The other night at a friend’s holiday party, I started picking the brains of people who had kids going to school at the local high school, the one that my own kids are scheduled to attend in a few short years. I got a variety of responses, most of them pretty positive. It”s a smallish country high school, about 950 students 9-12, mostly white middle class, and probably typical in most aspects. I don’t think anyone would rate it as outstanding, but it’ not near the bottom by traditional measures either.
It’s those traditional measures that struck me in the responses I got. One parent, who is a classroom teacher at another school, said “well my daughter scored really well on the PSAT’s, so they [the school] must be doing something right.” Another parent said “well, they’ve got like 10 AP courses which is pretty good.” And a few others commented on the fact that their kids were doing well socially and had a lot of friends. I was struck by how kind of programmed the responses felt. Almost like, it’s a school, what more can you say?
Ironically, I ran into an old friend right before the party who had recently retired from teaching at that school, and he articulated his assessment like this: “If you want your kids get the best experience, you have to advocate for them.” In other words, I’m going to have to find ways to help them get the “best” teachers and to be active in steering them through the program. “Look,” he said. “It’s like 25% of the teachers are great and your kids will learn a lot. Another 40% are fine, and they’ll make it interesting. The rest? They’re just doing their time. Not much different from anywhere else.”
Did I mention there is a board seat opening up this spring? Hmmm….
Finally, one of our good friends went and visited a Waldorf school nearby and spent the day watching students and teachers interact. It was interesting to listen to her talk about the experience. “It was amazing,” she said. “The kids were engaged, making things, talking to teachers. It was totally different.” They had a compost bin, too.
Now I know it’s not totally fair to make comparisons here, but I wish I would have heard more of those types of responses about the high school. I wish I would have heard stories of kids changing the world, of pushing through personal barriers, of creative expressions, of challenges met, of real work for real purposes. I wish it had been more than PSATs and AP tests.
So I’m wondering two things. How are you advocating for your kids? And more importantly, how are you assessing your kids’ schools? If you’re reading this, I’m thinking PSAT scores and number of AP courses probably aren’t too important. (Or are they?) In the 21st Century, what should we be demanding of our schools?
(Photo: “Rows Upon Rows” by natashalcd.)
Chad Lehman says
This is an interesting question. My chiildren are still pretty young – kindergarten and third grade, but I still have to think about the school they are attending and will attend down the road. So much of what they learn comes from outside of school, some would hope that the school not screw them up. To me, a successful school challenges the students academically and offers opportunities for them to pursue ideas that interest them, but it’s almost about the social aspect. Is the environment of the school one that where my children can take risks, get along with others, and feel comfortable. I can see different people have different views about the success of a school, but I’d also gues their goals for schools would be different as well.
Chad Lehman says
Okay, sorry for the poor writing/typos – maybe I should proofread before clicking submit.
Outside of students with an IEP, parental involvement in a school is pretty much inverse to grade level and begans seriously declining after about 7th grade. Most of the parental “advocacy” seen at the high school level is over admission to AP/Honors courses or over disciplinary issues.
The responses you received, including from the recently retired teacher, seem very typical to my experience. That could be a high school located in most non-economically distressed communities of the United States. Pretty much if a parent of a HS student pesters the counseling department or the AP (or whomever does the master schedule) early enough to put their child in a certain teacher’s class, they’ll get it because no one else is asking (except for AP classes).
Sean Nash says
/ …ditto to what i have seen.
Sean Nash says
Very interesting post. As a teacher/instructional coach for the past 18 years… but a parent of just two years… I’d have to say I am beginning to see the dynamic of this dilemma. To be perfectly honest, I’m no tin the teacher assessment business, but I would have to largely agree with the percentage layout above. Again, as a non-administrator, I have always been able to focus on the positive things within the four walls of my classroom and those who tug on my sleeve to consulting and collaboration as an instructional coach.
However, as soon as my two year old began the early reaches towards reading, I began to look at the hit/miss nature of the beast in a more judgmental way. I suppose that’s the papa bear anticipating the protection of his cub. That’s gotta be pretty primal.
I’m afraid I will likely have navigate the path of VERY concerned advocate. And although I have seen that done poorly enough times to know what not to do… that certainly can’t be an easy path.
