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Choosing a School: A Closer Look

    by Kevin Killion


    On a typical school tour, you are shown all the modern classroom buildings and shiny computers, you're told the school has an award from the federal department of education (eh?) and you get a nice, firm handshake from administrators.

    But none of this tells you anything about whether your child will learn how to decode unfamiliar words, how to multiply two-digit numbers without using a calculator, or to know the year the Civil War started.

    Here are just a few suggestions on evaluating schools for your children.


    The School Tour

    In how many classrooms did you see actual teaching taking place, as opposed to seeing the kids working on a project, meeting in small workgroups, writing stories, doing a web search? Actually keep a count! You shouldn't expect (or want) to see teaching all the time in every class, but it should be a strong part of the children's day. Score extra points if you see teaching punctuated with lively teacher questions and student responses.

    Make a note of how desks are arranged in each classroom. Is every child's desk facing the teacher? Or, are desks bunched together so that children are in groups facing each other? Beware of schools that diminish the role of the teacher as the leader and instructor, and arrange classrooms so as to make group projects the principle activity.

    Look critically at the decorations in the classroom. You certainly expect that a classroom should be an inviting, welcoming place. But is it also reassuring, calming, and designed to assist children on focusing on the teacher and on their lessons? Or, are postings, decorations, colors, etc., so startling that your child is certain to be distracted?

    School Brochures

    The school will probably have a "Mission Statement" or a sheet of "Our Philosophy." Almost always, such documents are worthless, and loaded with fluff that tells you nothing useful about a school. (But every once in a while, though, there is an exception, such as this from Flossmoor, Illinois.)

    What you do need to read is the school's curriculum outline, which should tell you what specific topics your child actually will be learning, for each individual grade and for each individual subject. (To get a sense of what a complete curriculum outline should look like, it's worthwhile to invest the $20 or so to get a copy of the Core Knowledge Sequence. For an example of a wonderful curriculum outline on a single page, see this from a school in Minnesota.)

    Reading

    Ask about the school's approach to teaching reading ... see if they mention phonics without your prompting. If they are enthusiastic about their "literature-based" program and don't mention phonics, you probably are at a Whole Language school. Also be cautious if they immediately start emphasizing their "balanced" approach. Look for "word walls" and other Whole Language hallmarks.

    You need to know the school's specific program for phonics. Which phonics technique is used? Is there a spelling workbook, and does it emphasize phonics letter-groups, or only thematic groups ("words about transportation")? Are all teachers expected to emphasize phonics, or does implementation depend on the tastes and experience of individual teachers?

    How is mastery of phonics assessed? Does the school use DIBELS testing?

    Writing

    Take note of writing efforts displayed in classrooms and corridors. Are they about substantive topics -- or are they mostly "me" reflections? Is there a clear structure, or do they ramble? Do opinions stand alone, or are they supported by facts? Are grammar and spelling errors corrected?

    Literature

    Are assigned books challenging, uplifting and enriching? Or, does there seem to be an excessive emphasis on gritty, dire social problems and politically-correct heavy issues? Have your ever heard of the assigned books? Or are there many less challenging books with recent copyright dates? Is a healthy mix of non-fiction included in assigned reading?

    Look to see if any assigned books have strong, positive characters of the same gender as your child.

    Math

    Check our Math-By-District page for info on which districts are doing what.

    At the school, ask to see the math textbooks used, and write down the full name of the publisher and the specific name of the program (publishers often sell several very different series). If there is no textbook, there will be worksheets or other materials: you can get the publisher and program names from these, often written in small text on the bottom or along the side. Then, back at home, go to our web page on math programs to find reviews of that program.

    Consider whether the emphasis in these books or materials is on political correctness and flashy graphics, or on math. Get an outside opinion: Visit the local Kumon center, or other afterschool tutoring service, and ask them about the district's math program.

