Expert-Approved Criteria to Help You Evaluate a K-12 School

Choosing a school for your child is very personal. Every child is unique, and different children will thrive in different environments. Learn how to use the right tools and data to make the best decision for your child's learning experience.

Choosing a school for your child is very personal and important decision. Every child is unique, and different children thrive in different environments. You want to choose a school that's a good match and a good fit because school is one of the areas where your child will blossom and develop his/her potential. What works for one child will not necessarily work for another.

How to Choose the Right School

Collecting multiple sources of information will give you the advantage to make the best possible decision. Here's where you can get started:

  • Visit schools you feel are strong candidates for your child.
  • Have conversations with trusted, knowledgeable friends and educators.
  • Look at national and local websites that evaluate schools that also allow parents and students to comment on their experience with that school.
  • Analyze official performance data such as report cards and test scores.
  • Review performance data and academic curriculum.
  • Determine if the school will foster an environment that will motivate your child to want to learn.

The Value of First Hand Experience

Above all else, visiting the school of your choice will allow you to see the how teachers help students learn and you'll get a sense of the school's climate and culture. However, if you can't visit the school, find a few students and parents who can give you firsthand accounts of their experiences with the school. Do any of your child's friends siblings attend schools that you are considering? Talk with them. Trusted teachers and counselors in the school system are also good sources.

Secondhand information, such as school brochures and websites, state and local report cards, test scores, and external organization websites , is supplemental information — along with first hand information — that can give you the most holistic information about the school.

6 Things to Consider Before Your Visit

1. Know your child and the conditions under which he/she thrives

Does your child do best in an environment with explicit structures and limits or one with more flexibility? Does your child tend to be outgoing or reticent? Does your child like competition or collaboration? Does your child like rules or freedom? Where is your child on these continuums? When visiting a school, try to see your child in the environment you see can you see your child thriving here? Let your gut speak to you.

2. Know what to look for in the classrooms you observe

Ask to sit in on a few classrooms: Math, Science, and English/Language Arts are good ones to choose. Stay for at least 15 - 20 minutes if you can. Do students look interested in what is going on? Do they appear respectful to the teacher and to one another? Do teachers ask questions and give tasks to students to get their opinions, or are they primarily engaged in factual recall? Do students raise questions about the topic under study? Are students expected to give reasons to support their perspectives? Is there primarily recitation between teacher and student, or is there discussion? Do students have an opportunity to work with one another, or do they work alone? Do students appear to understand the material and ideas and skills that are under study? Does the teacher appear enthusiastic? Do students appear actively engaged and stimulated by their work? Can you see your child thriving in this classroom?

3. Know what kind of student work you think is best for your child

Ask to see student work or work products. Some schools keep portfolios of student work. Is the work mostly tests? Do students produce products such as reports (research, essays, fiction), displays, artifacts, science lab reports, graphs, charts, videos, websites, and Internet products? Are rubrics available for assessing the work? Sometimes they are displayed with the work so that the viewer can see how it was assessed. Has someone responded to the work with more than a grade? Does the work look authentic or lifted? What is the nature of the work: Were students required to analyze, create, or apply ideas, knowledge, or skills? Can you see your child producing such work? Would your child be engaged by such work? Do students have opportunities to use different technologies as learning tools to produce work?

4. Review the school's curriculum and courses

In order for students to be prepared for college and careers, they need to have higher order thinking skills and be effective communicators both in writing and orally. Review the school's curriculum and some sample unit and lesson plans to see if there are abundant opportunities for students to apply higher order thinking skills. Is writing expected in all classes? Reading is equally important. Do students have opportunities to read more than textbooks? Do they read primary sources, articles from popular media, adolescent and multi-culture literature in multiple genres, old classics as well as new classics? Does the curriculum emphasize ideas in addition to facts? Does it emphasize deep exploration of topics and ideas to promote understanding or a superficial survey? Does the curriculum require students to examine ideas, take a position, and defend it with evidence, or is the curriculum primarily test preparation?

At the middle school level, are there courses in English/Language Arts, Mathematics, the Sciences, and Social Studies so that students can attain the credits they need for graduation and college admission? Are there courses in the arts? Do the courses correspond to your child's interests?

At the high school level, are there courses for advanced study, opportunities to take college-level courses, dual enrollment, advanced placement, and internships? Are there formal opportunities for students to get help in academic areas where they are struggling such as tutoring, a writing center, and alternative assignments?

Is there a formal college preparation program that provides students and families with information about college options? Are there opportunities for students to obtain individual college counseling with a knowledgeable counselor? Is financial, scholarship, and loan information provided to students and families? Does the school take students on trips to local and out-of-town colleges? Is preparation provided for college admission tests? Does the school provided guidance for students to complete college applications

5. Think of questions to ask the principal or staff

Taking to the principal and staff will let you know how responsive they are to students and parents' concerns. The following questions not only give you information to match against your vision for your child's education, they permit you to see if the principal is responsive and whether or not the school encourages responsiveness in its culture:

  • What is the school's vision of an ideal graduate?
  • What are the three most rigorous assignments given to students?
  • What are the opportunities for advanced study?
  • What supports does the school provide for students when they struggle academically? How about when they struggle socially or emotionally?
  • Does every student have an official go-to adult who knows him/her well?
  • What are the communication vehicles for parents to be informed of how their children are doing and what assignments they are given?
  • What do students love best about this school?
  • What do students complain most about this school?

6. Get acquainted with the data

Look for important statistical data such as student attendance rates, graduation rates, college admission rates, student suspension rates (these rates tell you about safety), and test scores. Although high-performing schools have high rates of attendance, graduation, college attendance, and high test scores correlate with income. High test scores often means a high-income school. While test scores are an indicator of high performance, having the highest test scores in a district does not by itself make a school the best one in the district. Some report cards give schools letter grades: A, B, C, D, and F. These grades are often not reliable as the formulas that determine them tend to be more politics than science. More reliable are the individual indicators of attendance, suspension, graduation, and college acceptance rates because they refer to actual school activity, and there is no ambiguity. They are simple facts.

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About the author: N. GerryHouse, EdD is president and CEO of the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA). She was previously a superintendent for schools in Memphis, Tennessee and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has served as a teacher, high school guidance counselor, principal, and assistant superintendent.Dr. House earned her doctorate in education administration at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and holds a master's degree in Counseling from Southern Illinois University. She earned her bachelor's degree in English Education from North Carolina A&T State University and is the recipient of honorary doctor of Humanities from Rhodes College and Lemoyne Owen College. She serves on a number of boards, including the board of directors of the Educational Testing Service.

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