Back-to-School Special: 5 Tips on Picking a Good School

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I'm a policy guy, not a daddy blogger. As a general rule, I don't discuss my children in this column or on my Eduwonk blog. But when TIME asked me to write about how my wife (who also works in education) and I chose our kids' elementary school, I figured why not? We are constantly besieged by friends and colleagues who want to know how we went about picking a school, as if there were some secret education-analyst methodology I was privy to. I wish that were true! But even though I don't have access to the secret sauce, I do have a pretty good sense of how to kick a school's tires. Plus, I think it would be a shame not to use all of our parental angst for the greater good. And so, as our kids start a new year at a public school, here are some lessons from our school-hunting experience that might help guide yours.

Look beneath the label. "Public" or "private" doesn't really tell you much, so don't scratch a school off your list just because of how it's governed. There are terrific and lousy schools in the public, private and (publicly funded) charter-school sectors, so relying on labels alone is a big risk. Likewise, you should do more than glance at a school's test scores or demographic data. My wife and I, for instance, are both products of public schools. I went to ones in Virginia that on paper were both excellent and diverse. But in practice, there were different tracks for different students, so most of the kids in my gifted or AP classes were like me: Caucasian, middle-class, ruggedly good-looking. Well, two out of three of those anyway. My wife grew up in an Ohio district known for great academics but with no diversity. As our kids approached school age, we hoped to find a good school that was racially, ethnically and economically diverse — a tall order given today's housing patterns and school boundaries. But most important, we wanted to find the right fit for our kids, so we were not opposed to going private if we couldn't find an option in the public sector that seemed to work for us.

We started by attending orientation sessions and school fairs. But frankly, making your choice on the basis of those events alone is akin to marrying someone you just met in a bar. So we went online to get data from the school system about demographics and student performance and from GreatSchools, which compiles data and reviews from parents. We also talked to friends and neighbors whose kids attended local schools and asked teachers we encountered where they would try to send their own kids if they could and to speak candidly about various schools. And we talked to kids, whose perspective is invaluable because they live it every day. It was a lot of work, but we learned a lot too, and that was just the warm-up phase.

Go for a test-drive. Visit the schools you're interested in during a regular school day. Ask to observe teachers in class so you can get a feel for how the adults treat the kids, parents and one another. You don't have to be an expert to get a good sense of what is — or isn't — happening in a classroom when you visit. Be unobtrusive, blend in, and everyone will forget you are there. Are the students being engaged by the teacher? Does the teacher check for understanding as he or she teaches? If the students are working in small groups, are they on task or chattering away about Selena Gomez? Can the teachers talk with you after class about the curriculum and how they make decisions and set expectations? Perhaps most fundamental is whether the classroom is a place you'd want to spend time in. Also, don't just visit the grade your child is entering; visit a few others too, so you can really get a sense of the place.

My wife and I made these visits separately and compared notes afterward, discussing where we agreed and disagreed. It's less time-consuming than it sounds, and even after a decade of marriage, we learned a lot about each other during the process. Surprisingly, our sit-in approach quickly eliminated the most coveted public school near our house because its administrators forbid classroom visits except during the comically inept tours the school gives: a conga line of parents snaking through the school. We figured — correctly, it appears, based on the experiences of other families we've talked to — that if this were the administration's attitude toward prospective parents, it wouldn't get any better once our children enrolled.

Be diligent, but don't go overboard. We commiserated with friends who are doctors and nurses that sometimes too much information is a curse and wondered how they ever endured a trip to the doctor themselves. "Paralysis by analysis," as they say in my line of work. More than once we had to remind ourselves that every little thing didn't matter; the big picture did. No school is perfect, and if you go looking for perfection, you'll end up disappointed and needlessly anxious about your child's education. Likewise, once you've made your choice, don't check out, but you do have to trust the professionals at the school.

Follow your instincts. In the end, we settled on the school that had been our romantic preference from the start: our neighborhood school. It's relatively small, and as a bonus it has a good language program. The principal and assistant principal are great — and were refreshingly transparent when we were choosing. They said we could stop in anytime to observe class, and they meant it. It's a diverse school — more than half the kids are low-income, and the student body is a majority minority — and not surprisingly it has its challenges. So we know we're committing ourselves to a different level of engagement and support for our kids, but that's O.K. given the richness of the experience the school provides and also that we're in a position to provide that higher level of engagement and support.

What your child needs matters most, so after you do your homework, go with your gut, not the herd. The book Picky Parent Guide, which is available for free online, is a great resource on how to do that.

Keep pushing for more choices. In this country, the norm for a long time has been to send your kids to your neighborhood school. You didn't have any other options. That's starting to change in some places where kids can go to another school or enter a lottery if there are more students who want to attend than there are empty seats. But the amount of choice is still limited by administrators (who alone get to decide, for instance, whether to open a second Montessori-style school in a district even if the first one has an insanely long waitlist) and legislators (who can do things like refuse to let charter schools into districts like the one I live in). Our school district does offer some choice, but it's called "controlled choice" — we were able to pick only from a subset of the schools. But at least if our choice turns out to be a bad one, we can choose another public school within this subset or opt to go private. Yet these choices are still elusive for far too many parents because of economics as well as education laws and policies. It's amazing how routine it has become in public education to deny people choice and power. Giving more Americans this kind of empowerment matters to my wife and me out of basic fairness, but also because in ways large and small, our fate is bound up with those of millions of parents around the country who are growing frustrated with our public system. We need them to support public schools when they go to voting booths just as much as we need their kids to grow into productive citizens.

In other words, so far it's worked out for us, but I'm struck — as both an analyst and parent — by how much public education, an institution that is predicated on a common understanding of the collective good, does things to undermine the very support it's dependent on to thrive. I worry about this and what it means for our country a lot more than I do about how my kids will do in school this year. And you should too.

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.