|How To Choose the Best School
"There is something inherently democratic about
letting parents choose the school their children will attend."
The Brookings Review
Who Makes Decisions Determines What Decisions Are Made
Changes in public education have largely been introduced top-down. Federal and state governments, as well as national foundations, have used funding to stimulate specific reforms. Professional education associations and educational vendors have promoted specific changes. Local communities or parents, however, have initiated few changes in how schools work or what students are taught. Unsurprisingly, many educational reforms are not the changes desired by the public. In fact, according to several national studies, schools and the public have some very different opinions about what should happen in schools. According to research published by Public Agenda(1), parents want schools to focus more on academics, teach traditional knowledge and skills (i.e., math, facts, mental computation, grammar, spelling, etc.), raise standards for learning, and base promotion on standardized tests.
Schools, however, take the opposing position. Public Agenda indicates that educators think that academic attainment is not important, schools should focus on developing social skills, learning concepts is more important than learning facts, emphasis on traditional learning (i.e., grammar, spelling, math facts, etc.) interferes with creativity and appreciation, standardized tests should be eliminated, and higher standards will make students dislike school (increasing the drop-out problem). According to a study conducted by the Education Commission of the States(2), few parents support the new educational methods introduced to schools and most parents believe school reform is on the "wrong track."
Clearly, public schools and the public experience a severe disconnection. To seek better education for their children, a significant number of parents have chosen home or private schooling. A growing number of parents are now seeking to improve public education by engaging themselves in their children's schools. These parents seek meaningful involvement in decision-making to shape schools according to their values and goals.
How To Learn About Your School
Click here to link to a checklist that poses a series of questions about curricula and instructional practices. To gain the greatest understanding about what is taking place in a school, it is important to seek answers from several different perspectives, including:
The following list identifies documents that will begin to answer checklist questions. Access to documents can be provided by a teacher, principle or school district official. Free copies of documents should be provided upon request if the school or district routinely distributes the material. A school district may charge photocopy fees for reproduction of other documents. The right to review school documents is established by state and federal Open Records law. If difficulties arise in obtaining information, a written request can be submitted to the school, stating that rights established by these laws to review or photocopy a specific document are being exercised by this notification.
- Reading documents (such as those suggested below)
- Speaking with teachers, students and administrators
- Reviewing student work; and,
- Observing classroom activities.
(1) Public Agenda, The Basics: Parents Talk About Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and the Schools, New York 1996. Public Agenda, Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today, New York, 1996. Public Agenda, First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools, New York, 1994.
- School district mission statement and goals
- School improvement plan
- School district and school newsletters
- Student and teacher handbooks
- Course listing and program guidebook
- Curriculum standards
- Curriculum guidelines
- Curriculum policies
- Assessment and grading policies
- Retention and promotion policies
- Textbook and instructional materials policy
- Disciplinary policy
- Extracurricular and co-curricular policies
- Scheduling policy
- Minutes of school and district committees or task force meetings
- Minutes of School Board meetings
- School district grant applications
- Professional (teacher) development programs
- School and district test scores
- School and district attendance and drop-out statistics
- School and district course enrollments
- Textbooks (both student and teacher)
- Instructional materials
- Teacher lesson plans and student assignments
- Assessments and tests
- Course Syllabi
(2) Education Commission of the States, Listen, Discuss & Act: Parents and Teachers Views on Education Reform, Denver, 1996.