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What to Look for in a Good School

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2003

How should we choose schools for our children?

With the possible exception of religion, food and television programming, no selection is more important. Yet we often make the choice blindfolded, as if we were playing pin the tail on the donkey. We wonder years later if a different school might have produced a different kid.

The staff of washingtonpost.com, led by database editor Hal Straus, have spent two years gathering and organizing information to help Washington area parents select the best public schools for their children. Their school survey did something unique -- it asked the same questions of educators in all local jurisdictions, so parents could make comparisons without wading through the Web sites of this area's two states and the District, which often present data in very different ways. Only Alexandria declined to participate in the survey.

With the launch of the School Guide, washingtonpost.com has asked me to discuss the kind of information the Web site is providing and how it can best be used.

In a February column, I asked readers which factors they thought were most important in selecting a good school. The result was an e-mail avalanche. Most of the messages were astute, comprehensive and, in many ways, surprising. I read and thought about them, added my own impressions, and produced this list of the top 10 factors in school selection, with special attention to the data to be found on our new School Guide. Here are my favorite factors in roughly descending order of importance:

1. GUT CHECK. Consider your emotional reaction to each school, without thinking too much about the reasons you feel that way. If there is one place you really like, then give it a try, no matter what your neighbors or your mother or the School Guide or even I say. (If it is a high school, however, I would give great weight to what your child says.)

2. THE PERSON IN CHARGE. Spend at least 30 minutes with the principal or the headmaster or the director, whoever is in charge. Ask that person about her educational philosophy, experience and future plans. And if she cannot give you 30 minutes, beware.

3. TEACHERS. The School Guide has two important measures of the teaching quality: the percentage of instructors who are new to the profession and the teacher absentee rate. High scores here are bad, and if a school is above average in either respect, you should ask why. Some schools also report the percentage of teachers who are credentialed to teach their subjects, but in this area, that rarely yields much useful information. It is much more important to get from the principal a detailed account of the education and experience of the person who is going to be teaching your child.

4. TEST SCORES. As parents and former students ourselves, we feel that tests are not everything. But the e-mails I received supported my view that standardized assessments are still a valuable measure of a school's standards. The School Guide provides many ways to look at the scores, all of which should help your decision-making.

5. OTHER PARENTS. It is important to speak to at least two parents who already have children in the school. It would be best if at least one of them was a PTA officer or active in some other way. washingtonpost.com's parent participation rate for elementary and middle schools is a useful indicator of a school's quality, although there are some excellent schools in low-income neighborhoods that do not have many parents coming to meetings.

6. CHALLENGE. Regular readers of my column will wrinkle their noses at this, knowing how obsessed I am with the subject. But the data is on my side. The National Assessment of Education Progress, the UCLA survey of incoming college freshmen, college completion data and various time-management studies all show that U.S. schools do not ask enough of most of their students. Level of challenge is hard to discern in elementary schools, except by talking to the principal and analyzing test scores, but the School Guide has three excellent measures of the demands in upper grades — the algebra completion rate for middle schools, and the Challenge Index and physics completion rate for high schools.

7. DIVERSITY. I was surprised at how many parents wanted to know the ethnic character of a school's student body. In the past, this might have indicated a sad desire to avoid race mixing. But the people who e-mailed me made it clear they want their children to go to schools with MORE, not fewer, children of ethnicities other than their own. That is important to me, too, because I think it encourages attitudes in children that are vital to the future of the planet.

8. EXTRACURRICULARS. Here again, your e-mails set me straight. I had not included after-school or out-of-class activities in my initial list in the February column, but many parents wrote to say they are essential. Their messages reminded me of my own school experiences, and those of my children, and I put extracurriculars on this list. I am not talking, of course, about how good the football team is or how many awards the orchestra has won, but how much of a chance your child has to participate in an activity he or she loves. The School Guide has lists of after-school programs for elementary and middle schools, after-school athletics and intramurals for middle schools and varsity sports for high schools.

9. TIME. You should not judge a school by the length of its day but by whether it provides extra time for students who need it and also sufficient time for teachers to prepare their lessons. Ask the principal and other parents about the availability of tutoring and extra learning sessions after school or on Saturdays. Ask how much time is built into the week for teachers to confer with each other about what effect they are having and how they could do better.

10. BAD STUFF. I prefer to focus on positive measures, but the School Guide has three important ratings of a school's failure to engage its students in the learning process. They are the student absentee rate and the student out-of-school suspension rate, as well as the student drop-out rate for high schools.

There were a few other suggestions that did not make the top 10, but I think merit consideration. Joe Hawkins, of Montgomery County, said you should make sure that key school staffers have their e-mail addresses on the school Web site and that it has been recently updated. Many parents wanted information on programs for students with special needs, both those with disabilities and those ready for acceleration in math or languages. The School Guide does this in part, with gifted class participation rates. Dick Reed, of Fairfax County, made the remarkable suggestion of a facility usage rate — the school's enrollment divided by its designed capacity — so you could tell how overcrowded or undercrowded it is.

Several parents said they wanted to know the income levels of a school's parents (such as the percent of low-income students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — information that the School Guide provides). I think that is less important than a factor David A. Malakoff, of Alexandria, suggested: Does a school have enough high-performing students, perhaps at least 10 percent to 20 percent of the student body, to provide a motivating peer group for my child?

Many parents also would like us to try to describe what kind of curriculum the school offers. That is a tricky one, since the language educators use to describe what they are doing is often impenetrable and those of us who try to translate it into English are often accused of ignoring the depth and subtleties of each approach. The School Guide tries to help with a list of AP classes for each high school. I also am heartened by the number of parents who said they liked the idea of customer reviews, like those you find on Amazon.com, so that people already at the school could give us their impressions. washingtonpost.com is not ready to do this yet, but they are looking into it.

This Web site's efforts to help parents make choices will not end with this new data. We plan to go back to the schools for more information and include suggestions that we receive from you. So let me know how it is working, and what we can do to help you more.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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