Evaluating Schools: False Leads and Secondary Factors

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One of the most common mistakes that parents make when they choose a school for their child is to look at certain factors that are poor indicators of the quality of the school, such as the school’s popularity and fame, whose children go there, the opinions of friends and family, the opinions of students, national test results, whether rich parents send their children there, the possibility of improved status or prestige, the school’s facilities, an educational style that looks familiar, the extracurricular and/or co-curricular programs, and the school’s appearance.  While these factors may sometimes give an indication of the quality of the school, in general, their value ranges from almost non-existent to secondary considerations.   Please read my separate article about trophies and other awards.
A School’s Popularity and Fame
Popularity and fame are subjective perceptions that are easily manipulated through marketing strategies, the selective entry into contests that their students are sure to win, the display of trophies and other awards, making the school grounds look attractive, offering special programs and other tactics that are psychologically impressive but are generally nothing more than glitter in terms of evaluating quality.  Unless the school has significant attributes, such as a track record of years of students who have moved on to success in life; a reputation for students becoming very civic-minded; above average results even when using non-standard evaluation techniques through independent sources and even while accepting  students from a wide range of backgrounds and performance records; a curriculum that has been demonstrated through years of use at various schools  to get better-than-average results; a roster of teachers who have received accolades; etc., one should be wary of whether the popularity and/or fame of a school is just a passing trend or the result of clever marketing.
Whose Children Go There, Rich Parents Send Their Kids There, Status and Prestige
While it is certainly true that some schools are full of students from the upper class (such as Ivy League universities) and successful, most of the time deciding to enroll your child in a particular school because someone’s child is there is a mistake.  Certainly, if the person in question is someone who is a famous, highly regarded leader in the reformation of education who is respected even by his or her adversaries, that might be an exception to the rule.
Similarly, choosing a school because it might make you look better is self-serving and egotistical and, while it may work as a strategy for you, it may be a disaster for your child.  You may accidentally put your child in a bad school, a bad situation, or drastically alter their future.
If, however, you’re on a quest for improved status (reputation by association), then you are not concerned with your child’s future, nor are you making a wise choice.  Education is not about what is best for you as the parent, but what is best for your child.  Put your child’s needs first, and make an informed decision based on real facts.
If you send your child to a school that is famous (like Ivy League universities), please be aware that while it will provide an excellent education in many respects, there are pitfalls, especially if you are not wealthy.
Opinions
We often like to ask the people around us what they think about a particular school, or which school they think is best.   Yet, most of these people have never researched the schools in the area, let alone the city, and many know very little about education or how to choose a good school.  Asking the average person for advice on which school to go to, while it may yield some information that you can use in your search, will rarely lead you to the best choice.  It’s like asking a grocer to perform surgery on you – the chances are very low that it’ll go well.
Students are, on average, only good for a very limited variety of information unless you ask them questions but, if you ask the right questions, they can be a goldmine of information!   The value of a student’s answers will generally be greater the older the person is.  Usually, if you ask a child if they like their school, they base their answer on how many friends they have and, thus, how happy they are there.  You’ll have to dig deeper with questions like:
“What do you think about your teachers?”
“Are they fair, honest and respectful?”
“Do they make learning interesting, enjoyable and challenging?”
“Do they help you when you have trouble?”
“Do they make students feel uncomfortable, embarrass them or bully them?”

“When they observe someone bullying, do they have effective methods to defuse the situation, perhaps even permanently?”
“How safe do you feel in your school?”
Here’s an interesting “climate” (which means the social and emotional relationship environment) survey you might want to make use of when talking to a student: http://www.schoolclimatesurvey.com/files/Student_ASC_Survey_2006_Version_2.1.5.pdf

 

If you DO want to ask the average person, then you should go loaded with questions that will help you evaluate how much value their opinion has.  Of course, in order to be able to understand the value of the answers to some of these questions, you’d have to actually learn about education.  Here’s a very short list.
How many schools have you evaluated?
How many of them did you visit?
What kind of curriculum does each us?
What teaching methodologies are employed, and which is/are preferred?
What subjects are offered and are they all required, or can students guide their own future by choosing?
What guidance does the school offer to students so that they make wise decisions for their future?
What is the school’s strategy for testing and grading?
How does the school evaluate teachers?
Do teachers work as a members of a team and have routine sessions in which they sit  down and share their problems and offer solutions?

 

Climate surveys for different people (eg: students, teachers, administrators, staff, community members) are available online if you search for “school climate survey”, such as here: http://www.tacoma.k12.wa.us/Schools/Pages/Climate-Surveys.aspx which offers surveys online for parents, staff and primary, junior and senior high students.
Test Results
First of all, it is obvious that if there are 20 schools that are reviewed and evaluate, and all 20 schools receive fairly poor scores, the best of the 20 is still poor.  With a consistent “benchmark”, tests hold little meaning outside the environment within which they are used.

