©1986, 2010 by Vicki Cobb
A visit can tell you a lot about how good a job a school is doing--if you know what to look for and what to ask.
If you're like most parents, you feel that the single most significant investment you can make in your child is a good education. Selecting an elementary school or school district for your child can be an important decision. And if your child is already enrolled, a proper evaluation of his or her school can help reveal ways to enhance your child's learning experiences. How can you tell a good elementary school from a poor one? How do you identify the strengths and weaknesses of a particular institution?
Over the past twenty years, I have visited scores of elementary schools all over the country, wearing two different hats: as a children's book author doing programs for kids and as an educational consultant working with teachers. I have seen great differences between schools. In this article I would like to share with you ways of looking over a school to assess its strengths and weaknesses, and questions to ask during a visit so you can better evaluate the job the school can do for your child. It's important to make a school visit when school is in session; a school full of kids has a personality that can give you an overall feeling.
Discussing goals and methods.
The overall educational philosophy and mood in a school always reflect the thinking and personality of the principal, and a principal should be available to discuss school programs and philosophies with parents. The best principals have very clear educational objectives, and these are usually written down somewhere. Ask to see them. Following are some important issues to discuss with the principal.
Teaching methods and children's individual needs.
Today's hue and cry for education is "back to basics." Schools are to be held accountable for teaching the three R's effectively. But at what price? Does this also mean a return to the traditional oral reading and recitation classes of the one-room schoolhouse? It had better not if the child is ever to use these skills in the pursuit of knowledge. It is of crucial importance that basic skills be taught without destroying a child's enthusiasms and self-confidence. Since children come to school with a range of aptitudes for learning the basics, skills must be taught with a variety of approaches sensitive to individual learning styles. For example, at one showcase school I visited in Fairbanks, Alaska, the principal made the effort to match learning styles and teaching styles; students who did better in a structured environment were put with teachers who ran a more formal classroom.
Other important questions to ask the principal concerning children's individual needs are: How do you keep track of a child's progress, and how early do you know if a child is in difficulty? What resources and programs do you have for extra help? How do you prevent a child from being stigmatized if remedial help is needed? If your child has special needs, make sure there is sensitivity to such needs: for example, are there arrangements for the physically handicapped? Programs for the gifted? What counseling services are provided?
Ask if there is a cut-off number for class size, beyond which a new class will be formed. There should be a maximum of 25 students in a class in kindergarten through second grade and a maximum of 30 in the upper elementary grades.
School is a child's daily "work." As a workplace it has a responsibility to establish performance standards for children. Ask the principal about how the school sets its standards and makes them clear to the students. How much importance is given to grades, for example? What criteria are used in coming up with an end-of-term or year-end evaluation? Performance standards do not mean that a child comes to understand failure. Rather, standards of excellence should challenge each child according to his or her abilities no matter what the individual level may be. The performance of a child with learning disabilities must be evaluated on a different scale from that of a child without such a handicap. The important thing is that the children learn to strive and stretch their own capabilities. A child who has truly worked hard to achieve a goal knows it, and this has its own rewards in building self-esteem.
In the spirit of being a child's "work," a school should also develop in each child a sense of personal responsibility. Homework is important for this reason. Find out the school's policy on homework, and ask the principal how he or she sees the parent's role with respect to homework assignments. It is difficult to be specific about how much time homework should occupy per night, since the amount of time it takes different children to complete the same assignment will vary. In one school district in Michigan the rough guidelines given to teachers are a maximum of 30 minutes of homework per night in the first through third grades and a maximum of one hour per night for third through sixth grades. The parents of kindergartners are advised to read to them at home every night. In any case, there should be regular assignments, gradually increasing in complexity with each grade. For kindergarten through second grade the work should be reinforcement, dealing only with material that has been covered in class.
I once visited a school where teachers were forbidden to assign homework because, I was told, parents didn't want to be bothered making sure it was done. The consequences were pervasive. There was no time during the school day for children to practice skills or reflect upon lessons. Without homework, academics ceased to be an activity for most students after three o'clock. It should have come as no surprise that these kids did poorly on standardized tests. But even more important, their teachers complained about the children's overall immature behavior in the classroom.
Beyond the basics
Does the school provide a variety of extracurricular activities and special programs to find areas of special talent or interest? Participation in music, art, drama, sports, and student government ensure that each child has a chance to have the sort of fulfilling experiences that often serve as guideposts toward a rewarding career.
A school's performance is often evaluated by the results of standardized tests given to children in certain years such as third, fourth, and fifth grades. These tests purport to evaluate skills and achievement in subject areas with respect to national and local norms. What is really being measured is test performance. Taking these tests too seriously can be a big red flag. If a school gears teaching to these tests by drilling students on the bits of knowledge needed to fill in the blanks, bored, turned-off kids are a certain outcome. Ask what the school's policy is on standardized testing. Do teachers end up teaching to the test? Know that the best schools take testing in stride and have faith that good educational practices produce fine results on tests.
