning needs if it does not monitor progress frequently during the year.
Question 4: Do teachers adapt methods to ensure each child learns (and loves learning)?
LOOK FOR: Schools where every teacher is expected and trained to reach every child by addressing individual kids’ interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Other school staff (like resource teachers and gifted specialists) should play a clear, consistent role to help with both monitoring and adapting to children’s needs. Otherwise, the best teachers will burn out and leave, and less capable teachers will stick to a one-size-fits-all routine. Other parents should be able to give you examples of how teachers have adjusted instruction to meet their children’s needs.
AVOID: Schools that say, “We know the one best way to teach all children.” Research has repeatedly disproven this outdated notion. Also avoid schools that say it is “up to each teacher to decide whether and how to adjust instruction.” You can be sure that your child will experience an enormous teacher-by-teacher quality rollercoaster in a school like this.
Question 5: Does the school fit your other top child and family needs and values?
This is the most familiar question that many a parent has pondered in the past without help to find accurate answers. While research shows that every child benefits academically from a great school (which Questions 1–4 address), each child and family also has a unique set of other must-have school needs and values.
It’s not always easy to choose the best-fit school. Many parents get it right only after their children suffer for several grades. One parent lamented to us the years that her child Annie attended a school popular among friends, one where hands-on activities were the instructional bread and butter. A disengaged Annie stood around watching other children most of the day, rather than engaging in school work and play. Her teachers were baffled, even irritated, by Annie’s aloofness. When testing revealed that Annie learned best in a more traditional look and listen environment, her parents switched her to a school with that approach. Annie immediately thrived and became engaged and successful in learning and social life.
Today, parents can make wiser choices earlier. Making a great match early on has many benefits, including a happy, successful child who loves school. A great match also preserves precious down time for your child and family outside of school hours.
Of course, not every parent will find a school that is perfect in quality and fit. But parents who know what their children and families most need from a school and who understand what their chosen schools do not offer are in the best position to make up for school weaknesses at home, with tutoring and through other activities. You also can help improve your child’s school in all the right ways once you know its quality and can help fit your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
Your child will spend about 1200 hours each year in school, 16,000 hours from grades K–12. The time you spend making a good choice and getting to know the school you choose is well-spent. The five questions above are a good place to start and will help you focus on the highest quality schools that best fit your needs.#
Bryan C. Hassel, Ph.D. (Rhodes Scholar), and Emily Ayscue Hassel are nationally recognized education experts and co-authors of the book Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child’s School with Confidence. For more information, please visit PickyParent.com.