 

Second, many countries have problems with cheating on tests, not just by the teachers and their students but also by administrators and even testing companies.  There are numerous reasons for this, including government funding that is determined based on test results; administrator’s fear of loss of funding, sanctions, loss of status, and embarrassment; teacher’s fear of reprisals by administrators or the impact the results will have on their  position and/or salary; teacher’s fear of embarrassment and loss of status; student’s fear of loss of opportunities in societies that still over-estimate the value of test results; parents fear of loss of status, embarrassment, missed opportunities; and many other possible reasons.  In some countries, tests are the key to university, being able to study overseas, scholarships, funding and many other things and, thus, the stakes are big.  Sometimes, entire schools will cheat so that it looks like no one has failed because of these reasons, or even because passing the national exams is a requisite for graduation.  Even politicians have been involved in such corruption.

 

Third, many tests are geared toward testing knowledge, not ability, and thus are not only bad indicators of school quality, but also the chances of success of any given student.  Testing knowledge is a poor way of getting results that have more meaning for parents, teachers, students, administrators and the government.

 

Fourth, if a test is poorly designed; it is much more difficult or easier than the actual curriculum, the quality of the teachers is poor; or there is some other disparity between the test and the actual learning experience, then the validity of the test’s results is highly suspect.

 

Fifth, the formatting of questions and answers can affect the student’s ability to answer, making it easier or more difficult to answer, thus skewing the results for an individual, a grade level, a school, a city or even an entire country.  Therefore, if all schools do not use exactly the same format and questions, then the results of the test have far less value than is needed.  A poor-quality school that uses the easiest types of questions (such as multiple-choice, cloze with a word box, and matching) will appear to be competitive when compared to a high-quality school that designs tests that minimize the use of easy question types.  Conversely, an underachieving school with honest leadership may choose to use hard question types which may shine a light on the problems there, but which may be looked at the wrong way.

 

Sixth, how tests are graded can skew the results.  For example, if a test is graded on the so-called “bell curve”, other schools that use a different curve,  that don’t use a curve at all, or that revise scores based on non-test criteria can manipulate their results.

 

Seventh, how the results are collated and what statistical evaluations are used (including biases) can change the perception of the results.  It is well known that the manipulation of statistical analysis results can produce results that give a false impression of the facts.

 

Eighth, for a variety of reasons, including learning disabilities, test stress and other mental and emotional issues, some students are unable to perform well on tests.  They may do very well in all other aspects of schooling, but when it comes to tests, their results are startlingly bad.

 

There are other reasons as well, but I think this makes it clear enough.  While test results may give some kind of indication of quality, if you have no way to evaluate their value, then it is unlikely that they will be of significant use for you.

 

Finally, does the school do formative post-test assessments to identify problems with the test as well as areas students need more help with?

 

Not all testing is bad.  Tests that are designed to evaluate comprehension and abilities rather than just information (especially trivia) can be very valuable in terms of assessing students.  On the other hand, if you see that a test is mostly focused on checking knowledge acquisition, then that test’s value is far weaker than a test or activity that checks the ability to apply knowledge correctly.

 

Not all forms of evaluation involve testing, such as observation and evaluation during classroom activities and projects, evaluation of homework, and evaluation of participation (what kinds, how often, depth of involvement, etc.).  A test that uses a lot of multiple choice questions (A,B,C,D) is easier to pass than a test that uses a variety of question types with a greater range of possibility (e.g.: fill in the blank with a box of many choices or no box at all, open-ended questions requiring a sentence be written, short essays).  “Near miss” answers can be used to determine comprehension in that such answers will appear to be correct, and may be, but are not the most correct choice for the test question.  This is actually a better way to provide answer choices than choices that are obviously incorrect, because it requires that the student be able to choose the answer based on deductive or inductive logic, and this is more difficult if all the answers are valid than if some answers can be immediately eliminated as wrong.

 

If a post-test evaluation is done to find problems with the test so that future tests will be better, this is an important step to ensure quality results for students, parents AND teachers, as well as being a tool to help teachers better assist their students.

 

While testing has a place in education, and although they may indicate success in education itself, high scores are not usually a strong indicator of success in life.  You should look at a test score but you should also look at the test critically to see what it is actually designed to evaluate.  Even if you cannot determine how high the quality of the test is, if you see that it is focused on testing abilities instead of just information, that it offers a variety of question types, of which there are few that are closed-ended (multiple-choice A,B,C,D; True/False; Yes/No; Right/Wrong; Fill-in-the-blank with a limited number of choices), and many that are open-ended (questions for which the ability to answer is not limited, such as “Why…?” and “How…?”), then you can have a basic understanding of the test’s worth.

 

Please note that the younger your child, the more closed-ended, information-check questions there will be.  However, even in lower primary, you should see some open-ended questions about comprehension and ability, especially in a subject like Mathematics.

