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By Tatyana Levin, Staff Writer
There is no way to overestimate the importance of a good education.
This is why the quality of schools in a neighborhood is often such an important factor when moving to a new neighborhood. Families can easily spend hours researching the quality of schools in the different neighborhoods and may even choose a neighborhood based on the quality of the school system alone!
But how do you determine whether or not a school or school system is good?
Where to Start
If you already have a neighborhood in mind, take a look at a map to find nearby schools. Once you have a list of potential schools, you may want to research them to find out more information. The National Center for Education Statistics is a great place to start. It will give you some raw data on schools such as the number of students, broken down by grade and the makeup of the student body.
This site is a good place to start and will inform you about important things like magnet programs and charter status.
There are websites that are specifically dedicated to comparing schools. Although some of these sites are paid, many are free and can give you an idea about the quality of a school.
Websites like Schooldigger.com can help you dive in a little deeper than the NCES and give you school-wide test score averages. Test scores can be a major metric that can help you make a decision.
Schooldigger.com gives statewide test score comparisons and allows you to search by zip code or for a specific school.
Neighborhoodscout.com offers all kinds of information about choosing the right neighborhood including information about great schools as well as crime rate and property appreciation rate.
Greatschools.org is another terrific option that offers a more in depth analysis of schools as well as reviews and general information about schooling for your children. This site is a terrific resource for parents who want to know about the specifics of the education system.
Some sites are only statewide rather than nationwide. School-ratings.com, for example, offers insights about California schools with information about test scores, graduation rate, and the number of students who move on to college after high school.
There are plenty of metrics that can help give you an idea about the quality of a school.
Test scores are often considered to be one of the most telling metrics by the state and federal government.
Metrics frequently depend on the type of school (elementary, middle, or high school). For example, when looking at high schools, look to see how many of the students from a specific high school go to college if you have access to that kind of information. Look at how many students go to Ivy League schools. Look at how many students drop out per year.
Class size is another important metric to look at for any type of school. This is not always the case, but the class size is often an indication of many problems. Not only do students in bigger classes get less direct attention from their teacher, larger class sizes suggest that the school may be underfunded.
Every year students take standardized tests that measure their knowledge of subjects like math, science, and English. These tests serve to track the progress of students and the quality of teachers. The scores from these standardized tests often act as a benchmark for determining the quality of the school overall.
The standardized testing system is under scrutiny, however. Some have accused teachers of teaching to a test rather than teaching critical thinking skills. Therefore, some say that these tests do not accurately measure quality but rather measure a student’s ability to memorize facts. However, standardized testing does have proponents who believe that these tests do accurately measure certain skills like writing and grammar.
Call the schools you are considering directly and ask about what kind of classes are offered. Does the school offer a foreign language and if so, how many? See if the school offers advanced placement classes, and if so, how many? Take it a step further and find out how popular advanced placement classes are and how well students do on the advanced placement exams. Ask about electives and art classes. The more classes that are offered and the more freedom kids have to choose what they want to take, the better.
Word of Mouth
Knowing what other people have to say about a school or school district can be tremendously insightful.
Forums – There are plenty of parents out there who are eager to give advice about pretty much anything, including schools and neighborhoods. Because advice on the internet is one-sided and personal, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Remember that this type of advice is often based on impressions and opinions rather than facts and research.
Friends – Friends may be able to give you personalized information about schools if they live the in neighborhood you are considering. Because you have the opportunity to talk with friends at length, you can get a fuller picture of the neighborhood in question.
Potential Neighbors – Few know about a school better than the parents of a student attending that school. Although approaching potential neighbors can be a bit awkward, the payoff can be helpful.
Visiting the School – Be your own resource. If you already have a school in mind, spend a day at the school if you can. Sit in on classes and observe the students. Pay attention to their moods and attitudes and especially how they treat one another. This research method can allow you to determine the quality of the school better than test scores which only tell part of the story.
Ultimately, the only real measure of the quality of a school is each student’s education. Although metrics can give you a general idea of the quality of a school, each student is different and learns differently.
The only way you can really judge the quality of a school is by actually having your child attend that school and for you to personally observe the results. Metrics may help you evaluate overall quality, but each child’s experience will be slightly different due to factors that are not entirely related to education or school such as personality, intelligence, and parental influence.
Be the Change
Remember that schools are dynamic capable of change. Don’t let the bureaucracy of the education system scare you away from advocating from your child’s education. There are changes that can be made on the local level that are worth fighting for. From nutrition to curriculum, parents have the opportunity to improve schools.