Open thread: What makes a great school?

Thanksgiving was fun this year. We spent a lot of time sitting around talking about school lunch as well as school districts. A family at Thanksgiving also has a little guy and are looking to buy a house. They are trying to decide how important the school district is when making the decision. Should they buy exclusively based on school district? Or where they want to live due to proximity to work/transporation concerns? Or based on diversity of the neighborhood? How much did school district factor into your decision on where to raise your family?

My friends found the website http://www.greatschools.org/ and they were comparing the scores of schools from the neighborhoods they are choosing from (I hadn’t heard of the website before and I have no affiliation with them whatsoever). Then all of the Thanksgiving guests were interested in finding out the rankings of the schools they attended (it’sout of 10). Some of the guests went to elementary, middle and high schools that were ranked as high as 10 or as low as 4. Out of curiosity I check the rating of the school where I teach: it was lower than a 4. Do I trust that rating? Absolutely. The website’s other ratings of schools that I attended were spot on. For reference, I went to schools in the 4 to 6 range: not the best, not the worst. We had a lot of fun looking up everyone’s schools. What do you think of that website? What do you think makes a great school?

This discussion is continued on Lunch with Mrs. Q and I’ll be available to chat there on Sunday night after 8:30 pm CST.

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17 Responses to Open thread: What makes a great school?

  1. Monica December 4, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    My husband and I recently purchased a home. School district wasn't a factor at all; we don't have kids yet, and by the time we have kids who are old enough for school, we'll have been here long enough that we could move if we needed to. I have looked into the local schools though, and they don't seem bad – test scores are middle-of-the-road, but decent for an urban district. They're very diverse, too, which is something I value – I don't want my kids growing up only knowing other kids just like them. The schools also haven't jettisoned the arts here. According to greatschools, though, there's one elementary school that's a 5, one that's a 4, and all the rest of the schools are 3 or lower.

    I also looked up the schools I went to as a kid (5-7), and the schools I student-taught in (a 4 and an 8). Then I looked up the faq on where those ratings come from: they're based solely on test scores, as compared with other schools in the state. It didn't surprise me, and for me, makes great schools a rather less than useful tool. I believe the standardized testing system to be flawed, and certainly not the only thing I base my children's education on. I don't honestly care how my kids do on the tests. I care what kind of instruction they're getting – is it well rounded? Is it differentiated? Do they learn about art, music, science, social studies – not just reading and math? How early do they start foreign language? Do they get recess and PE? Do they have choices in high school? Is the school building a safe environment – physically and emotionally? Are they taught to think critically? Will they encounter students of different races, religions, cultures, economic backgrounds? Will they learn to write well, not just to write for the test? Will they have enough time to eat their lunch?

    Test scores are really the least of my concerns.

  2. infinitehaiku December 4, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    When we shopped for our house, we were moving in from another state to a college-town area. There are several towns in our area (Lansing – the state capitol; East Lansing – home of MSU; Okemos – the wealthier suburb; etc.). We were told to avoid Lansing because it was so urban and Dangerous and Bad Schools.
    Well, only the homes in Lansing were within our price range at the time, so I called and visited local businesses in Lansing and asked what they knew about the schools. (I had looked up the elementary schools and read about them online as well). I got GREAT insight because the locals actually know about the 'inside scoop.' Now, my husband and I have 6 advanced degrees between us, so I'm not particularly worried about them getting an Olympic-level education so early. They read all the time, and we do lots of educational activities. So I looked for a good old-fashioned elementary with lots of cultural and economic diversity, a good principal and long-career teachers.
    I really like their school, and I'd say that our priorities for purchasing the house were:
    1: price range related to comfort of the home
    2: safety of the area and the school
    3: 'family' feel of the area and the school

    That's it. After 3 years, I still like our choice.

  3. hillary December 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    We did not consider school district when we bought our house (our daughter was not even in preschool yet, so it wasn't really on our radar). Now that she is entering kindergarten next year, we regret not considering it more. It affects not only where our kid(s) will attend, but it also impacts our ability to sell the house in the future.

  4. Heather December 4, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    I used greatschools a lot in a move a few years ago. Every place we thought about going, we used greatschools to look up options. It's a good starting point.

    However, you really can't make a decision about a school entirely based on test scores alone. The school I'm at, where I work and my kids go, is ranked a 2. Low! But I love the school. There are many, many kids from poverty (Over 80% qualify for free/reduced lunch, meaning the whole school gets free lunch). It's also a school with a high population of special education students, something I love for my kids' growth as human beings who have the ability to show kindness and be friends with all kinds of people. However, it means lower test scores.

    At any rate, visiting a school, observing classrooms, talking to the teachers–nothing can take the place of that. Scores are useful, yet not everything.

