“That’s a really good school,” is a sentence I have heard so frequently, I can hardly count the number of times I’ve heard it uttered. For years, I took that statement at face value from the person who verbalized it, but as I progressed in my K-12 teaching career and as I learned through my studies en route to my PhD before ultimately visiting countless schools as a university professor, that statement began to give me pause. Now I’m too polite to put someone on the spot, but in my head I always said to myself, “What makes it a good school?” So what I have taken to is asking friends and family members alike, outside of the context of that statement, what do they think makes a good school? To my surprise, that question left most of them stumped, outside of a few responses like, “I heard it from so and so” or “Everyone knows it is.”
This experience brought me to the realization that not many know exactly what constitutes a good school or for that matter, what makes a good education. By no means do I think that people are ignorant of good schooling, but generally, they don’t necessarily have a lens formulated by extensive study, research, instructional coaching, curriculum writing, and teaching to be able to label the elements of a good education. I am in the fortunate position to have that lens and I think it is important that all parents know what they should look for when they are evaluating their child’s education. I want to do that in today’s blog post.
In the ten plus years I have been in teacher education, my students hear me talk about what is right and what is wrong with schools and ultimately they ask, “What do you look for in a school for your kids?” (I have a fifth grader and a second grader). My answer is always the same, “I look for two things: a school with money and most importantly, I look at the experience of my child.” I want to unpack those two entities to provide more clarity about what I mean and why they’re important.
In a 2016 study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the researchers found that the achievement gap (the gap in standardized test scores between different groups of kids based on demographics) between rich and poor kids is twice as large as the gap between Black and White students. In other words, poor kids do significantly worse on standardized tests than more affluent kids. This information comes with two caveats. The first is that standardized test scores are a very limited measure of intellectual ability (I will be exploring this in much more detail in a future post). The second is that just because someone is poor, does not mean they are doomed to poor academic performance. Rather, it does illustrate that poor kids go to poor schools who lack money to provide many essential supplies and experiences kids in more affluent schools receive, and that effects their education.
After spending the entirety of my teaching career in Title I schools (schools with at least 50% of students on free and reduced lunch) and moving to Ohio, my children both attend a more affluent school district. The differences are stark. In my experiences in poor schools, we lacked things like class sets of textbooks, projectors, ability to have field trips, books that weren’t ripped or missing pages, the ability to make copies whenever we wanted, class sets of computers, and so much more including a lack of the most basic supplies (most teacher buy them for their kids and get a $200 tax break on income taxes. Woohoo!). My children, thankfully, attend schools that regularly take field trips to give them authentic learning experience, have an abundance of computers, have the budget to pay top dollar for the best teachers, have a dearth of new books, among many wonderful things. I don’t say that to shame anyone who has worked hard to put their kids in affluent schools, I only say that to point out the stark difference. There are many studies that support the idea that more money equals better education but one need not look any further than the state of Massachusetts, who since 1993 has utilized an equal funding formula where school districts across the state receive an equal amount of per pupil funding, regardless of zip code. Currently, Massachusetts is considered widely to have one of the best educational systems in the world, boasts the highest number of residents with a college degree, and has, depending on whom you read, one of the highest median income levels in the United States. Money matters in education and as a parent, it is important to realize that more money means more opportunity for your child.
The Child’s Experience
While money is close, there is nothing more important to a child’s education than the kinds of experiences they have everyday when they go to school. Envision for a moment the archetypal picture of a classroom – desks in rows, children sitting quietly and obediently, working on worksheets as the teacher sits perched at her or his desk throwing up an occasional “shhh” sign with an index finger. That is the opposite of what you want for your child. For years I have shared with teachers that a well-managed classroom, is not a silent classroom. A great classroom possesses the buzz of learning, not loud, off-task talking or yelling, but a sound of collaboration, question asking, probing, and yes, even occasional laughter.
The great educational philosopher and father of progressive education John Dewey wrote at length about and even started a school focused on placing kids at the center of the learning (Barack Obama’s kids went this school in Chicago). This approach is vastly different than one where the teacher is the knower and the children receivers of that knowledge who are expected to regurgitate it in some form or another. Great education happens when kids are given space to grapple with ideas, manipulate concepts, ask question, struggle a little, and create meaning from the concepts learned. Great teachers create spaces where kids can have meaningful experiences that are challenging, even enjoyable (a crazy notion, I know), and force them to think critically. A great education isn’t rote memorization of fact, but rather it requires kids to synthesize ideas, to create using what they learned, to evaluate concepts, and to apply content in new and authentic ways. A great education isn’t true/false or multiple-choice tests, but rather one where kids create authentic products applying the knowledge gained. Kids receiving a great education can tell you why what they are learning matters and they can apply concepts outside of a traditional test. Interestingly, none of these critical ideas are measured on standardized tests, which comprise a large portion of how school report cards are measured, but they are the things that make great thinkers and empower future adults and…it doesn’t require you or the school to have money. Trust me, I did it as a teacher in poor schools and I have seen it across this country. Experience matters.
So What Does that Mean for My Child and Me?
Remember that generally, when people say that a school is a good one, they likely don’t really know that. I have seen many affluent schools that espoused to the “sit and get” approach, complete with kids sitting quietly in rows, filling out worksheets copied from some workbook. I have also seen many poor schools where kids are actively engaged in their learning, collaborating, asking meaningful questions, and being challenged academically. So what should you do with this information? Go visit your child’s classroom, talk to the teacher about what kinds of experiences your child will have or is having, talk to the principal about what experiences your child will have, and let them know what you want. I have always believed that if schools are the business, teachers are the business people, and parents/students are the clients. If you don’t like what you see, talk to the teacher and express what you would like to see. Talk to the principal or go to a school board meeting to voice your opinion. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll advocate on your behalf, but don’t ignore the kind of experience your child is having. Bored children are more likely to check out and ultimately drop out. Get active in your child’s educational experience and if you do, you will be able to say why your child’s school is or is not a good school. Most importantly, you will be able to take comfort in the fact that your child is getting a good education.