The first truth of finding a school is that every child is different. A terrific school for one child can be absolute hell for another. And in any one school, you are always one child or one teacher away from your child not having a good learning or social experience being at that school.
There has been a lot of research into schooling all over the world so there are some good pointers available.
To find the best school, do not over-emphasise these things
Money and class sizes
Ignore, spending per student. All schools in Australia do have adequate funding to provide the basics for good schooling. Spending money provides facilities but above a baseline spending level, it does not translate into quality education in any country involved in the PISA study. Several top performing countries spend much less on education than Australia.
Ignore class size, except in early years and primary school. The research shows that the quality of the teaching is more important than the class sizes. A good teacher is a good teacher also in a large class. Top performing countries like Finland and Poland have very large class sizes.
NAPLAN and other test data can be helpful. The issue is what to draw from any set of scores you look at. How much value is the school adding beyond what kids learn at home and beyond what kids learn from external tutoring? When a school has a high socioeconomic score, the kids tend to have better-educated parents that can help and encourage more and have better learning resources at home. Put that together with a tendency for better off parents to provide external extra tutoring for their children, and it becomes hard to figure out what value the school is adding. A school with well-supported kids don’t need to work very hard to get their good scores, they can rely on parents and external tutors. The weakest kids in the school then become the main indicators of the ability the school has to value-add beyond external influences.
If you are considering a school mainly based on test scores and if you feel the need to settle your mind on this matter, it is worth it to inquire about the level of private tutoring at the school. It can be difficult information to get but parents who have had kids at a school for a while should be able to assist.
Technology and Facilities
If you are after quality education, you can feel free to ignore shiny new buildings and well-stocked computer labs. Yes, technology is important, it is the way of the future, the inroads of artificial intelligence in the workplace is happening, we are watching the end of learning facts in schools. Technology beyond a baseline level does not add value to the teaching. There is no amount of technology that can teach a child rigor, responsibility for own learning, structured working habits, confidence and the will to succeed and learn. Only good teaching does that, so you still have to look somewhere else to get clues about whether the school will be a good learning environment for your child.
Tech is not much used in the countries leading the PISA education tables. Andreas Schleicher, the German researcher behind the PISA study, speculates that this may have to do with where an education system invests its resources and efforts. The gadget itself confers very few educational advantages by itself, what is important is the pedagogical practices. People matter more than props.
To find the best school, these are the important factors
Listen to the kids
Open days can be useful but that depends on how it is conducted. If it has become a show day with stalls and information displays, it will not help you much because you want to see the school in action, that is, see the kids working in the classroom in a normal lesson.
Know what to look for: not order. Learning can be noisy and require communication, finding things etc. Ask yourself, are all the kids paying attention to what they are doing? Are they engaged and working independently. When a room full of people have some urgency and purpose you can see and feel it. Filling in worksheets and handing them out is not engaging, rigorous learning. If you walking past distracts them, that is not a good sign. If they are easily distracted, they are bored and looking for an opportunity to entertain themselves with anything other than what is happening in the classroom. If they are not engaged, then the class is a waste of time. Boredom should be the exception, not the norm in a classroom. Expect to see one or two not engaging, not eight, ten or the majority of the class. If you can walk into/past several classrooms and see most kids engaged not bored, then you are in a place of learning not just a holding facility for young people.
Next, make sure you talk to the kids. Don’s ask meaningless questions like whether they like their teacher or the school. This kid already attends the school, what do you expect him or her to say. There is a degree of commitment invested in that relationship that will not help you. Imagine if someone came and asked you what you reckon about your boss and your place of work.
Ask them what they are doing in their class at the moment. Follow that up with asking them why they do it. If they don’t know why they are working on something, then they have no purpose. Going to school all day, every day and learning takes commitment. If the child does not have a reason to work hard, they will not. They have to buy into the concept of school and learning for a purpose. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a long-running project looking at teaching quality. Initial findings in 2010 showed that surveying students about their perceptions of their classroom environment provide important information about teaching effectiveness as well as concrete feedback that can help teachers improve. Startlingly, the students’ responses about their classroom was reliably predictive about their test scores. To replicate this for yourself, you can ask kids at prospective school things like:
- do you learn a lot every day?