At best, standardized tests are guidelines for academic standards, not an educational objective in themselves. A child's performance on a test is a valuable measure only when there is a wide discrepancy between his or her score and class room performance. This is particularly true when a child's scores are high, but classroom performance is poor. The test indicates that the child is capable of doing well, and the discrepancy is a clue to look for psychological reasons for the problem. It is reasonable to ask a principal the school's national standings on these tests. Beware the administrator who puts too much stock in them.
Communication with parents
How available are the principal and the staff for conferences? What kind of regular communication is there from the school (perhaps in the form of email) and from the teacher? (See also "Are parents doing their part? Coming up.)
The term "principal" comes from the idea of "principal, or first, teacher." Ask the principal how closely he or she supervises classroom teachers. Beware the principal who feels that the faculty must be kept on a short leash. The best principals have high regard for their faculty as professionals and give them a great deal of autonomy. Since principals are largely responsible for hiring teachers, a secure administrator will hire teachers who are committed and creative self-starters, and will foster a school environment that encourages teachers to give their best to the classroom. Such schools also provide ongoing professional training for their faculties. Ask about the school's committment (budget) to professional development.
School policy on discipline. How does the school deal with misbehavior and infractions of rules? Although some schools allow corporal punishment, the best schools do not condone it or find it effective.
The right kind of "law and order."
To maximize learning, a school must provide a disciplined environment. Both teacher and student behavior must be directed toward learning, not expended in disruptive antics. A good teacher maintains firm control over a class with a minimum of effort. Some schools use silent hand signs as a signal to become orderly. And when a request or a sign for order is given in a well-disciplined school, the children settle down quickly. Harried teachers screaming for order are a big red flag. Too many children wandering through the halls without a mission is another. If you see a lot of kids roaming the halls, stop and ask a few what they are doing. Beware too many "thirsty" kids heading for the water fountain.
On the other hand, too much regimentation is not the same as good discipline. There is no reasonable justification for requiring kids to be silent when walking between classes or leaving a stimulating assembly program. I recall a particular program I gave at a school assembly: the principal responded to the enthusiasm generated by admonishing his student to show their respect for me by leaving the auditorium silently. They were excitedly buzzing to each other about science, and he was concerned with decorum! That kind of attitude stifles individuality, creativity, involvement, interest in learning, just about everything a good education should encourage. And often one result of unreasonable policing of the halls is that all hell breaks loose once kids are safely inside the classroom door.
In a well-disciplined school, children are busy and involved most of the time. Teachers spend more of their time moving about a classroom in which students are absorbed in tasks at the work stations, giving individual attention where needed, or leading groups discussions that hold the attention of the class. Things are under control, but the controls are not obvious.
These days, bullying has become a pervasive social problem. Ask the principal about school policies on bullying. Do they have an anti-bullying program in place? If so what is it? What successes have they had in enforcing such a program/
A happy place to learn in.
Take a good look at the displays in the hall, in showcases, and in classrooms. Does the artwork show a range of approaches and have a cheerful feeling? A display of artwork in which all the children in a class have drawn the same thing suggests an emphasis on conformity in an activity that should be encouraging individuality. If there are written assignments on the walls, do they express a diversity of thoughts and feelings? Or are they all exactly the same? There's nothing necessarily wrong with an exhibit in which everyone has written the same sentences, because practicing penmanship involves some drill. But if such a display shows grades or stars, be aware that competition is being fostered in an area in which mastery is a goal for everyone. Grades made public, especially for primary (kindergarten through third grade) elementary students, tend to reinforce the better students at the expense of the others. Group projects such as a mural or a papier mache dinosaur indicate that children are learning about cooperation and team effort. Exhibits and displays are one of the best ways to get a feel for a school. A good school will look like a joyous place where a lot is going on.
Vandalism, graffiti, and uncleanliness, of course, are indicators that a school has problems of discipline and morale.
A good book is hard to find.
On your tour, be sure to ask to see the library and meet the librarian or media specialist. Better schools have a professional librarian with expertise in children's literature, who nurtures reading and a love of learning from books. Although a library is a center of communication with the world and can provide experience in a variety of media, from books to filmstrips, films, audio and video materials, and computers, the foundation of a library is still books. In one principal's estimation, a moderate-size school library has a collection of at least ten books per child. If the library seems small, ask if there are other arrangements for providing library services: some schools coordinate with the local public library. Also look for small classroom libraries; committed teachers will often work on their own collections.
Here are some questions to ask the librarian: In your opinion, is your budget large enough? How closely do you coordinate with teachers so that you can supply topical books appropriate for the curriculum being taught? Do teachers consult you about quality children's literature? Many of the most progressive schools are making an effort to incorporate such literature in its original form, not as excerpts, into the teaching of the basic curriculum. What programs do you have for encouraging reading (for example, story hours or visits from authors)? What programs do you have for teaching children how to use the library? What other media resources do you have available? What is the school's agenda for computer use? Are you exploring web 2.0 technologies? Particularly those that involve collaboration with kids from other parts of the world? When do kids learn keyboarding and word processing? Whatever the agenda, the most important thing is that the school takes an open-minded but critical approach to computers as an adjunct to classroom teaching rather than just having them around for entertainment. All schools have controls to prevent kids from accessing undesirable material on the web.