I have more questions here than answers. Will, you may carry enough *perceived* weight in your corner of the world. I may be better than average in that respect as well on a local perspective. But- what about the majority of parents who don’t have the platform of knowledge to advocate in a way that would benefit their child? Figuring out how to deal with the situation for our own children will be tough enough. And that certainly doesn’t do a thing to fix the larger system.
The board seat may be tempting as well. I don’t know how it works there, but how would that seat really help to fix the issues you speak of. From where I sit, school boards have little to do with any sort of micromanaging. Though in a small town this may be more the rule that the exception. There is no doubt that a board seat would cement your ability to “advocate.” But I am not sold on the power of that seat to make lasting change.
You probably do more to effect lasting change with this blog. Then again, that is dispersed influence across the planet… not exactly what you are thinking of when thinking of your own children, for sure.
Please update this saga as it continues. I am sure a ton of us could benefit from seeing you “go first.” Sorry. 😉
Charlie A. Roy says
As a high school principal and father of twin second graders I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. It is hard to capture the culture of a school by its test scores and myriad of AP offerings. A good high school is a school were students are engaged, build a meaningful community, and are pushed by the adults around them to be their best. I’m blessed to work with many teachers who fit the bill and go the extra mile to help their students succeed. If there was a way to measure the percentage of staff based on who can hit the parking lot at 3:00 and who is really focused on student learning this would be a start. Hard to tell from brochures and stats but I would argue asking the students would be the way to go. Teenagers are the best authenticity detectors out there. They can tell within ten minutes whether the teacher cares about their learning or is just killing time before the pension kicks in. In the end great teachers make great schools. In all of our own experience we can probably point to a handful of great teachers that made all the difference.
My 13-year-old is having a very positive experience in 8th grade (PA suburban district, 350 kids per grade) after a fantastically mediocre 7th grade year. But when I truly analyze it, the reason 8th grade is good has little to do with the academics. She loves the social scene, the music offerings, working in the TV studio, participating in the state science fair competition. She gets jazzed by doing an alternate assessment (like making a video) – but usually we have to invoke the GIEP to make that happen.
All of the above are a result of two parent advocates (who both happen to be in the education biz) who pushed and pushed (as gently as possible – most teachers don’t take kindly to parent aggression). I can only foresee that we’ll have to continue the pushing when she gets to high school next year.
The ultimate assessments for me? How easy is it for her to get out of bed in the morning and get to school? What is she looking forward to doing? What will she talk about when she gets home? What will she continue to work on outside of school hours (usually with friends, via email and chat) without being assigned as homework? In educational parlance this is all about student engagement and making connections. As a mom, it’s all about my kid’s happiness as a learner.
Sean Nash says
Stef- That sounds like a solid “remove the barriers and most things will work out” -approach.
I like it.
That is my classroom philosophy. Here’s hoping I’m able to invoke that later for this scenario when the time comes.
Gary Stager says
I recommend that folks interested in this question take a look at the following book.
I’d also look for a school with the best music department, student newspaper, television studio, greatest range of electives and a principal whose office door is always open.
You should do more research on Steiner or Waldorf Schools before sending a kid to one.
If you’re interested, you can predict a chils’s SAT score (old one based on 1,600 points.)
Family income / 100 = SAT Score
Oh yeah, the best high schools don’t track, have honors or AP classes.
Sean Nash says
“If youâ€™re interested, you can predict a childâ€™s SAT score (old one based on 1,600 points.) Family income / 100 = SAT Score”
I get what you’re trying to say here. I do. I am an educator of nearly 20 years, married to a hotshot educator of 5 years.
However- these generalizations (whether they be about troubled kids or advantaged kids) do little to help any of us on the ground level. They do characterize the scope and nature of the issue. But I would bet that most teachers would want to do more than just “hold true to the statistics.”
I promise you… that my dad of likely $40,000 when I was in grade school (mom raised us on the homefront) got way more than this statistic for his dollar earned. I can also tell you that I would put my retirement on my daughters getting better than that with two educators as parents.