- Do kids behave well and listen to their teacher?
- Are you usually busy in class?
So simple but these impressions have been proven through research to be predictive of learning outcomes. A good follow up question is, if you don’t understand something, what do you do?
Listen to the parents
Can the other parents tell you if this will be a good school for your child? Maybe not. But if you listen to them, you get to understand what is important to them that the school provides and you can decide whether you think the same things are important.
If they talk a lot about the sports program and sports facilities, then that is where the school’s focus is. Sport is good and can help a child’s confidence, social skills and keep them strong and healthy. Kids and adults can bond around team values and the value of commitment and hard work.
Some of the education superpowers, however, do not invest much or any time in sports such as Finland, Poland and Korea. Values learned in sport may translate into academic disciplines but only with the aide of good teachers. If many parents at a school are not actively engaged with and interested in the level of teaching for Maths or English, then that is not where the school’s focus will lie.
You may look for how the parents at the school are involved with the school. Are they involved in ways that lead to learning or do they take kids to school sports, do bake sales and other fundraising activities?
There is quite a lot of interesting research looking at parents and their value in kids’ learning. The main finding is that their value is at home. There is a real correlation between learning and parents talking to their kids at home, parents reading to their kids and also to whether parents themselves were reading at home (for themselves) and to whether the home had books. There’s even evidence that parents who were involved at school had kids performing worse than the rest. It could be that parents were involved because their child was not doing well and would have been even worse off without that involvement but equally, the parent involvement at school may have been less involved at home – where the research shows that the real impact is made in terms of learning.
You cannot have teaching that is better than the teacher. It doesn’t mean that the teacher has to be the smartest person in the room, it means that the teacher has to have the knowledge and tools to pedagogically provide a good learning environment and be interesting, not just provide babysitting.
Ask the principal how he chooses the new teachers, how does he measure whether they do a good job and how does he make his teachers better. Good leaders know what they are looking for and take measures to ensure they identify weak points and how to improve those weaknesses. Any workplace needs to cultivate a culture of change and also of high expectations to keep standards high. Does the school ever let teachers go because of performance issues? This ensures a place where teachers feel valued and challenged and where students have appropriate input and are valued.
Test scores, graduation rates and parent satisfaction surveys do not tell you whether it is a good school. These mostly tell you about the school’s socio-economic recruitment base and that parents are invested in the school. The higher the school fees, the greater the chance is that parents report being satisfied because they are that much more financially invested in the school – would be rather an embarrassment to them if they were not happy and paid all that money.
Learning for life
Learning today is not a matter of memorising facts, it’s about higher-order thinking and problem-solving. To get there, kids have to learn persistence, self-control and integrity. You need a classroom that is not organised like a 19-century factory but where kids can engage and learn to their potential. I know that is a fuzzy way of putting it and wouldn’t help me get through a single day of teaching but research shows that good pedagogy will get kids there.
Think about this practical story told by educator Sir Ken Robinson. He interviewed Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles about growing up in Liverpool and his school music teacher. Turns out this one music teacher in Liverpool in the 50’s had both Paul and George Harrison in his class. Asked whether the teacher thought he was any good, Paul said no; and asked whether the teacher though George was any good and the response was again no. What does that say about his teaching methods when he has half the Beatles in his class, two people widely recognised as having a transformative influence on music in that century and being highly talented but the teacher does not recognise it.
A popular shorthand way of addressing pedagogy methods in the modern classroom is to ask how would you teach a class if among your students you had Beethoven, Einstein and Hemingway. Every teacher has kids with these types of intelligence in their class. If a classroom full of kids is buzzing with purpose and the kids know what they are doing and why, then the teacher is able to engage all these different personalities, or intelligence to keep to research terminology, and you can be more confident that what you don’t teach your child at home, they will learn at school.
PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment. An international student test administered throughout the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries plus a few other countries like Australia
NAPLAN – The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy. The annual assessment for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Australia. Started in 2008.
Howard Gardner Theory of multiple intelligences
Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids In the World and how they got that way (Simon and Schuster, New York 2013)
PISA studies available from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/