Getting the Best Info on a Potential New School

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Across the country, many parents are anxiously making decisions about where to send their kids to school next year. Unfortunately, it's still often easier to get information about a car, restaurant or household appliance than a school. Complicating matters further, some schools, including some public schools, have highly restrictive policies about when parents can visit, what they can see, and even who they can talk to inside the school.

My job gives me the privilege of visiting a lot of schools every year, and I'm always leery of any school that doesn't offer full access. You're just not going to learn much on a group tour in which you don't interact with the kids. But schools have an obligation to minimize disruption and keep students safe, so they can't just fling open their doors in the same way that a state capitol or public library can.

But they can be open to visits without sacrificing learning or safety. Different schools employ different methods, from student-led tours to simply allowing parents to drop in with a little advance notice. For some guidelines about what parents can expect and tips on how to get the most out of a visit, I asked teachers, school administrators and national education leaders — including Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee — about what they consider a reasonable standard of openness and what advice they would give to parents. Above all, keep in mind that even the best teachers and students have bad moments, so allow yourself enough time to get a fair picture of what's going on in the classroom.

"These should be impromptu visits that are not necessarily scripted. As an educator, I encourage my parents to drop by at any time and visit my class. The only requirement is that they stop at the office, sign in and obtain the required visitor's badge." —Patricia Owens-Davis, teacher, Fairview Middle Schools, Memphis City Schools

"Observe classrooms and common areas and move from classroom to classroom and around the school; meet with a panel of students and/or parents without a staff member; meet with the principal; and come to a parent meeting not oriented toward recruiting parents." —Hae-Sin Thomas, founder, Great Oakland Public Schools in California

"The best way for parents to learn about the quality of public schools is by observing teachers in the classroom and seeing how the principal leads the school. A carefully scripted tour does not give parents a complete picture of a school. Principals and teachers should make every reasonable accommodation to show parents how their schools operate every day so that parents can make informed decisions about how to provide a high-quality education for their children." —Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education and former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools

"The best schools have an open-door policy because they are proud of their academic programs. Of course, parents should schedule visits so that classrooms aren't overwhelmed with visitors, which can interfere with instruction. As a parent and an educator, I would be wary of schools that make visitation difficult." —Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

"We organize school open houses during daytime, evening and weekend hours to accommodate parents' diverse schedules. At these open houses, parents, students and faculty present and respond to questions. We follow up with classroom tours where our teams can be seen in action." —Caprice Young, CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation and former president of the Los Angeles Board of Education

"I suggest that all parents take the opportunity to observe the instructional practices and classroom climate when looking at potential schools. It's always best to make an appointment ahead of time to minimize disruption to the classroom and get the principal's full attention. Wise principals and teachers encourage parents to visit, observe and ask questions." —Carol Peck, CEO of the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona and former National Superintendent of the Year

"I think checking any school you find attractive should include at least a 30-minute conversation with the principal. He or she is the person who is most responsible for the quality of the teaching, the atmosphere in the halls, and whether your child will be looking forward to going to that building every day. Ask this person what the school's strengths and weaknesses are, what should be changed, and what the school can offer a child like yours. Ask yourself, Would I hire this person to work in my office? If the answer is no, or even worse, if the principal has no time to see you, beware." —Jay Mathews, Washington Post education columnist

"I feel that if I am doing my job, then I have nothing to fear upon the arrival of a parent or any visitor, for that matter. As a public servant and a member of a profession that has recently come under fire, the best thing we as teachers can do is to have an open-door policy that shows our nation that good teachers have nothing to hide. The only circumstance in which I would like to have notice of a parent's arrival is if there is a need for a conference." —Brittany Clark, teacher, Middle College High School in Memphis City Schools

"While I'm not opposed to drop-in visits, contacting the school's principal beforehand will usually lead to a more meaningful experience for both parties. Parents can ask any preliminary questions and make the principal aware of any programs in which they have particular interest. In turn, the principal can make arrangements for introductions to specific faculty and observation of particular programs, and have relevant resources and supplemental materials readily available." —Chad Ratliff, assistant director of instruction and innovation projects, Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia

"Choosing a school is one of the most important decisions parents will make in the interest of their children's futures, and they should have every right to get a clear and accurate sense of day-to-day life at the school. Principals can organize this in different ways while maintaining an open-door policy. Parents should definitely think twice if they do not feel warmly welcomed in a school, or if they are refused an unobtrusive visit to a classroom or meeting with the principal. If the door feels closed before the child is enrolled, it probably will stay that way afterward, and parents should follow their instincts to the doors that are open to them." —Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of Students First and former chancellor of Washington, D.C., Public Schools

Disclosure: At different points in my career, I have consulted for the Rodel Foundations and I am on the visiting committee for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Kathleen McCartney is dean. She is on Bellwether Education's board of directors.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.