I know… I know. You are likely spot-on with the statistics. I can also tell you that parents could give a damn less about a statistic. Administrators… even technology experts… can play around with such numbers. While they have their purpose for “stage one” thinking and planning… they don’t do one damn thing for a kid sitting in either your living room- nor your classroom.
I get it- there are always “exceptions.” But what I would argue is: ALL kids are exceptions in their own way.
I do agree on the kind of product delivered by all elite schools. They tend to offer a high-end peer group, but not necessarily the best environment for a rich education for all kids.
Very sad to say but at this point, my hope for the high school my two daughters currently attend is that it continue to provide for their safety and that the mediocre program doesn’t squelch their enthusiasm for learning and developing to their greatest potential. Not very high standards I admit, and I may be singing a different tune when my 7th grade son reaches high school.
My daughters (a junior and a senior), you see, are responsible, motivated, honor students. I don’t have much to worry about socially or academically where they’re concerned. I want them to gain confidence, try new things, practice collaborating, and grow in their own independence throughout their high school years.
I’m mindful however that the quality of education received, whether K-12 or college-level, depends greatly on the effort of the student. The most progressive schools with the best and brightest of teachers will have little impact on an apathetic student.
Providing enough AP and honors level courses is necessary because it challenges students to stretch. I hold little stock in PSAT scores as they only offer a snapshot of what a student may achieve. My daughters always perform much better in their classwork than their PSAT scores reflect and I’m fine with that! I believe what they accomplish at school is a much more accurate portrait of who they are as learners.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Bonnie.
As I read this, I wondered who or what creates apathetic students? I mean I’m sure there are some physiological factors, but by and large, don’t kids love to learn?
Not all students are going to love to learn all the subjects they need to be taught in school (especially elementary school where they are exposed to a variety of disciplines.) Many of my fifth graders do not love to learn to improve their writing : ) My job is to empathize, ooze enthusiasm, and encourage every small success. Not all students will be brilliant writers, nor do they need to be. But, they should be given the tools to write more effectively (and they won’t necessarily love acquiring those skills!)
Students become apathetic when they are discouraged, when they feel like failures, when they give up. This is caused by a variety of factors. Good teachers do try, and are sometimes successful reaching these students, but often the overriding negative societal influences are too powerful. Some students do not see the relevance of their school experience and when these students attend inadequate schools they become even more disconnected, frustrated, and unsuccessful. A vicious cycle. I read a statistic tonight: When interviewed later in life, 88% of dropouts report that they had passing grades in high school. (Kappa Delta Pi Record, Winter 2009) What a shame they dropped out then…
Stephen James says
We, my wife and I, usually blame the parents–but there are exceptions. My wife used to be a teacher at a private school and would often get no response from the emails she sent parents about failing students.
We are considering home schooling, since we are both big nerds, are from educationally-focused families ourselves, and she works from home right now.
Evan Abbey says
Your questions bring up two separate thoughts for me–both accuracy and speed are important in this assessment process. In my administrative experience as a high school principal, parents often arrive with their 9th graders looking for specific programs like you mentioned (what honors courses or extra-curriculars are offered) and leave with their 12th graders focusing on the relationships (who made an impact on my child, either positive or negative). And that’s ideally what we want… to find out the quality of the teachers–can they create the classrooms that are safe, challenging, exploratory, and connecting to different ideas and people.
Of course, teacher quality is difficult to assess for parents… it is much easier to look on a course offering pamphlet and see what is out there. The time it takes parents to make a quality assessment, unfortunately, often prohibits quality assessment. So, personally, I bought in to Todd Whitaker’s advice when it came to “scouting” out schools. If you want to know what the quality of the teaching will be in 4 years, don’t look at the quality of the teachers. Look at the quality of the principal. The impact of leadership, be it positive, negative, or non-existent, permeates the climate of the entire school. One 20-minute conversation with the principal sharing each other’s educational philosophy is the fastest way I know of to get a good assessment as to the quality of a school.
J. D. Wilson, Jr. says
I do not believe in lazy students. I think those qualities in students we label “laziness” mask other things. Sometimes it is simply that students just do not see the value of education. In many cases, though, I think it is because a student would rather be thought lazy than stupid and they think if they try they will fail and feel stupid. I think the way to beat “laziness” in students is to build curiosity and self-confidence.