  5. Megan December 4, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    I looked up my high school on the Great Schools website. Although its rating isn't bad (7), I was disappointed to see that that is apparently based entirely on state standardized tests. The Community Rating, however, was 5 out of 5 stars. I hope not many parents would choose their child's school based on how it does on standardized tests, but I'm sure some do. I know tests aren't the focus of this blog, but I'd love to get your take on them, Mrs. Q. When I worked in a Title 1 school here in Virginia, my conclusion was that the results of our state tests were almost entirely dependent on parental income and involvement, not educational quality, and that the more focus the schools put on the tests the more miserable the kids were, and the less they actually learned.

  6. Kim December 5, 2010 at 1:25 am #

    Interesting. The Great Schools site rates my town's schools a 10 overall. Our high school and 2 middle schools are all rated 9's. Although I don't have kids (and I'm too old to have them), I specifically chose to buy in this town for the reputation of its schools. In my opinion, it protects the value of my home. People will always want to live here because of the schools.

    I read an interesting article today on the Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago. I think this project may have been mentioned here before but I think it's worth mentioning again. The project seeks to reintroduce recess in Chicago schools by teaching parent volunteers how to be recess monitors. Maybe your school will get recess again soon, Mrs. Q. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for your kids. Here's a link to the article: http://healthyschoolscampaign.typepad.com/healthy_schools_campaign/2010/12/special-guest-blog-video-parents-team-up-to-win-back-recess.html

    I wish more parents and grandparents would step up and volunteer at their kids' schools. I think there's so much they could contribute and it could make all the difference in many situations. I'm anxious to read your lunchroom observations next year, Mrs. Q. Besides the playground, I think the lunchroom is a place where parent and grandparent volunteers could make a meaningful contribution.

  7. Anonymous December 5, 2010 at 1:31 am #

    It wasn't the school reputation that influenced us but the size of the school. I was fortunate that I worked as a substitute teacher at many of the area schools before we bought a house and had kids. My experience as a substitute influenced where we decided to live. Interestingly enough, the school district considered the "best" in the area was the one we wanted to avoid. We wanted our kids to attend a small school where teachers and administration would know all the kids by name. This became evident when my son missed a lot of school at the beginning of the year due to an illness and not only did the K-1 principal ask the teacher about his absences (my son is in 1st grade), the high school principal talked to me about how the school can meet his needs until he can return (his daughter who is in the same grade but a different class mention him being gone a lot). I did just look up our local school district and they are ranked a 9.

  8. Emily December 5, 2010 at 1:53 am #

    I looked up my former high school and it was an 8 which is surprising because our test scores were never that great and really haven't improved since I was there. I definitely would never send my kids to that school! There should be more factors that are considered when choosing/rating a school: quality of teachers, diversity, extra curricular opportunities, class options, etc. Maybe test scores are a good base point, but they really cannot rate the QUALITY of an educational experience.

  9. My Kids' Mom December 5, 2010 at 2:08 am #

    As a teacher in the county where I house hunted- way before having children- I most certainly looked at schools. I asked other teachers for their opinions of the schools for the low down too. I even called principals- you'd be surprised what they'll tell you about a neighborhood. And I now have two kids and I love our neighborhood school. I knew I would.

    The most important qualification it had? I saw a teacher I knew, who I'd taught with once and who now taught at our to-be-neighborhood school, and asked her how it was. Her answer was, "I'm happy here."

    I'd taught in two elementary schools under five principals and had never been able to honestly say I was happy. Her answer meant a lot- test scores don't tell it all- but happy teachers do.

    Our school had low test scores overall because we had a high number of special needs kids who were given the test at AGE level and not ACHIEVEMENT level. This is normal practice and with NCLB it was a disaster for our school. It didn't make any difference to the school overall.

    So, the end of my Saturday night rambling is… Happy teachers make for good schools.

  10. Salty Mom December 5, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    We are in escrow on a house in Las Vegas. The schools that our kids would go to was one of the most important factors in our choosing a house. Test scores were moderately important we did not look at houses ranked below 50 there are approximately 200 elementary schools in our district. Other factors in choosing a school were my feeling when I toured the school, class size, outside activities offered, and parental involvement. I also looked over trending for past 5 years of the school.

  11. d12brown December 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    We absolutely considered school districts as a big part of our home buying decision. Now that our children are in school, I want them to have the stability that remaining in the same house will provide.

    The website is interesting, but I am not a fan of standardized testing. Don't get me wrong, I believe it should happen, but I think that if you a teacher is educating the child, a good score should come naturally. Students should not have to "practice" over and over. Having high scores does not tell me if the teachers teach to the test or individualize the student's education so that we get the most out of each child. The rating doesn't tell me if the school offers art and music, which I value. It does not tell me if the prinicipal is welcoming or if the PTO is active.

