How to Grade Your Child's School: Distance Learning Update

In our information-rich, always-connected era, there is a cornucopia of online resources, apps, and references to allow consumers to evaluate almost anything at the touch of a button. We are sophisticated when it comes to reading online reviews for products and service providers. However, while it can be easy to find ratings and other information about our children’s schools, sifting through multiple different sources and types of data can leave a family wondering if they are focusing on the right things when evaluating this very high-stakes “product.” Parents’ perceptions about what makes a good school, though well-intentioned, are not always backed up by the latest research; if you are not an educator yourself, you have only your child’s perception, that of fellow parents, or the claims of teachers and administrators to go on.  

The problem gets even more complicated when you are evaluating your local public school. After all, how many options do families have when they are unable to consider a geographic relocation? Massachusetts is lucky to have some of the finest public schools. However, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all. If you are beginning to wonder if your current school is serving your child’s needs, consider the following six common questions parents in the same situation ask themselves, and the solutions that an independent school like Shore can offer. 

Does the school have a robust and future-ready plan for distance learning?

The global COVID-19 health crisis has created an environment for education that nobody could have anticipated. The idea of students learning and growing from home for months at a time was never on our radar as either parents or educators. But as we look to the future, it is clear that school as we know it will likely remain disrupted for a year or more. Families need to understand how their children’s school will respond in a way that keeps children learning now and in the future.

In this new landscape, success is tied to a school’s ability to pivot nimbly—adapting instruction, assessment, social-emotional learning, and even co-curricular enhancements to a distance learning model. While larger institutions continue to struggle with how to execute online learning, independent schools such as Shore have been able to make the transition quickly and effectively, keeping students at the center of the experience. This does not mean simply pushing an on-campus program to an online format. Rather it means reconceptualizing learning to take advantage of the new opportunities online learning makes possible. Also critical for success are the ability to rapidly deploy learning technology such as iPads and laptops, as well as to offer adequate professional development and support for teachers as they redesign curriculum and assessment.

Shore’s Distance Learning Plan offers a good example of what families should expect to see as the end result of a successful transition to remote learning. It includes daily synchronous meeting and learning for children of all ages alongside independent, asynchronous work in all major subject areas; multiple weekly activities curated by music, science, physical education, engineering, and fine and performing arts specialists; one-on-one and small group instruction in core subjects; social-emotional support from a school counselor; opportunities for socializing and fun, including advisory meetings, “game nights,” and clubs; and regular opportunities to participate in whole-school and small group family meetings to share information and ideas.

Program elements like these should be the standard at a time when children’s ability to be safely on campus is unpredictable. Be sure you are choosing a school based on its ability to not only help students survive online learning, but to thrive in it.

Is the school doing enough to challenge and engage my bright, mature learner?

While standards-based education can provide assurance that a school will be held to a certain threshold of quality, this educational philosophy is geared toward the idea that all children should meet the same standard. In independent schools, we use standards as a reminder of the minimum goals for all children; but there is one stark difference. Accredited independent schools tailor educational goals to the needs of each individual child. This prevents the problem we so often encounter in other systems: a child meets the standard early in the school year, and the instructional energy in the room moves toward getting all of the other children to the single standard. Parents are left wondering what their child will be doing until June. Will they be doing enrichment packets in a small group without the instructional attention of their teacher, making them responsible for their own learning? Independent schools have the flexibility to continue to set new goals for children as they develop academically. There are no boundaries to how far a child can go in the curriculum if they master academic skills at a faster pace than their peers.

Of equal importance is a school’s ability to challenge your child physically. Independent schools see the physical activity your child gets not as an add on, but as a crucial component in successful brain and body development. This development allows them the flexibility to learn new things and the core physical strength to function constructively in all learning environments.  Yet, while a sound body contributing to a sound mind is a truly integrated way to view value in education, so many schools are requiring children to sit longer and play less. Independent schools understand that cutting away physical activity will immediately undermine the quality of the academic program and the opportunity for student success; you will often find at least sixty minutes a day of physical activity in an independent school.

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.