We require everyone to be prepared for college and I think this a good thing. As a dyslexic student I was tracked into a vocational program that my parents could only get me out of by putting me in a private school. I know first hand tracking is not a good thing but I also know students whose interests are not academic who would like more freedom to pursue those interests.
This can be very difficult to do in an educational environment driven by standardized tests. I think most of the teachers I work with (I’m in the English Department so those are the teachers I see) are fine teachers and there are some that are absolutely exemplary. But the comments made at the holiday party reveal most everything, I think. We are driven to teach to tests because those that run the schools think nothing is more important than PSAT scores, than having a lot of AP classes in which students do reasonably well, and of course doing well on the state standardized tests required for graduation (ours is MCAS). Teachers spend so much time teaching to these tests because it is the primary criteria by which they are assessed.
There are only so many hours in the day and I think many of the problems of modern education have more to do with time than money. Money is needed to get schools where they need to be technologically (a very expensive proposition especially in light of how quickly the technology becomes obsolete). But paying a teacher $100,000 plus (not that I would object of course) will not put two or three additional hours into a day.
Most people want to feel good about the work they do so they do the kind of work that is going to be acknowledged as good work. To change this we have to change the way those that run schools look at education and the people that educate. I have always loved learning (perhaps in part because those in authority when I was a child wouldn’t let me). I would like to think most of my students share that enthusiasm or could be brought to the place where they contract that enthusiasm.
Mark Walker says
It’s an interesting question – one I ponder on two fronts: as a principal of a school – I do the prospective parents school tours – and as a parent of two teenagers in high school in Melbourne Victoria.
As a principal I know my messages have changed over time [I do about 20 tours per year]. I mention high academic scores, inquiry learning focus, special programs [sports, music, art tec..], student well being, but I think my main message for parents and teachers alike is the challenges of 21st learners – if we are not challenged we are not listening.
As a parent I want to hear about teacher high expectations, support systems for leaners [e.g. relationships with adults], safe learning environments, additional programs that will engage teenagers [e.g. they have a camp to central Australia], approachability if things go wrong and finally that they have made friends.
I don’t expect my students to achieve high academic standards without study, perserverance etc… and the school supoporting them with quality instruction, high expectations, challenge and feedback.
For the most part this is all we can expect and learn to have a little resilience and cope with ups and downs.
Thanks for the post.
Gary Stager, Ph.D. says
Which school are you at? Have we met?
Mark Walker says
Not sure if we have met. I’m currently Principal at Elsternwick Primary School.
Kelly Hines says
This question is one that I think about a lot, mostly because my children attend the school where I teach. In some ways, I think it makes it more difficult. I have twin boys in kindergarten. Right now, as active and smart 5 year olds, I want them to maintain a positive attitude about school while being equipped with the tools they need in order to be successful in the next stages of their lives. As I consider it further, that’s what I want for them throughout their schooling – a positive attitude about their educational experiences and the skills they need to be successful in a changing world. If you talk to the kids in classes that use the technology and skills that I, personally, find essential, they are both engaged and enthusiastic about learning!
For me, the assessing questions would be for the students. What do you think about schools? What connections are you making between your learning and your life? Do you feel ready for the choices that you have ahead of you?
Julia Osteen says
Hi, Will. I am wondering what answers you would get if you asked the kids this question. I know my own son tells me things like, “Schools don’t care if kids learn; teachers just want you to tell them back the information they gave you” and “If you want to think you have to do it outside of school time.” Take a look at my post about teaching kids to think: Of course, I am encouraging my son who is now a junior in high school to be part of the solution. Maybe he would want to be a teacher and help to change education? Just a thought.
