Choosing A School For Your Child: What To Look For

When parents are looking at schools for their children, what should they be looking for?

I would recommend focusing on a few areas.

A. School’s Overarching Philosophy
B. Academic Approach/Standards/Expectations
C. Teaching Reading

A. School’s Overarching Philosophy

It is probably impossible to find out an individual teacher’s approach because the school is not likely to allow you to interview its teachers (for good reason, teachers are busy!). But you can find out what the school’s basic philosophy is (or, at least the principal’s basic philosophy) when you are talking with an administrator about potentially enrolling your children at their school. 

In a school wide philosophy you should be looking for a generic approach to education. Is the school doing what they can to create a safe and warm environment? 

A huge part of creating a safe and warm environment involves rules, procedures, transitions, and discipline. It will be harder for parents to figure out rules and procedures because these likely vary from teacher to teacher. Hopefully there will be some school wide policies.

Things to ask about…

  1. Class Rules: Rules matter, and even rebellious children are acutely aware of when someone breaks the rules.
    1. There should be few written rules in a classroom. The reason for this being, simple rules can be broadly applied. Having many rules leads to an environment of expecting a specific rule for everything.
      1. For parents, you can ask the administrator general questions about class rules (there may be school-wide rules in every classroom). In an ideal case, you could ask for the classroom rules list from your child’s future teacher (This will not always be possible, and not being able to provide this is not indicative of a problem. However, being able to provide this would indicate a well organized school.)
    2. All the rules in my classroom: 
      1. Be respectful
      2. Be responsible
      3. Get work done
      4. Hopefully have fun
    3. The rules in your child’s classroom should be short and sweet. From this point, it is the teacher’s responsibility to elaborate on the rules. This gives the students clear examples and non-examples on what each rule means. The teacher will occasionally refer back to the rules, especially when a new circumstance comes up and the teacher needs to explain how the students broke one or more of the rules in a new and creative way. 
    4. I demand that students get work done (I would go as far as to say teachers who do not demand this are engaging in malpractice and should change their minds or leave the profession). 
    5. I include the “Hopefully have fun” as a rule because I want students to have fun and enjoy learning. But I cannot force fun. This rule is more about intentionally creating a positive classroom culture
  2. Class Procedures: Children, especially small children love routines because they love to know what is coming next. Why else would they ask you to read that book to them for the 8th time today?
    1. I think that the best a parent can likely do is to ask the administrator to see a class schedule/explain a typical day as this gets nitty gritty fast and will vary from teacher to teacher. 
    2. Once your child is enrolled however, hopefully the teacher will have a variety of verbal/visual cues that are used consistently. And hopefully each class has a clear structure, allowing your child to know what to do and to know how to be prepared. The structure needn’t be the same everyday, but is should be ~the same most days.
  3. Class transitions: How the school deals with non-teaching time is a big tell. 
    1. Ask about how students transition between classes. Ideally you would be able to observe students going to P.E./Art/Lunch/Recess.
    2. These transitions should not be chaotic, even for lunch/recess. If chaos is allowed, then that tells you something. Students who are in a class will lose learning time if the hallway outside their door is loud. This time adds up because there are many transitions each day.
  4. Discipline: You will learn bits and pieces about how the school deals with behavioral issues by asking about rules, procedures, and transitions but it is helpful to be direct.
    1. Hopefully the discipline policy of your child’s school will embody the “warm strict” approach.
      1. Here is a succinct Twitter thread on the warm/strict approach.
    2. Questions to ask about discipline would be..
      1. How does the discipline process work? When/How will parents be involved?
        1. What qualifies for an in-school/out of school suspension?
        2. Various forms of detentions
      2. How does the school deal with both the perpetrator and the victim of bullying?
  5. One way you can effectively get an inside peek at the schools practiced values as opposed to their stated values is to ask about the professional development (PD) they offer teachers.
    1. Ask how much money the school offers teachers for PD each year.
    2. Ask to see their professional development library. 
Good Books Bad Books
Powerful Teaching: by Pooja Argwal and Patrice Bain These books are all about having a powerful presence in the classroom and are essentially based on a cult of personality around the teacher (An unsustainable approach). Or the books are fluffy on content.
Understanding How We Learn: by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, and Oliver Cavigioli Teach Like A Pirate
Why Knowledge Matters by Ed Hirsch Jr. Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire
Bringing Words To Life by Isabel Beck Chicken Noodle Soup For The Teacher’s Soul
Making Kids Cleverer by David Didau Anything that reads like a list. Ex: 13 Quick Ways To Be A Better Teacher!
The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham
The Learning Rainforest by Tom Sherrington
Language At The Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg
The Curriculum by Mary Myatt
  1. The “Good Books” column are books that I can vouch for. I have certainly not provided anywhere close to an exhaustive list, but this list is relatively wide ranging, if focused on the teaching and learning aspects of education. 
  2. I would say that it would be great if the library included various books on how the cultural/economic backgrounds of students influences their education. Unfortunately I am not as well read on this topic so I have no suggestions because my teaching context is not particularly diverse (it is limited to upper-middle/upper class Taiwanese students).

