How to know when you are in a good school and how to choose a new one when you are not
Leadership: Look for strong leadership from the school board and superintendant to the student council. How are decisions made? When it comes to the decision making, is it the principal alone, or are teachers, parents, and students at the table? This will become apparent when you ask about recent decisions on budgets, scheduling, and curriculum, and how those decisions were determined. Be cautious of accountability teams, councils, and parent groups that have authority in name only. Great schools look for every opportunity to promote leadership. This means that parents and students are part of the interview and selection process for hiring teachers. PTOs and PTAs not only raise school money but help decide how to spend it. Teachers are heard, honored, and supported. Students are treated as problem solvers and are included in addressing challenges from school discipline to selecting clubs, and enrichment programs will be offered after school.
Culture: A trained eye can assess the culture of a school by walking the halls. Things to look for: Are you welcomed by the office staff? Are the messages on the walls inspiring and empowering? Is there evidence of learning everywhere? Are the expressions on the faces of students and teachers animated and engaged? Do you see parent and citizen volunteers supporting children's learning? Are the classrooms rich with resources - books, music, craft materials, science opportunities, real world learning challenges and excitement? Learning can look like action, color and collaboration but it is also restful and contemplative. Are students demonstrating their learning in a variety of different ways? Do they exhibit interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm? Find out how much time children are provided to eat lunch and play outside at recess. Get a school menu. Make sure that art, music, and PE are offered regularly.
Diversity: Denver's East High School motto is "Diversity is our strength." Norm Augustine, Don Cheadle, Sidney Sheldon are all graduates of East. One of the topics that never appear on state standards or district curriculums is 'relationships.' Yet our ability to maintain healthy productive relationships is central to our effectiveness personally and professionally. While it is important to master the 3 R's, some of the most important lessons your child is gaining is how to relate, communicate, and collaborate with other people. A good education is not limited to career building but seeks to develop each individual student as citizens, parents, spouses, friends, and neighbors. A wide range of economic, cultural, and social diversity in your school ensures opportunities for your child to grow and stretch in their understanding of others. Every day of their lives they will be connecting with different types of people. Great schools recognize this and seek to attract and celebrate a diverse body of students, teachers, and administrators. Great educators attend to a child's social and emotional growth as well as to their intellectual development.
Accountability: The biggest mistake parents often make in selecting a school is associating high test scores with school quality. Scores such as the Colorado Student Assessment Program, CSAP, have no correlation to a student's success after high-school. In fact linear, singular types of multiple questions are the opposite of the critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and collaborative skills required in the real world. Schools that have high test scores often do so because they have narrowed the curriculum and eliminated subjects and concepts that aren't measured on state tests. As a literacy coach in an elementary school in Highlands Ranch, I watched first-hand how science and social studies were squeezed out in order to spend more time on drilling and test preparation for reading and mathematics. The number one correlating factor to high test scores is income. So take care not to confuse high test scores with quality teachers, purposeful curriculum, and high expectations. Schools that rely on a variety of success indicators will have a more rounded and relevant approach to teaching and learning.
Make joy central to your decision making when it comes to choosing your child's school. They have very short childhoods. If they are happy in school, they will not only learn more but they will create positive associations with education and grow to love learning throughout their lives.
…More on these blog posts:
A Principals - Principles by Richard Lakin
Questions to ask school administrators and teachers
Important News Developments:
Diane Ravitch on Race to the Top
A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government’s Good Intentions
On education policy, Obama is like Bush
I'm in the process of scheduling a community meeting with Senator Udall regarding the re-authorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act. Please consider joining this important conversation.
Request for volunteers:
Anthony Dallman-Jones and other important education leaders have joined with me to help develop a national strategy. We are looking for a volunteer or three to help gather contact information and research partnering organizations. Most of the work can be done from home in just a few hours a week. Is this something that you can help? Contact
Featured Education Leader, Susan Ohanian:
Susan Ohanian, a longtime New York and New Jersey teacher of grades one through college, now lives in Vermont. She is a Fellow at the Education Policy Research Unit, Arizona State University/University of Colorado.
Susan’s Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum chronicles her years working with disaffected 7th and 8th graders. She feels blessed to have encountered one fruit of her labor years later on a Saturday morning at the Boston Book Fair—when a tall African-American man came up and handed her his business card, saying, “You taught me to love books.” No matter what else happens, there is great satisfaction in knowing that one has taught a 7th grader labeled "difficult," who grew up to be a man who finds it worth his while to spend a Saturday morning at the Boston Book Fair.
Recipient of numerous writing awards, Susan’s more than 300 articles have appeared in publications ranging from The Atlantic, Nation, Washington Monthly, USA Today, and Parents to Phi Delta Kappan, Language Arts, and Education Week. Her article appearing in the September 2010 Extra! a publication of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) is titled "'Race to the Top' and the Bill Gates Connection."
The fight against standards and testing is not new to Susan. In her popular One Size Fits Few:The Folly of Educational Standards, she coined the term "Standardisto." Writing on both on education policy and curriculum, Susan’s 25 books include When Childhood Collides with NCLB (VSSE 2008), Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (Heinemann 2004) What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten (McGraw-Hill 2002); One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards (Heinemann 1999); The Great Word Catalogue: FUNdamental Activities for Building Vocabulary (Heinemann 2002); ); Day-by-Day Math (Math Solutions 2000); Who’s In Charge? A Teacher Speaks Her Mind (Boynton/Cook 1994).
After the passage of NCLB in 2008, Susan established the website: http://www.susanohanian.org in opposition, reflecting the leadership role she has taken in the resistance movement against high stakes standards and testing. The website received the National Council of Teachers of English Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. Susan is also the recipient of the Kenneth Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award, College of Education, University of Arizona, the John Dewey Award from the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, and The Helen Oakes Citizen Service to Education Lecture and Award from the College of Education at Temple University.