 

I realize that you may now feel that your ability to know about your child’s progress is limited.  There are, however, questions you can ask your child’s teachers to help you get a better understanding of your child.  Ask questions about strengths and weaknesses, behavior, the ability to socialize,  maturely handle emotions, his/her level of creativity, problem-solving, analysis, how well your child performs during daily classroom activities, which subjects your child seems to do particularly well at and which still need to be improved, etc.  Through questioning, you will learn far more about your child than a report card can show.
Facilities and Appearance
Actually, facilities are probably one of the best of the worst things to look at, but don’t allow them to be the primary consideration because other factors (such as seen in the questions in the opinions section) are far more important.

 

From the bathrooms and the availability of soap, sprayers and toilet paper within them (and, if people wipe with their hands, soap should be in each stall, not just at the sink), lots of garbage cans, student lockers, and security measures to prevent theft, abduction, attacks, molestation, etc. to premium facilities like a swimming pool, fine arts room, outdoor activity area, indoor gym, performing arts room, choir/band room, stadium/sports field, track, fitness center, nurse’s office, guidance counselor, psychologist, special education experts, archery range, computer/AV lab, stage and auditorium, and science lab, these things should all be taken into consideration as part of the overall package, especially if they are needed for the path your child wants to follow later in life.

 

Nevertheless, lack of these things should only be a secondary factor, although those related to hygiene (be sure to investigate the bathrooms, cafeteria and kitchen!) are very important.

 

Some schools spend a great deal of attention on appearance.  There are two types of appearance – those that please the eyes of parents, and those that are purpose-driven to assist in the learning process.  Certainly, schools should be colorfully painted instead of looking like re-purposed prisons, and have interesting decorations to look at, because art is an important part of education.  However, if you are walking down the halls and looking into classrooms, you should see purpose-driven decoration or, more accurately, displays that support current and recent lessons by displaying material about the lessons, and/or those created by the students.  Cheerful and inspiring displays of students’ work should be evident around the school, even in the lobby (but not only there or it is just for the benefit of parents).  Be careful to try to discern whether it is a marketing strategy or for the benefit of the students.  Note dates on materials – displays should be changed fairly often so as to always be relevant and give students motivation to do well so as to have their work displayed.  It is not the most beautiful work that should always be displayed because not everyone is able to produce beautiful work.
A Familiar Educational Style
Often parents expect that the style of teaching that is used at a school should be similar to the schooling they received.  They believe that what worked for them is the best choice because they were able to do well with it.  Most likely, unless you went to a school that employed a progressive or transformational methodology, this is not true.  Aside from the fact that each person is different, even from their parents, and thus has different needs, the traditional system of public education was not designed to help students to excel – it was helped to create workers.  It is, for some people, highly appropriate but, anyone who looks at a statistical analysis of the results over the last 200 years can clearly see that less than 50% really benefit from this system.  The rest get average, or worse, results.  That means that the educational system given to the public by Europe is a failure.

 

Do not look for a school that uses the traditional, teacher-focused, student-as-recorder, one-directional, boring style of education.  Look, instead, for a school where the students are frequently engaged in learning through doing: experiments, activities, research, discovery, games, debriefing and more; it is the practical application of knowledge that most benefits the largest number of students, not the passing on of theory that is rarely practiced.  Look for a place where students  are excited to get to class instead of just play and reticent to go home, where parents are involved with the learning experience because it is so enjoyable, and where there is such a positive environment that just stepping  into the school is like entering a better world.  This may sound utopian, but this is what you should seek out if you truly care for your child and want the best.
Extracurricular/Co-curricular Programs
Extra- and co-curricular programs are a nice bonus.  They offer additional options, but they are not the same, and how valuable they are is partially dependent on what is offered.

 

Extra-curricular programs offer a free/inexpensive way for students to explore interests that may otherwise be inaccessible to them.  Some may just be a way for them to relax, while others may give them a chance to evaluate professions they may want to pursue, as well as provide a chance to acquire the necessary skills to do well in it.  While you should be sure to give your child a great deal of control over this, and you should encourage the child to try, you should also make sure that the child doesn’t waste these opportunities.

 

Co-curriculars are often not free, and I am less inclined to value them because they are also required.  Unlike extra-curriculars, your child will be forced to enroll in a certain number of co-curriculars, and you will have to produce the money to pay for it (usually).  If the options are of a particular  type only (such as focusing only on the traditional “core” areas of language, science and math), or they are of a specific bent (such as religious or play-time), then this is something to ask questions about – a co-curricular program should  offer a wide variety of options since the students have to participate instead of trying  to force them to follow  a particular path that they may not even be suited for.

 

Carefully review the program offered at the schools you’re considering and see if they align with your child’s dreams and offer a wide variety of choices – even though some of those choices may seem unimportant to you (such as performing and fine arts, sports, debate, forensics, chess club, A/V club, etc.).  Again, these are there for your child, not you.  If they don’t have anything of great interest to your child, and/or there is a lack of variety, but it is an extra-curricular program, then it’s not a big problem.  If, however, it’s a co-curricular program, then you may want to look at other schools.

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