B. Academic Approach/Standards/Expectations

Your child’s school will tell you that they have high academic standards. And of course they will. Your job is to figure out what this means. The place to start would be to ask about the academic standards.

  1. Academic Approach: The school will likely have what can either be categorized as a progressive approach (typically valuing experiences and social learning) or a traditional approach (typically valuing content knowledge). And, in all likelihood the school will self-identify as educationally progressive. This will involve being student-centered, project based learning, and inquiry learning. All of these things sound good, but they are actually harmful approaches, especially for struggling students.
    1. As a parent, what you can do is ask if the teachers use direct or explicit instruction. At its core, this is essentially an “I do, We do, You do” approach. Do the teachers teach and model the content and then give students practice? After practice and correction, are students given opportunities to apply what they have learned to different contexts?
    2. The best schools will fuse aspects from the progressive and traditional approaches. They should make sure students know the content with regular opportunities for students to show what they know (graded and ungraded). They should give ample opportunities for students to apply what they are learning. 
    3. A school should be judicious with how it does to group projects because it is too easy for one student to do all the work. It is also easy for students to do a project and not really learn anything of substance because they just look everything up as they need to. (Finding information on the internet is an important skill! But being able to find something does not indicate that learning has happened.)
      1. Schools should also regularly give students the chance to work together. Hopefully the school will intentionally build students’ social skills and ability to effectively work in groups.
  2. Academic Standards: In all likelihood your child’s school will use the Common Core Standards for English and Math and the Next Generation Science Standards for Science. For Social Studies there is not as much of an agreed upon standard. It could range from using an individual state’s standard or an associations standards.
    1. If the school has curated their own standards, beware. What does this mean?
    2. Looking into specific standards is a lot of work and, I think, not really necessary for parents. The purpose is to let you know what the school will broadly be teaching each year.
  3. Academic Expectations: Here is where the rubber starts to meet the road.
    1. What does the school do to help struggling students?
      1. There should be concrete steps. If the answer is vague, beware.
    2. What does the school do to challenge students who excel?
      1. There should be concrete steps. If the answer is vague, beware.

C. Teaching Reading

Even though this teaching reading is academic, I am giving the teaching of reading its own category because of its importance. Approaches called Whole Language and Balanced Literacy are common and their approaches make sense on a surface level. However, both have no validity. Both approaches result in many students who struggle to read. Your child’s school should teach phonics, and ideally will teach Synthetic Phonics.

If you are in a position to choose your child’s school and there is a school that sounds great but uses Whole Language or Balanced Literacy I would recommend avoiding that school. If you are in a position to choose, choose a school with Synthetic Phonics. 

ParkerPhonics is a great place to start learning about what your child’s school should be doing. Here he offers a detailed explainer on synthetic phonics.

This is a lot to think about, and it is unlikely you will have time to ask all these questions when you visit a school. But you can use this as a jumping off point.

Note: The best information will come from trusted inside sources. If you know a teacher at the school, ask them. Also, the best way to get a read on school culture and student behavior is to ask a substitute teacher because most students will be at their “worst” behavior for a sub.