"Good Schools"

I often hear questions from parents about finding a good school for their children.  Should I buy a home in this neighborhood?  Do the school ratings websites tell me what I need to know?  How can a parent tell the difference?

If you read my previous post, you know that "failing school" is a technical term that has little to do with the quality of the school.  The term "good school" though tends to be one used by the public.  I remember my father encouraging me to transfer to the high school near our new home, touting how excellent it was.  I made the move and later did find some key differences.  The new high school (Palo Alto High near Stanford University) seemed to have more really smart kids and definitely fancier cars in the parking lot.  The old high school (Peterson High in Sunnyvale) was more working class with a typical spread of academic talent.   When we talked about the Vietnam War at Paly, many students were articulate on the subject.  At Peterson, it seemed I was the only one interested.

Yet at Peterson, everyone showed up to class and at more progressive Paly, I quickly learned classes were optional.  I also found that the teachers at Peterson (a relatively new school) were harder working and more attentive.  Only one of my Paly teachers surpassed those at Peterson -- a particularly outstanding senior English teacher.  Of course, these judgments are based on one kid's experiences in the late sixties, hardly a scientific measure. 

So was Paly a better school?  I'm sure standardized test scores were higher and graduation and college entrance rates higher.  But I'd like school ratings to reflect actual efforts and accomplishments of the staff.  Yet this perception of "good schools" is typical.  When we moved to a nearby town during our children's school years, realtors and friends encouraged us to buy in a particular neighborhood where the schools were better.  We did and were happy with the schools but I don't know if they were better than others, only that more doctors' kids attended in the NW part of town.

If your idea of a good school is one where the families are prosperous, this system works.  As an educator though, I find it offensive.  Having spent my career in high poverty schools and district offices serving those schools, I am interested in how schools add to what students already bring to the table.  Are we delivering the best we can for every student?  My high school was rated "Outstanding" by the state of Oregon for test scores and graduation rates.  We worked hard to earn the rating but it's shallow and doesn't measure what should qualify a school as outstanding.

So what does make a truly good school?  There is research on effective schools and best practices.  The New 3R's emphasize Rigor, Relevance and Relationships, none of which we count in assessing school quality.  Here would be the qualities I would look for in a school and afterwards, some tips for parents.  You may have other priorities as well so feel free to add them.

Good Schools...
  • Hire excellent teachers
  • Put academics clearly ahead of all else, including sports
  • Emphasize Higher Order Thinking Skills, not rote learning
  • Use every minute allowed for instruction, teaching bell-to-bell and minimizing interruptions
  • Are continuously innovating, sometimes successfully and other times not.  Mistakes are okay.
  • Have professional educators who collaborate regularly and openly
  • Display all kinds of student work wherever they can
  • Communicate often and clearly with staff, parents, students and community, even when the news is bad
  • Ensure that every student is connected with at least one adult and with other students
  • Are non-authoritarian, seeking student, staff and parent input and honoring students as individuals
  • Build in opportunities to reflect on practice and performance
  • Have visible administrators, out in the school population not hidden away in their offices
  • Crunch data and share it regularly so everyone can celebrate strengths and work on weaknesses
  • Attend to state testing without over-emphasizing it
  • Have teachers who can identify the key concepts (10 or less) students need to know in every class they teach
  • Check for understanding at least every 15 minutes of every class
  • Address facility needs promptly and give energy to facility improvements
  • Treat students, parents and staff fairly regardless of perceived power, likability or visibility
  • Talk about learning a lot
  • Reach out to the community and welcome the community into the school
  • Find ways to offer field experiences where students apply specific learned skills and concepts outside of the school
  • Address issues like poor attendance, cheating, bullying or other obstacles directly and consistently (read how we addressed the problem of unengaged seniors here)
  • Create outdoor spaces for students and encourage their use
  • Feel good when you walk into them.  Lots of smiles and laughter.  Students and staff are polite and helpful to visitors.
  • Teach non-curricular skills like eye contact, shaking hands, greeting others
  • Care deeply about the kids no one else does
So how does a parent identify a good school?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Call the principal and ask directly about the school.  What are you proudest of?  What are you working on?  If you had an extra $100,000, how would you spend it?  If you had to cut $100,000, where would you cut?  How much time is devoted to preparing for and taking state tests?  Explain your latest school report card or AYP report. 
  • If your child is gifted, special education or has special interests or needs, ask how those are addressed.
  • Ask for a copy of the school newsletter.  What's included?  Does it include things parents need to know?
  • Visit the school in person.  What do you see?  Is there student work visible?  How are students behaving?  If a high school, are the hallways clear during classtime?  
  • Look around the building and grounds.  Are they well maintained or full of litter? 
  • Walk through the halls during classtime.  What is happening in classrooms?
  • Visit a classroom your child might attend.  What do you see and hear?  Is it challenging?  Is it organized?  Is the pace of instruction appropriate?  Does the teacher like the students?  Are lessons differentiated?
  • Read the school report cards and other evaluations of the school.
Good schools don't just happen in "good neighborhoods".  Good schools improve on what families already provide.  Poverty makes teaching more challenging.  But also much more interesting and rewarding.  A great teacher in a high poverty school has the best job on earth.