When we are investigating a school for our children, there are so many aspects to consider that it can become overwhelming. Often, parents aren’t sure what to say or do, so they turn to outside sources to guide them on their journey. The problem with that is that there are endless organizations and people that will tell you how to evaluate a school, and a lot of them are giving you bad advice.
So why take my advice? I’m speaking from my experience as a teacher, administrator, principal, published author with two masters degrees in Education, and mother of two children with their own unique set of needs. Based on those experiences, here’s a list of the wrong areas to focus on:
Student-Teacher Ratio (and the games schools play to fix these numbers)
Schools are only required to report attendance numbers during certain times of the year, and these “FTE windows” are the only time that attendance is truly captured. Now, it would be super sketchy if a school moved students around for that week, just to move them back once a count was taken. I’ve seen it in 75% of the organizations in which I have been a part. So not only are our ratios often inaccurate, they’re also not as predictive of education quality as you might think. The fact is that a highly effective teacher can teach just as well with 22 students as s/he can with 18. The main exception here is kindergarten (because they don’t know how to sit down without guidance) and classrooms with children who have special needs. Plus, smaller class sizes doesn’t necessarily equal more individualized attention. I hate to break it to you, but, typically, teachers spend the most amount of time on students who have behavior concerns (because they’re a distraction), or who are struggling academically (because that’s their FCAT score)- regardless of how many are in their classrooms.
Now that you have no illusions about schools telling the truth, don’t believe everything you hear regarding discipline. Just because a school hasn’t reported a number in a suspension or expulsion doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. I once worked at a school where after a physical assault, the administration called the mother to “Just come get him” because he couldn’t be here anymore. Schools want to look good, and although it’s unethical, they can break the behavioral policies they’ve put into place more than the students do.
So you’ve probably heard a rule about 10 minutes per night per grade level. Meh. The bottom line is that teachers should be giving homework at strategic places to reinforce knowledge. Instead of emphasising the amount of homework, we should be assessing the quality of the homework. Homework should be meaningful and not too repetitious. If a student has proven mastery, it does him or her no good to “master it” 45 more times. This is an issue that should be taken up with an individual teacher once a parent has determined homework isn’t appropriate. Don’t rule out a whole school for this! See our upcoming blog for more information on homework.
Data and Test Scores
A strong school grade might mean they’re great -- or it might mean they’re teaching to a test. Scores should mean something, but don’t let them mean everything. There are incredible teachers doing miraculous things for amazing students in C schools. Likewise, I once taught with a teacher in a B school who told our students they should be, “Put in a box and sent back to Africa”. A school grade isn’t everything.
Technology for Technology's Sake
I once worked at a school that touted two 3D printers to any parent and community member that would listen. I’m pretty sure they’re still in the boxes.
Physical Representations of Safety (i.e. Cameras and Fences)
School safety is the most important thing. I completely understand our desire to have areas fenced in and security cameras present, and any security measure in place is a good one. But having cameras and fences and even buzzed entry doesn’t mean schools are safe. Many nefarious people have been buzzed right in because no one responds, “I’m here to hurt people”. Instead, I recommend you look for more likely safety concerns. Are the children being loved and cared for instead of yelled at and talked down to? Are there out-of-control classrooms or unrealistic academic expectations and pressures? Does the school practice required drills? Are the lunchroom and recess areas closely supervised? Do they have an emergency plan in place that includes protocols for the event of a 911 emergency?
Come back next week for part 2 of our 4 part series. Next week we will explore what we should be looking at when evaluating a school for our children.