  12. Mrs. Q December 6, 2010 at 5:37 am #

    I think it would be hard for a free website to rate schools on more than just publicly available testing results. The research would be exhaustive considering the number of schools in this country. I'm sure basically a rating on testing skews things. I think testing has gotten way out of hand. Teaching to the test? Yep, it happens and it's wrong. Who loses? The students. They lose a love of learning.

    My Kids' Mom — Happy teachers do make happy schools!! What a great observation. Not too many happy teachers at my school…sad to say 🙁

  13. Penny December 6, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    To me, a great school is a place where teaching groups are decent in size, so every student can get equal attention from the teacher.

    If the teaching groups are small enough, children with individual teaching needs will be more easy to recognise and direct into appropriate directions.

    I would also consider it a good sign, if teachers keep in touch with students even when there aren't problems with the children in school. It offers a much stronger connection and safety network of adults who know each other for in case problems arise.

    (I was getting a lot of encouragement for my artistic and mathematical skills, and my jr high art teacher pointed me into the direction of an "elite" art school that only accepts 12 students into their visual arts programme a year, and I got in!)

    The school offers community, teaches children life skills, as well as prepares them for a life in their future where they can meet their potential.

    If a school doesn't teach a child problem solving and creativity, it is not a good school in my book, despite high scores in any standardised tests.

    Of course, food can play a big part in how students will perceive their environment. Nutritional information (plate models) are made available to children in posters in dining halls where I'm from, and fourth graders (10 year olds) are actually taught about nutrition, and why we need different nutrient groups and such. (I enjoyed teaching that class, food diaries and trying to puzzle proteins and carbs with vitamins and such was fun, even for the kids!)

    Since kindergarten, where I come from, schools also involve children in the making of school lunches. Sometimes it's just helping out serve the food, other times it's cooking classes (ages 13-15 compulsory subject where I came from and enjoying what you eat). We actually grew some food in grade school as part of biology classes! 🙂

    There's one school I've heard of that makes me want to save up every penny I make through my life so my children could attend, and my fiancé would love due to climate… The Green School in Bali. http://www.greenschool.org/

    It offers not only all-over life skills and a green outlook on life, but its curriculum also aims at preparing students for world class top universities, so your child should be able to get into Cambridge or other prestigious universities once they graduate.

    Of course, it's a bit of a romantic folly, and I keep it as a measure of what I would like to see my children be educated at, since my old gradeschool had similar principles in their education as the green school…

    In reality though, the schools in my future home area are good by reputation, and are well adapted to accommodating geeky parents' geeky kids' needs, due to close proximity to Microsoft.

  14. Anonymous December 6, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    We bought our house in an area known for good schools due to resale (we don't have kids of our own yet) I relied more on word of mouth instead of test score reports though. As a teacher, I know that test scores are more related to good parents and income levels than anything else. (exceptions exist I know)

    The district I teach in -a few towns over. Was always known as a great special ed district. In the past few years things have changed drastically due to how much was being spent of special education. Now many parents of special ed students are very frustrated that they specifically moved to this town for the services provided, and those services are no longer given like they used to be. I'm sure my district is an extreme, but our schools changed drastically in a short time span. The average kids are still getting what they need, but the struggling kids are not getting nearly as much support as they used to (although our test scores remain the same so we look the same on paper-9 on great schools)

    In all, I think that if you have an average kid, most schools would be fine. If you have a child with learning needs, or a child that is truly gifted you might want to do more research, knowing full well that things can change with each administration change.

  15. becboo84 December 6, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    I looked up the schools I attended growing up, which are the same schools that my kids attend now and will attend in the future (town of about 3,000 in downstate IL outside of a "city" of about 120,000). The elementary, middle, junior high, and high school are all rated 9 or 10, which I would say is 100% accurate. It had wonderful resources for me (an honor student), but it has also gone above and beyond for my 3rd grade foster son who, while not qualifying for special ed services, does have some special education needs.

    I would agree that test scores are not always a good measurement tool, but I would say that they certainly can be useful. The biggest thing it misses though is probably the financial situation and home life of most of the kids. These schools are great schools because the teachers love their jobs and many of them have their Master's, but they are also great because the community is behind them and parents work with their kids at home.

  16. Anonymous December 6, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    I agree with becboo84, a great school has good teachers and good parents. Our school was rated a 10 on the list, and if I had to grade it myself, I would have given it the same. Our PTO is fantastic, parents can really get involved with what's going on in the school. Most teachers are also involved in after school activities, such as book clubs, Accelerated Reader parties, the Fall Festival, and most recently a dodgeball tournament that raised money for the make a wish foundation. Next month there is a "Dancing with the Teachers" community fundraiser. Kids like when teachers get involved with their lives. It makes them "human" to them and really deepens a bond. The relationship a child has with a teacher is just as important as what they teach.

  17. Kari December 8, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    Not at all, because we homeschool! 🙂

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