School ratings and the wake up call we needed (Real Clear Education)

January 29, 2021
Click here to read at Real Clear Education

At the height of school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic last year, many parents did what most of us do now when confronted with a topic that we need to learn about quickly: they got busy Googling. Near-record numbers of parents were researching their education options right up to the beginning of this school year.

But using the Internet to navigate the process of finding a school for your child can yield some really bad advice. Countless “experts” tell parents to choose the top-ranked or rated school closest to them, regardless of the instruction type, curriculum, or the school’s core values. This advice encourages parents to make hasty decisions, ignoring everything they know about their own children and placing blind faith in big data.

Obviously, it’s reassuring to a parent when a school receives an “A,” or a “10 out of 10,” or a five-star rating. A school’s effectiveness at advancing student achievement is essential. But grades, ratings, and rankings don’t tell the whole story of a school’s effectiveness. Some data are outdated. Grades and rankings are sometimes not calculated consistently across states because states use different tests and collect different data. And if a school is specifically designed to help struggling students, that school is likely to receive lower scores – even though it is changing the lives of the students in its care.

Nor can ratings alone predict whether your child will succeed in a school or learning environment. I’ve met many parents that moved to a neighborhood because of the perceived quality of the schools there, only to see their children struggle at those schools.

What’s a better approach?

Ideally, choosing the right school involves parents asking questions of themselves, and about their children, before they embark on their search. What values, skills, or subjects do you most want a school to teach? What approach do you take, yourself, to rules and discipline? What subjects do your children like most and which do they like least? How and where do they learn the most, and seem the most engaged?

Only after thinking about the final destination – what your vision of an ideal education looks like for your child – should you begin the search in earnest. The pandemic may preclude in-person visits to schools for some time longer, of course, but even virtual tours and conversations can yield important information about a school’s curriculum, instructors, and values. Ask about the faculty, the instructional methods, the books and courses used – and about how the school evaluates teachers. And certainly, ask how the school evaluates student progress and about whether the school is meeting its own goals for student academic achievement.

Your family’s quality of life matters, too. Parents shouldn’t feel bad for picking a school that isn’t the top-rated option if that school suits their family in other ways. Other factors matter, too, like parents’ commutes, locations of siblings’ schools, and parental involvement opportunities.

School choice seeks to match the right school with the right child. There is no single “right” school for everyone – that’s the point of giving families more options. So don’t feel pressure to select the best-known, most prestigious, or flashiest school if it doesn’t make sense for your son or daughter. You know your children better than any test score or ratings book. If you think that your children won’t like a school, they probably won’t – no matter how much other families might rave about it. In many cases, a parent’s “gut” instinct can prove surprisingly accurate when determining whether a school will work well for their children.

If you are still not convinced that we need to rethink the process of choosing schools, consider this: because of COVID, ratings, grades, and rankings will be skewed for at least the next several years. Many states canceled or waived their standardized tests last spring, and some states are considering waiving them again this year.

So, instead of relying on big data, look inward and rely on your own expertise and intuition as a parent. You are the expert on your child, and by focusing mostly on your child’s needs, you can embark on a more fruitful school-search process.