Monday, January 29, 2007

How to Choose a School

Today's PI article, Author urges educators, parents to foster passion, is a great reminder for parents as they are choosing schools during Seattle's open enrollment period that there are things more important than test scores. Rafe Esquith, author of Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire, says:

"Our schools have become obsessed with assessment," Esquith told a standing-room-only crowd Sunday at the Seattle Central Library. "You must consider the point of view of the child."

In an earlier thread, someone asked me about the WASL scores at Pathfinder. I honestly hadn't looked at them before, so I spent some time doing a little research. I found they were pretty much in line with other schools with similar student demographics (racial and income), but if I had been choosing a school based on test scores, I wouldn't have chosen Pathfinder. Nothing about the test scores indicates how truly wonderful the school is and how well it meets my children's needs.

Every child and family has different needs, so the criteria for choosing a school should differ as well. Everyone, however, can benefit from thinking about what is important for you and your child, and creating a list of things to observe during school tours. Use the list below as a starting point and modify it to meet your needs.

Teacher-Student interactions
Does the teacher appear to have high standards for all students? What kind of language does the teacher use when talking with students, both as a group and individually? Does the teacher single out students for praise or blame/shame? and if so, is it always the same students? How clear is the teacher about expectations for the students, both academically and behaviorally? Does the teacher share power/authority/decision-making with the students? Does the teacher let the students play the "expert" role occasionally? How does the teacher respond to student questions? Do students show respect and/or affection for the teacher?

Student-Student interactions
Are students given the chance to work in small groups? How do students treat each other? Does anything in the curricula or the school day structure provide students with the skills and time necessary to work on resolving conflict and improving interpersonal skills? Are there strong cliques or groups in the classroom? And if so, what does the teacher do to encourage students to cross groups and get to know other students.

Teacher-Teacher interactions
Is team-teaching a part of the school? Do teachers share information and learn from each other? Do teachers share information about students to make sure students' needs are met? Does the school have a clear educational focus/philosophy that is shared among teachers?

Is the curricula rigorous and relevant? How much flexibility do students have to explore particular areas of interest? Is the curricula differentiated so that all students are challenged? What kind of extra support is provided for students who are not meeting curricular standards and/or have different learning styles? Is meta-cognition (reflection on the learning process) a part of the curricula? Does the curricula emphasize skills transmission or critical thinking skills, or provide a balance of both?

Do the kids seem to be happy to be at school? What does the principal say about teachers? What do the teachers say about the principal and other school staff members? What kind of learning opportunities are provided for teachers and staff? Is there an active PTSA? And if so, how large and diverse? Is parent involvement in the classroom welcomed? Is parent involvement encouraged and supported for parents who are unable to be present during the school day?


Anonymous said...


While I agree with all of these criteria, and would certainly want these things for my own child, I think you may be asking parents to complete a difficult, if not impossible task.

Parents can look at and compare statistics easily from a home computer. The Seattle Times School Guide is filled with information about WASL scores and class sized and ethnic diversity. However, it doesn’t really touch any of the criteria on your list.
While all Seattle schools offer tours (I think), how well can you really judge these interactions in a 30 minute tour? While some elementary schools encourage prospective parents to come visit a classroom outside the tour schedule, not all do? And many middle and high schools, where there are more significant issues with achievement gaps and inequity in schools, don’t offer this at all.

In addition, it is a takes a huge amount of time during the work day to do this type of observation. I think that the majority of parents believe their kids are worth this, but I’m not sure that their bosses do.

So, how should a parent choose a school? I think most rely on word of mouth and talking to friends and neighbors. Interestingly, when I lived in the North end, both Whittier and West Woodland were schools that I heard great things about, however on this blog I have heard another side of the story.


Anonymous said...

How to choose a school -

Beth, I agree that as parents we need to look at all aspects of a school not just the WASL scores. Our daughter is entering Kindergarten this fall, and I toured many schools. I wanted to meet the principles, the teachers, I wanted to get a feel for the school and the community as a whole. Yes, while I agree that this takes time and some employers may not be understanding. It is our responsibility as parents to see that our chidren are getting the best education and to ensure that the school community offers a safe and welcoming environment, sort of a second home. I wish people would stand up to their employers and stop being so afraid to say " I need a flexible schedule to tour some schools for my child"..If your employer is not understand and you do not feel that he/she is not supportive...well I advise you to find an employer that is. Looking on a computer and trying to get feel for a school, is okay if you are just into statistics. You can get a feel about a school in 30 minutes, and then there are times it just happens instantly. I have had parents tell me how wonderful a school is and during the school tour I get a completely opposite feeling. Personally if you are basing your assessment of a school soley on others oppinions an something you read on the computer..you are missing the big picture and possibly placing your child in a school community that just isn't the right fit. Sorry Gabrielle but I totally disagree with your approach.

Anonymous said...

There I go again...Principals, not principles :)