Sue King says
As always, Will, you raise an interesting issue! As a building principal in a “high-performing school district,” I believe I have to be an advocate for those children who do not have parents who can do that or know to do that for their kids. Those are the students who generally cannot get GIEPs to help guarantee engaging and interesting learning activities and assessments, who cannot get into AP courses, and often lose interest in their schooling. Transforming a school in order to create engaging, meaningful, and relevant learning experiences for all students not only requires teachers and school personnel who are dedicated (we do have a number of those), but it also requires people in the community who understand the benefits of such a learning environment and who understand that there is more to education than GPA’s, AP courses, SAT scores, and acceptance into Ivy-league schools. I do believe that there are drastically different issues in suburban schools as compared to inner-city and rural schools. Well-financed suburban schools are often those where I see the strongest desire to maintain the very traditional vision of a “good school” – those that emphasize, the SATs, GPAs, AP offerings. I believe students can be very successful in these traditional measures WITHOUT making them the focus of the structure of a school. However, if those things ARE the focus – there are a number of students who are definitely left out of the picture. Those are your kids who are going to appear to be unmotivated and lazy. They are really disenfranchised because of the system – and the ones who require advocates from within the ranks. What keeps me awake at night (since my children are already through school) is how to challenge the status quo in these schools!
Claire Hertz says
I think you should consider running for the school board – any district would be fortunate to have you as part of their leadership.
Mario Asselin says
I blogged about this yesterday, http://www.youngestblogger.com/ and this morning, I was thinking at this post that inspired me few times ago on my blog. I think that those young bloggers listed there could interest you…
I wonder what are they tinking of school?
Happy New Year from QuÃ©bec Will and others…
Lisa Nielsen says
I think about this often as I visit schools throughout New York City. One model of education I’ve become enamored with as of late is the Schoolwide Enrichment Model which suggests that educators should examine ways to make schools more inviting, friendly, and enjoyable places that encourage the full development of the learner instead of seeing students as a repository for information that will be assessed with the next round of standardized tests.
I was thoroughly impressed during a recent visit to one such school which I blogged about at http://tinyurl.com/IslandSchool. Though this particular school is K-8, the lessons observed are applicable for high school and beyond. It was remarkable and impressive to experience a school where all children actively and authentically pursue, discuss, develop and discover their talents and where each teacher is aware s/he is in a school full of remarkably and uniquely talented students.
Jen Carbonneau says
I always believed that teachers had the best interest in mind for their students. As a seventh grade English/language arts teacher, that is what I do. I keep their abilities and interests in mind and challenge them to reach higher in their personal achievment. I used to think it wasn’t necessary to request elementary “self-contained” teachers–all teachers provide the same quality education. And then I had children; they are aged five and three. My five-year-old will be startng kindergarten next year, and from my research (both sought and parent provided with out inquisition) there is only one of the four teachers in our kindergarten that does what I have described. Why is that? That, to me, means that parents in the know will request that one teacher and the others will send their student to less adequate teachers. How can this be? Why do teachers continue to hold their jobs if they are not doing them? Why don’t administrators do something about them? By the time these very same students reach seventh grade, as the only seventh grade English teacher in the system, I see the gap. All I need to do is track my students’ teachers backward to determine the best teachers for my children. How fair is this? I think that by the time high school rolls around for my children their opportunities will be more vast than having to deal with a teacher-centered environment. I wonder about balancing my role as a teacher and parent in the same school system.
I believe many teachers have best interest in mind for their students, but not all teachers. Some teachers in private schools do not have the necessary skills and qualifications in their subject, and yet this is the problem that needed to be solved.
As a 2002 HS grade who now works in education, I assess the schools I attended based on how well they helped me achieve my potential. I feel like they did a good job of teaching me the basics, fostering problem-solving skills, and provided some great technology classes. I don’t think I’ll ever in my life have trouble finding a job that pays at least the median household income for my area, nor will I ever have a problem living within my means.
I really feel like they let me down on more personal skills. It took me a long time to learn that most people deserve the benefit of the doubt and that I can’t judge a person based on one thing I don’t like about them. I still feel like I have to put a lot of effort into being as sociable as I want to be, and I don’t think I’ll ever be as bold and adventurous as I want to be.
It’s really hard to determine whether these are failures of the school or not. My parents probably played a larger role in who I became, and maybe I’m just upset that I’m not exactly who I’m supposed to be (maybe that just means I should be disappointed that my schools didn’t instill more confidence and self-worth). I suppose to be scientific I’d have to develop what fair criteria for success would be for “helping me reach my potential”, then judge the schools against that.