How To Evaluate Your Child's School

We all know that providing a challenging and enriching educational environment for our children is one of our most important responsibilities. But how do we know what makes a good school?

Let’s start with a quick quiz. Which of these is correct?

(a) Standardized test scores are the only real measure of a school’s performance.

(b) It’s not necessary for you to check out what your child should be learning at each grade level.

(c) Your local high school has nothing to do with your child’s elementary school.

If you answered yes to any of these, you need to read on.

Whether you’re looking for a new school or just want to check out your current school, here are 10 key areas to focus on:

A good principal sets the tone for a school, and an ineffective one can poison the atmosphere and impede the school’s ability to function. Spend at least 30 minutes talking with the principal, and ask to see the district-mandated standards for each grade level. The principal should be able to articulate a clear vision for every grade level, says Terry Nagel, executive editor of Talk to other parents and teachers about their impressions of the principal as well.

Atmosphere: At a good school, children feel as if they belong. As you tour the school, check out the mood. Are the walls cheerfully decorated? Is student artwork displayed? Are the teachers friendly? Is this a place where you would want your child to be? Watch to see how the principal interacts with the students. Does she know them by name? On the other hand, do you hear the students using profanity with each other, unchecked by the staff? Or, if you happen to be there at 3 p.m., do you notice the teachers all stampeding out of the building? Neither of these is a good sign.

Excellent Teaching: What do you see in the classroom? Are all the students engaged, and is the classroom atmosphere lively? Are there pockets of children who appear bored? Does the teacher seem excited about the subject matter? Teaching methods are an important element of a school’s educational philosophy and you may want to do some research (see our Resources) in advance to help you know what teaching philosophy will best match your child’s learning style and your family’s values.

Educational Achievement: Under the “No Child Left Behind” legislation passed in January 2002, public schools are required to post a school report card on their Web site, covering all aspects of the school, including test scores. But be aware, cautions Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner: “High test scores are great if they are a dividend of good teaching and serious learning – not if they are a product of teaching to the test.” He urges parents to check out multiple measures, such as student work and examinations, so that they can tell whether schools encourage deep understanding of subject matter.

High Expectations: Are there accelerated classes? Gifted student services? Are these available to all students who want them, not just for those who have high grades? Look for signs of enrichment outside the classrooms. These might include student musicals, publications, athletic contests, field trips to local sources of learning or environmental education. A school with high expectations seeks to use every minute of their students’ time. Check to see if tutoring is available at lunch or after school, and whether before-school classes are offered to children with special learning requirements.

A Program for Discipline and Safety: If you’re comfortable living in your neighborhood, then the neighborhood school will probably be safe enough for you. Still, you need reassurance that your child is disciplined and safe both inside and outside the classroom. Make sure that you get details about how the school ensures the physical safety of its students, at recess, and when they arrive and leave school. And check out the school’s code of behavior to see how discipline problems are handled: What happens to your child if she breaks a rule?

Active Parents: Never enroll your child in a school without speaking to at least two parents of children already enrolled there, including at least one PTA officer. If you can’t find such a person, or if there is no active PTA, this is not a good sign. “A large part of a good school is a very active and involved parent community,” Terry Nagel says. “If you see evidence that parents are actively volunteering in the school, present on campus and helping in meaningful ways, that’s a very strong indicator of a healthy school.”

An Excellent Future: The local high school influences the entire school system. Of course, the middle school is important too, but the key grades are 10, 11 and 12. At this point, even well-educated parents lose the ability to make up for what the school lacks. Find out if the local high school has advanced placement courses, or if it provides dual enrollment in local college courses. Above all, the elementary school principal should be knowledgeable about and proud of his students’ futures.

A Well-Stocked and Well-Used Library: Are there enough books and computer terminals? How many students are using them? A principal may proudly boast of the number of computers the school owns, but that means nothing if they aren’t turned on. Do students choose to visit the library in their free time? Find out what kinds of library resources are available to students. How is technology used to support teaching and learning at this school? How much technology is integrated into the curriculum, and how much computer training are teachers required to undergo?

Good Communication: An excellent school goes out of its way to let parents know how their child is doing and, just as important, what it expects from its students. Find out what the school will do if your child falls behind, or has a problem. What are the lines of communication? At many elementary schools, it is customary for the principal to write a weekly newsletter for parents to keep them up-to-date on all kinds of issues.

NEXT STEPS: Go to What to Do With What You Learn

See also Resources: Organizations, Web links and books.