A Quick and Essential Guide to Choosing the Right School

In this four-part series, Peg Tyre offers advice for parents on what to look for in a school, what questions to ask—and when to be concerned.

Deciding which school to send your child to can be daunting. Here are some helpful tips. (Photo: Cohen/Ostrow)
Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

As the weather warms and spring begins, parents around the nation will begin asking themselves a simple question—where, oh where, will my child go to school next fall?

And the answer to that question is not as simple as it used to be. Increasingly, parents are facing choices when it comes to schools: local public, specialized program, magnet, or, if you can afford it, private. More than two million schoolchildren now attend charter schools—that’s about five percent of all American schoolchildren.

It’s all part of a plan to improve schools. The idea behind this iteration of school reform is that your local public school has a monopoly, and that if education is turned into a free market—if you can select schools like you can select an air-conditioner—then schools will improve.

Which for a lot of us can seem like a bad joke. It turns out that it’s not enough to conceive those children, keep them from choking on marbles and prevent them from getting poisoned by the lead in Chinese-made toys. It is not enough that you organize quality childcare, get dinner on the table and pay the rent. Now, it turns out, you have to be some kind of arbiter of educational quality. Seriously.  

And even if you aren’t in a position to select schools, how are you supposed to know if your child’s school is doing a good job? 

If your child’s elementary school doesn’t teach reading or math correctly, your child could be in middle school before you figure that out.

You can’t rely on your newly developed super-power, the all-purpose parent intuition, either. Because it turns out, when you tour schools, the kids look cute, the teachers seem warm, and the artwork on the walls looks creative. And for those reasons, and a lot of others, researchers tell us that parents, on the whole, just aren’t very good at determining what a quality institution looks like.

Part of the problem is that it takes years to see whether the school is doing a good job or not. Which is one of the big flaws with that unleash-the-force-of-the-free-market on education scheme. If you bring home an air-conditioner and it doesn’t cool down your bedroom, you haul that lemon right back to Best Buy. 

If your child’s elementary school doesn’t teach reading or math correctly, your child could be in middle school before you figure that out. By then, the damage is done.

And let’s face it, very few of us want to become experts on education. So, in the next three stories, I’m going to supply parents with a quick and dirty guide on how to choose a school, what questions to ask to get at the meat of whether or not a school has its act together, and who to talk to if it turns out you have some concerns about how the school is teaching your child. 

But first, we are going to look at test scores. Love ’em or hate ’em, you know that before you enroll your precious bundle, you’re going to go on the school’s website and check those scores. That piece will give you a better idea about what you are looking at.

The second piece will be about early lessons in reading. This includes what makes a good reading program, what to look out for, and when you should worry.

The third piece will focus on some intriguing new research about your child’s early math ability—and why you need to become a cheerleader for numbers in your child’s classroom.

With some of this culled-from-the-experts information in your quiver, maybe you will be able to do what the man said and select the best learning environment for your child. Or, if school choice has not come to your district yet, you’ll be able to engage with your child’s school in a way that is constructive and intelligent. And that will be good for you, good for your child, and good for your community.

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