How families should be choosing a high school

Education is a social enterprise. So is the process of selecting a high school. Parents talk to their friends with school-aged children and seek their opinions. Sometimes this anecdotal reporting is insightful. I suspect, given how few parents spend time in their children’s high schools during the school day, that these exchanges are rife with hyperbole.

Decisions, when there are choices to be made, are frequently made with inadequate information. Parents rarely know, for example, that their child can attend career-focussed, technical training programs as a compliment to their college-prep focused comprehensive high school. Though the inquisitive parent may know about charter school opportunities in the community, they may not know that a group of parents has been meeting for two years to form a new charter.

There is a national clearinghouse for information about schools to assist families with making this important decision. GreatSchools.org aggregates all of the publicly available information into a friendly user interface.  There are comparison tools, and there is a place for viewers to rate and review the school.  Unlike Yelp, however, the reviews tend to be timid, and lacking in specific details. We seem to be more observant of how long it took our dinner to arrive at a new restaurant in town than we are of the quality of the homework assignments given to our children.  And the data is just the same data that most educated consumers have access to in their state already – bubble test results – like these for California.

There are regional charter school indexes that sometimes have a bit more local flavor, like this one from Maryland. Chicago has done a good job of thematically organizing their school network by student interest. None of these web resources, however, offer deep enough information to make this most important decision.

It has been my wont of late to ask for things I want from the growing community of edupreneurs. Today I have another ask. Build us a web resource that draws data not only from state test score and school rank databases to give us this limited, but objective data, please, build us a site that makes this decision making process local and personal.

School choice as a concept has arrived and is only going to become more complex. What’s best for my kid: a traditional comprehensive high school with a football team and a band, a small charter with a focus on technology, perhaps a cooperative network of homeschooling families, or maybe there is a serious need for something new in the community?

Aggregate this information and curate it as GreatSchools has done, but structure the social space for community members differently.  Clearly, we need more guidance.  This is not going to be Facebook with repeat visitors who will customize their profiles.  This site will be used for a limited period of time by each family when they are making education transitions.  I might suggest helping questions for parent reviewers..

  • Drop down boxes for parents to demographically identify the children of theirs that attend or attended the school they are reviewing, including years of attendance (schools change over time)
  • Further drop down boxes to help the reviewer target the aspect of the school they plan to review: responsiveness of teachers to phone/email, relevance of homework to course of study, appropriateness of the challenge of summative assessments, etc.
  • Then, once your forms have helped guide the parent to the aspect of the school they wish to review, you are more likely to see some specific information in that review that will better help others to make an informed decision.

It would perhaps be even more beneficial to have similar postings from student reviewers, whose writing would need similar guidance. The lowest common denominator is to create something simple, yet minimally informative, like RateMyTeacher.  If we want meaningful information, just as with good teaching, the rating experience must be structured.

Lastly, there are many communities where no very good options exist for adolescent education.  A portal that allows community members to recognize this with the tools above and then to take their action one step further is much needed.  Provide them with a safe space to organize efforts at either reform, or perhaps charter application. My neighborhood participates in a site called Nextdoor, that is only available to members who live in our community – they are invited by their neighbors.  It provides a safe, small space in a big internet world for real conversations to happen.  Something like this for those who wish to talk frankly about their education needs could facilitate more meaningful conversation.

Excuse me, I have to take a call. It’s my friend, the real estate agent. She’s probably calling again to ask my opinion about that new charter I’ve never seen, with teachers I’ve never met. I’ll tell her what I heard from my friend whose niece applied there, but decided not to go.  Tah.

About Jack West

Consultant, writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

6 Responses

  1. I find, and this may be my bias as a teacher, get a teacher alone (and by alone I mean when their principal does not know and cannot find out you’re talking to them) and ask them, “Do you want your children to come to this school?” That should tell you 95% of what you need to know. If they feel what they say won’t get back to someone who could fire them they will tell you why and why not to come to this or that school and where you should be looking.

  2. Thomas Hunter

    I like the idea a lot, of a social “Rate my school” type of thing. However, I feel that the nature of high school does not lend it self well to a system like that. It is such a long process – unlike a dinner – that a truly comprehensive review of a school would be hard to come by. A single negative experience with one teacher could easily mask 4 years of good education. I suspect that the majority of reviews would be that way. Especially with high-school education, the parent involvement tends to be limited to only Open House and maybe complaints by the student. Is this really a good indicator of how well a school will suit a given child? This is why I like you’re idea of “guiding questions” for reviewers. If the topics are focused and specific, reviews will be more likely to reveal reliable information about the school.
    Student reviewers are probably a better source for reviews. But still, does a student really understand the quality of the education they’ve been given until they complete it and apply it to real-life concerns? Maybe one good solution would be to invite students and parents, upon graduation, to submit a “farewell” material, much like a valedictorian speech. Whether it’s an essay or a review or a video does not matter, but the content will give to-be high schoolers and their parents an authentic view of the school. If these materials were anonymously submitted, compiled, and presented in an easy interface, the process of selecting a high school (or university, for that matter) would be much more social and less based on the algorithmic ranking systems currently used today.

    P.S. Nice blog!

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