Sunday, August 29, 2010

Good schools

As promised in my last post, here is what I think are the best ways for individuals to find a good school or make sure the one they or their children are in is a good school.  Too often people are relying on the various rankings to decide a school when those rankings tell only a small part of the story as I alluded to in my last post as well as a post a few months ago when my high school was named as a "best school" in a high-profile national report.  Another key element to understand is that even if a school is "awesome" by every measure, it still may not be the best school for you or your child depending on what is available at other schools or unique features that may be perfect for you or your child.  I'm going to list the criteria I think are most important.  Some of these I got from my graduate classes where we discussed what makes a good school and watched a video of things to look for.

The first thing to look for is the teacher.  Either from your own interactions or the interactions your child has with them, ask questions.  Too often, students and parents alike cite "being nice" as a reason a teacher is good.  While being "nice" is definitely a great attribute, it is meaningless if the teacher doesn't have a good grasp on the subject and is teaching a bunch of fluff or making things too easy.  There is a fine line between making something learnable and making something easy.  On the flip side, just because a teacher has an advanced degree does not mean he or she is a good teacher.  I think everyone has had a teacher or professor who is incredibly knowledgeable and smart in their field but can't for the life of them bring their vast knowledge to the level of those of us who know far less.  This is why the state showing us what percentage of teachers in a school or district have a masters degree or above can only go so far.  Having that degree is no guarantee that the teacher is a good teacher or that he/she has created a safe environment in the classroom.  Look at the work the teacher gives: is it challenging and worthwhile or just busywork?  Good teachers give students work to help them grow and learn; work has a direct purpose.  When tests are given, find out what is being tested.  Are students being challenged to think (higher level) or to just regurgitate memorized answers (lower level)?  There is a huge difference between memorizing and critical thinking.  A good teacher will also help students who don't do well on tests and recognize that a student doing poorly on a test (especially if a lot of students do poorly) is just as much a reflection on their teaching as it is their student's comprehension levels.  Bad teachers use tests as weapons; they punish students with them and solely blame the student for his/her failure on the test (even if an entire class does badly on a test).  Next, do students have opportunities to develop and express their own creativity?  A good teacher understands that developing creativity is a must and will give students options to achieve that; it does not mean students do "whatever they want" but instead are given choices within certain bounds.  Does the teacher do what they can to facilitate and encourage outside learning or are they "teaching to the test"?  A good teacher inspires while a bad teacher bores or even instills fear.  Another great thing for parents to do is contact the teacher, which can usually be done with e-mail.  A good teacher will be THRILLED that you are taking interest in your child's education and will want to know what he/she can do more to help.

The next thing to look for is the environment.  Part of that comes from the way the teacher interacts with students, which I already covered.  Students should feel safe not only with the teacher, but also with other students.  A good teacher is going to do all he/she can to create a safe environment, which includes confronting and eliminating bullying and other like elements.  He/she will also treat students with respect so they are comfortable talking to the teacher.  A bad teacher will either make a student fear them or even the opposite extreme just be their friend as opposed to being their teacher and guide.  Along with that, look at the facilities.  Be careful not to fall into the trap that good facilities (particularly new facilities) = good school.  Facilities, and the technology they may or may not have, are tools.  If used properly, they can greatly enhance the learning experience.   But like any tool they can be misused or even ignored.  On top of that, if a building has all the bells and whistles, but lacks good teachers and/or a good environment, it doesn't really matter much does it?  That said, facilities that are in very poor shape can be telling too.  And I'm talking about dangerously out of date, run down, etc., not simply older or well-worn.  Facilities that are in horrible shape can often be an outward sign of a community that does not care about its schools.  My advice is to look at them yourself.  Don't be quick to judge a book by its cover, though.  Plenty of schools have fully functional facilities that are not flashy and new; they don't "wow" you per se, but they easily get the job done.  And there are plenty of great learning environments and teachers that do not involve heavy use of technology.

The last main element to look for is curriculum.  What educational options and opportunities are available to students at the school?  A good school will recognize the diversity of learning and offer many different levels of classes and have tools and options to help students learn in many ways and at many speeds.  This includes technology, but also specialists and class options for students who may be "slower" or "gifted" as well as outside opportunities through agreements and programs.  In other words, the school doesn't have a one-size-fits-all curriculum.  This is especially critical at the middle school and high school levels where many more class offerings can be offered and students are more free to build their own schedule and truly prepare for life in the "real world".  At a high school, a course catalog is usually available for students or upon request from the community and many have them online already.  Look at not only what courses are available, but their  descriptions too.  Simply having a lot of classes doesn't mean they are worth your or your child's time at all.  This is where a school may not do well on standardized "rankings" but still be a great school specifically for you or your child, especially if there is a special need involved.  And I personally think there is nothing wrong with asking to meet with teachers and administrators or contacting them through phone or e-mail to ask them curriculum-specific questions or any questions for that matter.  If they are interested in having a good school, they will be happy to answer your question(s) and will greatly value your involvement.  But be careful; like anything, there is a difference between being an involved and supportive parent and being a controlling and over-bearing parent.  

Hopefully this can be helpful for people, especially parents.  With all the confusion and, in my opinion, misleading information that exists about schools and how good or bad they are, it's important that we educate ourselves and don't simply rely on an outsider's view of the school or assume it's definitive.  Outside views and rankings can be great supplemental materials, but there is no ranking or evaluation system I am aware of that gives a true measure of how good a school is.  They all measure certain aspects of a school or district, which is why some schools do very well on certain evaluations but not on others.  It's all dependent on what is being measured and how.

No comments: