One of the most stressful things for many parents is navigating the education system. For divorced parents, the debate over where kids should go to school and who should be most involved with the daily needs of school-aged children can cause long-term bitterness, and even custody battles.
Blended families sometimes have to grapple with the additional stress of having children enrolled in separate school districts.
Traditional families scour the internet for information and search for homes in neighborhoods where the “good” schools are.
But what does a good school look like? And what the heck does that federal report card actually mean? Should you send your child to a magnet or charter school?
These are just some of the questions that rattle through the minds of parents as they consider where to enroll their kids, what to do when a school doesn’t meet a child’s needs, and how much a particular school really matters when it comes to student learning. Since I’ve spent the better part of a decade in education, I’m going to try and clarify a few of the more common issues and confusions that arise for parents of school-aged kids.
1. FEDERAL AND STATE ACCOUNTABILITY REPORTS
One of the most important, and most confusing, things to understand is an accountability report. If you’re not familiar, both federal and state laws require that schools provide specific information about individual campuses and districts as a whole. Though many are inclined to ignore or dismiss these accountability reports under the auspice that standardized testing is silly, invalid, or otherwise flawed, I encourage you to spend some time digging into the full report.
It is true that accountability reports are primarily concerned with performance on standardized tests, you’ll also gain a lot of insight about specific schools within a district, and the district as a whole, if you know what to look for. Here are a few of the things I prioritize:
Demographics. Look for diversity in student populations, but also in teacher populations. Look beyond race, too. You should see information related to languages spoken, economic diversity, special education populations, etc.
Student Growth. Within the tables and tables of information about student testing, you’ll find columns dedicated to student growth. While some districts may not appear particularly successful on state tests, they may show a trend for improving student performance drastically. Likewise, some districts boast advanced performance every year, but struggle to move students beyond a basic understanding of the content. Student growth speaks not just to the level at which students are entering a particular grade, but how successful teachers are at actually improving student performance.
Teacher Education and Retention. One of the most overlooked categories in accountability reports is information about both the education levels of teachers and district retention rates. Why does this matter? A district with high teacher transience suggests poor leadership and/or systemic problems. Likewise, a district with a significant number of emergency-certified teachers may have trouble recruiting quality teachers. On the flip side, a district where numerous teachers hold advanced degrees and/or remain in the district for more than five years is more likely to provide consistency from year to year, and administrators are more likely to prioritize school climate.
Graduation and College Readiness. When you look at an accountability report, zero in on how many students graduate each year, and how many are college ready. College readiness generally refers to SAT and ACT scores, AP course completion and test scores, and the success of students in their first year of college. Many schools may graduate 95% of their students, but only 50% are considered college ready. This suggests a flawed grading system and low expectations. Similarly, a school may only graduate 75% of its students, but 95% are considered college ready. This suggests high performing students who are not fully invested and engaged when they hit high school. Ideally, you’ll find a school with a graduation rate above 90% and a college readiness population above 90%.
Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, I hope you can see that accountability reports are far more helpful than many believe. They’re not limited to test scores, and they can be valuable in determining if a district tends towards progress or towards stagnation and the status quo.
2. CHARTER SCHOOLS, MAGNET SCHOOLS, AND BRAIN DRAIN
While we’re on the subject of numbers, I want to speak to one of the more pervasive misunderstandings I encounter: namely, many people believe that magnet schools and/or charter schools are inherently more successful than public schools, and that any student would thrive in such an environment.
Here’s the truth about charter schools and magnet schools: they skew numbers to appear high performing. Because they are able to choose which students they accept and remove students who do not meet their standard, the program looks successful on paper. However, these schools never have to grapple with struggling students or students with special needs.
I’ve already written about , so I won’t belabor that point here. Rather, I want to briefly address a phenomenon that almost every educator is aware of, and that few parents truly understand: brain drain.
Brain drain happens in almost every district which makes use of the magnet school model. The gist is that high performing students flock to magnet schools, leaving neighborhood schools full of those students who require extra support. Educators in those neighborhood schools may be wildly successful at improving student understanding, but the schools seem to be underperforming because the student population doesn’t meet the state standard.
You may think that you’re guaranteeing your child a high quality education by sending them to a magnet school or charter school, but what’s most likely is that your child is learning in an environment which turns its back on students who struggle, or who have individual learning needs.
3. IEPs, ARDs, 504s and OTHER ACRONYMS
The education system is full of acronyms. On any given day, your child likely learns three new acronyms in the classroom. From TPCASTT to FANBOYS to PEMDAS, educators will find all sorts of ways to package complex information as easy-to-remember words. It should come as no surprise, then, that schools also rely on acronyms to categorize and serve students.
I can’t tell you how many times I have interacted with parents who misunderstand their own child’s learning plan, and who could blame them? The nuances are clear to those who spend at least one day a week in meetings about various student populations, but the differences seem mostly semantic to a frustrated parent trying to advocate for their child.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
ARDs and IEPs are specific to special education students. ARD refers to Admission, Review, and Dismiss, an annual meeting meant to identify whether or not a student qualifies for special education, whether or not a student’s current learning plan is serving their needs, and whether or not a student should be removed from special education. IEP refers to the Individualized Education Program, which is a list of modifications a student should receive due to individual learning needs.
504s are specific to students who do not meet the requirements for special education, but have a clear need for additional support in the classroom. This is frequently where students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD land, though there are plenty of other reasons a student might qualify for a 504 (e.g. a student who experiences a concussion may enter into 504 temporarily due to the physical limitations associated with a head injury). 504 students receive accommodations, rather than modifications.
This is where semantics come in. Though the two words appear to be synonyms, educators use accommodations to describe supports offered to students in order to help them succeed within the standard curriculum. These supports can be extended to any student, whether or not they have a specific learning plan in place. Modifications, however, refer to changes in assignment expectations and/or curriculum. They are legally required for special education students, and they are not generally extended to students outside the special education program.
You may also hear about LEP students, which refers to Limited English Proficient students. It’s an extension of the ESL (English as a Second Language) and ELL (English Language Learner) program, which identifies students who require linguistic support in order to succeed. Though LEP students may also have a 504 or an IEP, being labeled as a LEP student does not automatically qualify a child for 504 or special education services. Like 504 students, they receive accommodations, but their supports are specific to language acquisition and development.
4. SCHOOL CLIMATE MATTERS
Parents love to believe that a high performing student will succeed anywhere, and that consistent involvement at home will guarantee student success regardless of where they go to school.
No, I’m not suggesting that parental involvement is unimportant. In fact, parental involvement is one of the most consistent indicators of student success. What I am saying, though, is that parental involvement is not enough to guarantee student success. No matter how engaged you are with your child’s education, and no matter how smart they seem, students almost never overcome a toxic school environment.
Researchers have consistently found that , especially with disenfranchised students and students who struggle in academic settings. What this means is that you cannot afford to dismiss the impact of school climate on student achievement.
If a particular school has teachers who are unenthusiastic or disengaged, then students are less likely to excel. Likewise, a school in which students demonize academic achievement or threaten those who participate during class will not just quiet students during school, it will fundamentally change how they view education.
Thus, it is imperative that parents tour schools and, whenever possible, observe student-teacher interactions. You should also look into community events hosted by a school. While athletic competitions are great, you will learn much more from open houses and special events (such as Winter Celebration or Monthly Movie Night), as these spaces encourage parents, teachers, and students to interact together.
5. TESTING IS INEVITABLE (AND USEFUL), BUT SHOULDN’T DOMINATE CURRICULUM
NCLB (No Child Left Behind) imposed an impossible requirement on schools, effectively mandating that every school have 100% of students perform at satisfactory or better on standardized tests by a specific date or lose funding. You don’t have to be great with numbers to understand that 100% success on any test is implausible for any number of reasons.
Though almost every educator, parent, and legislator has finally grasped the innate flaw of mandating perfect success rates, the culture of standardized testing has infiltrated nearly every corner of education. Teachers are judged by the students’ test scores. Students are harangued and sometimes forced into summer school for poor test scores. Schools face closure, state takeover, and budget cuts over test scores.
At every turn, we are at once communicating that test scores are not accurate representations of success, and that low test scores indicate catastrophic failure.
Great schools do not dismiss standardized tests, but they also don’t infuse every piece of the curriculum with test preparation. If your child is routinely taking practice tests, or bringing how packets of released test items, you have reason to be alarmed. Educators are fully aware that tests do not assess transferable skills, or skills that students can apply to future endeavors and careers, so any school which prioritizes testing success over concrete academic skills will ultimately hinder your child’s ability to acquire new skills in the future.
Ideally, a school will begin the year with a diagnostic, a test designed to illustrate where students stand on Day 1. From there, a school should administer a benchmark test every 9 weeks. Benchmarks are not meant to serve as test grades, but indicators of student growth. They should only be used to identify where students are succeeding, and where they have gaps. Further, teachers should communicate that information to parents and then adjust their teaching to address common gaps.
There’s a big difference between using tests to inform teaching, and teaching to tests.
If you notice that your child’s school is prioritizing the test score over instruction and transferable skills, hold them accountable.
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