The teacher at work.
Sit in on a classroom at your child's grade level. The bottom line is that the classroom teacher will be the definitive educational experience for your child. A great teacher will still have a strong effect in a poorly run school, and a poor teacher can do damage even if a school is effective in the main. Watching a gifted teacher in action is not unlike watching a virtuoso performance by a world-class conductor. There is a great deal going on, the teacher is aware of everything, and the room hums with an overall harmony.
Here are some things to watch for. On the primary grade level, is the teacher physically affectionate with the children? Young children need to feel physically close to their teachers. What is the teacher's manner with the children? Watch out for the scornful, patronizing adult. Look for a teacher to be firm yet respectful to toward children. The children, in turn, will be responsive and respectful to the teacher. Is the teacher in control of the class? Does he or she have a constant awareness of what everyone is doing even if the students are all engaged in different activities? In a class discussion, does the teacher ask questions that invite only recall of facts, or are the children invited to think for and express themselves? Are the kids always dictated to, or are they given some choices? For example, a teacher might give students a choice of reading material for quiet reading time or for a book report. Choices give kids a sense of control over their lives, and this sense of control has been shown to be a vital factor in high achievement. Are there pets and plants in the classroom? Caring for living things is yet another way to encourage responsible behavior. Is the classroom experience varied, including both desk work and more physically active hands-on activities? Is the teacher locked into a rigid lesson plan, or is the teacher capable of seizing the moment and making a lesson out of an unexpected happening? If you should observe such a serendipitous moment, know that you are seeing education at its very best.
Happy teachers make happy kids.
Try to talk with the teacher at the beginning or end of your classroom visit, and with other teachers if possible. Do they seem happy with the school and with their work? Questions to ask are: Do you feel that your students' parents are supportive? How do your feel about the class size and the quality of the facilities? Does the school system encourage professional development? (This might include making teachers aware of conferences and workshops and subsidizing any expenses of attending, bringing in speakers, and making the latest literature and research on teaching available.)
The classrooms also send messages on faculty morale. Drab rooms, hung with a few commercially made decorations requiring negligible effort or imagination from the teachers, are a bad sign.
Are the parents doing their part?
Get in touch with the board of the local PTA and with neighbors whose children are at the school you are evaluating to find out how involved the parents are in the life of the school. Ask parents if they feel the school administration is receptive to their ideas. Although many more mothers hold jobs outside the home these days and the numbers available for daytime volunteer work are limited, an active PTA can make a big difference.
I once visited the lone elementary school on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. The school was an unimpressive frame building. But in the library, four parents were busy putting the finishing touches on a carpeted free-form structure that provided several cozy nooks for children to curl up in to read. The principal told me that the school funding was limited but that parents' active involvement made up for this deficit.
One extremely important role of PTAs is fund-raising for extras. Field trips, guest artists, and speakers are enriching experiences that are often not included in the school budget. An important question to ask the school principal is the extent of parental involvement in both fund-raising and on the school board.
Parents should not, however, be allowed to sit in on their children's classes on a regular basis. Too much parental involvement in a child's classroom interferes with the development of the child's sense of autonomy.
One of the best schools I have ever visited is Robert D. Cummings Elementary in Alief, Texas. Principal Patty Chandler sums up a way you can continually assess your child's school. "Your child's attitude is one of the best indicators as to whether the school is meeting his or her needs. Effective teaching techniques at the correct level of instruction should result in a child who has a positive self-concept, is interested in school, and is becoming an independent thinker." Your child's enthusiasm for school and for learning is perhaps your most important touchstone in judging a school's quality.
School Report Card E G F P
E(xcellent), G(ood), F(air), or P(oor)- grade your child's present or prospective elementary school in these seven important areas:
Talk With the Principal: Willingly and clearly discusses areas such as student performance standards and methods of evaluation (each child should be challenged according to his or her level of ability); homework (should be regular assignments of appropriate length and complexity); standardized tests (should be guidelines rather than objectives in themselves); and disciplinary policy. There is sensitivity to individual differences in learning styles and to special needs (for example, the need for remedial help.
Discipline: Class rooms and halls orderly but not regimented. Teachers and students treat each other with respect. Disciplinary methods other than corporal punishment are used.
School's Appearance: Displays and exhibits show imagination and enthusiasm, reflect opportunities for individual expression and for teamwork on group projects. Classrooms have a happy, "lived-in" atmosphere. Facilities are clean.
Observing the Teacher: Classroom is lively but teacher is in control. Shows physical affection toward primary grade students. Invites children to express themselves, gives them choices; lesson plan is not rigid. Class size: Maximum 25 in primary grades, 30 in upper elementary.
Library: Librarian has expertise in children's literature, feels budget is sufficient. There are programs for encouraging reading and teaching use of library. Experiences in media such as film, tapes, and computers are available.
Faculty Morale: Classroom decoration reflects teachers' effort and care. Teachers are happy with class size and facilities, degree of support from parents, and opportunities for professional development (e.g., opportunities to attend teachers' workshops).
Parental Involvement: PTA board members and parents of students indicate strong support and involvement.