Have staff or leadership transitions allowed the school’s program and quality to drift?
In schools where standardized test scores have become the one and only barometer of success, the actual educational program and children’s experiences inevitably suffer as classroom practices focus more and more heavily on test preparation. This is only made worse when the harsh focus on scores leads to frequent leadership turnover, a cycle that then repeats itself as new school administrators—promoted through a tenure system rather than aptitude for the job at hand—struggle under intense scrutiny, with improvements to program and quality left to fall by the wayside.
When the board of an independent school is anticipating a leadership transition, much time is initially spent on reaffirming the school’s mission, vision, and strategic direction. This is done so as to match potential candidates with the work that is on the table for a school. For example, if the school needs better facilities or academic programming to adequately fulfill its mission, only those candidates with these areas of expertise are considered. Moreover, because the independent school world typically does not install systems of tenure, administrators and teachers remain in their positions only if they are able to deliver results consistent with the school’s mission. Criteria for success are related to institutional morale, delivery of the curriculum and co-curriculum, outplacement, and much more.
Is the school looking ahead and equipping my child with the skills they will need to thrive in high school and college?
Too often, schools place so much emphasis on achievement that they are not adequately focused on the development of academic behaviors. Yet these behaviors—such as the ability to organize yourself, to seek out a teacher for more help, to break-down a long-term assignment, and to sustain intellectual discussion—are proven by research to be better predictors of success than standardized test performance. Beyond learning to read and think academically, academic behaviors help children feel competent, and thereby enhance their love of learning and their feelings about school in general. As children move to high school and college, they need to become increasingly independent in their studies, knowing that a parent will not always be available to help them organize or complete assignments. Do you have a handle on how instruction happens in your child’s school?
Schools like Shore are so committed to raising independent thinkers that they have installed instructional methodologies—Design Thinking and Harkness discussion-based teaching, to name two—as central strategies to put students in charge of their learning and prepare them for their next step. Beginning in middle school, the Harkness method of classroom discussion, for example, requires a group of children to sustain intellectual exploration through 30-40 minutes of academic discussion that rarely requires teacher intervention. This is undeniably beneficial academic behavior that can translate to a variety of academic and professional environments.
Does a large student population mean social emotional issues at the school take a back seat to standardized testing and bureaucracy?
Research demonstrates a strong correlation between small school size and student success. There are three reasons for this. First, because of the personal relationships that families have with teachers and administrators, there is a greater opportunity for all to feel “known.” Second, small schools demonstrate great success by placing the student experience at the center of the school; being in the center means more opportunities for leadership and a unified culture around success and emotional well-being. Finally, small schools require teachers to serve as coaches and advisors in addition to their work in the classroom. This increases the number of times throughout the entire day that students enjoy a connection with adults who know them well and are concerned for their health, happiness, and safety. While families tend to focus more heavily on small class size, it is small school size that research overwhelmingly points to as a predictor of success.
Does the school’s performance measure up when compared to other local and regional options?
Public schools are required to publish standardized test scores in the interest of community transparency. This allows families to compare them against other public school districts. Because all of these schools have a standards-based educational philosophy, this data does nothing to assure families of a school’s ability to meet the needs of a high-ability or creative child.
Independent schools use testing that allows families to compare school performance against highly competitive independent schools from across the country. If an independent school is comparing itself to other schools with rigorous admissions processes and still outperforming, you know that the school is meeting the needs of each child in its population. For example, in comparing each quartile of its population against peers across the country, a school such as Shore consistently outperforms local and national private schools on standard measures. As a result, it’s earned the highest possible reputation not only with families, but also with leading secondary schools. If your local school is underperforming in its own pool, imagine the implications for how it is doing in the national landscape. Shore, like many independent schools, can show you what it means to be a successful school.
Parents look for many different things in their children’s school experiences. Academic rigor, character education, established friend groups, sports and arts opportunities, proximity to the home, service learning—the list of wants goes on, as it should. But we urge families to increase their capacity for evaluation. The bottom line is that a school needs to be successful for your child, not simply successful for children in general. If you are beginning to wonder about that, it is probably time to explore the answers to the questions above as a means by which to assess your child’s ability to be inspired by learning in their current school.