    NOTE: A school's choice of a math program can be a powerful, quick insight into the school's overall philosophy. For example, if a school uses a "fuzzy" math program such as Everyday Math, you have reason to be concerned about the school as a whole.

    Science

    Do the school officials emphasize learning content in science, or do they only talk about "hands-on experiments" and "discovery"? Active involvement is good, but it always should be designed in support of educational content goals. What is the school's guiding document on what science content is to be learned? Are a broad range of science areas covered in depth, or is there an unbalanced skew towards just a few areas, such as animals or rainforests?

    Social Studies

    What are these classes called? If they're named "history", "geography" and "civics", that's great. If it's all lumped under "social studies", that's typical. If they go even further by mashing up social studies, science and literature into a single "subject", be concerned.

    What actual topics are taught in history and geography in grades 1, 2 and 3? A progressivist school offers very little substance in these areas before grades 4 or 5, offering instead such limited topics as map-reading skills, "my neighborhood", pioneer and Indian life, and a mere handful of disconnected historical figures. A good school will teach kids how to learn and feed their natural desire to learn by giving them substantive, interesting content in both history and geography, starting in the earliest grades.

    In upper grades, look to see how they treat the history of Europe and western civilization. Many schools suffice with some thin coverage in a single year, and a startling number of schools jump from ancient civilizations directly to American history, with scant coverage of anything in between.

    Here's one quick but powerful measure: The Napoleon Test (Many schools will fail!)

    Scheduling

    Does the school primarily use double-length periods (block scheduling)? This almost guarantees that the school is run by progressivists. The long periods make it all but impossible for a teacher to use traditional instruction, with time often filled with movies plus projects and activities rather than learning.

    "Technology"

    The link between learning and having computers in a school is tentative at best. Do not be easily swayed by dazzling, "curb-appeal" attractions like computer labs. (Conversely, do not be dismayed if a school seems to be more committed to teaching than in loading up on expensive hardware.)

    Instead, ask what the kids are actually doing with all these computers. Are they learning about the technology itself and about how a computer operates, perhaps going so far as to dissassemble old computers to study their workings? Or, is there a lot of vague talk about web "research", creating presentations, or "infusing" classwork with "technology"?

    And while you're being shown all the new computers, check for proven past "technology" as well: does every classroom have a TV and DVD? If a school has shiny computers in every class but a teacher needs a special requisition for a TV to make a point with a short video, then something is wrong with the priorities.

    Community Involvement

    Read brochures or websites for the school's PTA or PTO or other parent organization. Do they actively discuss and tackle issues about what goes on inside the classroom, or are they content to be cookie-bakers, fund-raisers, and hosts to speakers on topics outside the classroom (e.g., parenting issues)?

    Just In Case

    You'll start your child in a school with the best of hopes. But suppose that someday you find that the school is not what you hoped for, or just in general, that your child isn't prospering. Or, you might discover that your two children have quite different learning styles and need different schools with differing approaches. Would you have to move? So, find out what choices are available. What is the district's policy on registering your children at another school in the district? Do they use "open enrollment", or are you required to send your kids to the school they assign you to? Are there any charter schools? If choice is allowed, it is a meaningful choice: are curriculum decisions made by individual schools, or by the district? Is it possible to register at schools in adjoining districts?

    Values, Character and Discipline

    Pay full attention as you tour the school. Are children corrected when they interrupt? Is swearing tolerated? Do you see anyone holding doors for anyone else? Do students seem to be wandering the hallways between classes? Look into the junior high level classes: are students actively engaged but also courteously and attentively listening?

    What is the penalty for not doing homework? Is there one?

    Are children encouraged to learn how to pay attention, by having order in the classroom? Are lower grade classes chaotic free-for-alls, or does it look like learning is occurring?

    Look at posted artwork -- is it generally in good taste? How are students dressed: appropriately, or anything goes?

    Consider visiting at least one Catholic, Lutheran or other values-centered private school if only to calibrate your expectations.


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