Accountability · School Choice

What Makes a “Good’ NYC School?

With Kindergarten Connect applications due this Friday, January 12 (unless the Department of Education decides to, once again, push back their own deadline), I have been hearing from dozens of parents looking for help with finding a “good” school for their child.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that different families have very different definitions of what constitutes a “good” school. While there are formal accountability measures available, a  thorough search process should go beyond them.

For some parents, test scores do trump all. But I like to stress that while test scores are one data point that tell you something about a school, they don’t tell you everything.

For instance, you can end up with situations where distributing low-performing students among high-scoring schools serves to hide an ongoing achievement gap. Or one where a Gifted & Talented program is making the General Education program seem better due to an averaging of all the scores.

There are parents who are convinced that every G&T outscores every General Ed program, which simply isn’t the case. And there are parents who are equally convinced that only a G&T program can meet their child’s academic needs, unaware that District G&T’s use the exact same curriculum as General Ed’s, and that some General Ed schools actually employ a G&T approach.

Conversely, I have parents who turn down G&T placement for a progressive school, or a more traditional charter school. And parents who don’t care one whit for test scores, as long as they have faith in the teachers. For example, at PS 242 in Manhattan, 100 percent of Pre-K parents said that their child’s teacher gave helpful ideas for how to support their child’s learning. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of the children in older grades at the school are performing at grade level or above in math, while only 22 percent are performing at or above grade level in English Language Arts.

I’ve even had parents who’ve gone so far as to rave about their school’s low test scores, citing it as proof that their school doesn’t teach to the test and sees each child as a unique individual who is assessed holistically.

Other parents care most about their child’s peer group. I understand where they’re coming from. I’ve written before about how I thought the peer group was the best thing about the Specialized High School my oldest son attended.

The National Bureau of Economic Research disagrees. They argue that parents should look at what schools do for the students they have, rather than at the achievements of the students they attract.

But, like test scores – high and low — that’s just one data point, too.

As indicated above, not all parents value the same factors in equal measure. For some, the biggest issue is safety. Everything else comes in a distant second. Families I’ve worked with have left high-scoring G&T programs due to what they saw as unchecked bullying.

For others, it’s diversity: racial, ethnic, and socio-economic. The New York Times profiled a family proud of deliberately choosing their low-scoring neighborhood school.  MacArthur Genius Nikole Hannah-Jones did the same when, as she described in Choosing a School For My Daughter In a Segregated City, she opted for one that was low-scoring, but 91 percent Black and 90 percent free lunch, as well as further away from her home.

That’s where the School Quality Reports can come up lacking. These reports, issued annually by the NYC Department of Education, compile data from a “formal school visit and evaluation by an experienced educator, feedback from students, teachers, and parents through the NYC School Survey, and a variety of student achievement metrics.” But those categories may not be the ones that mean the most to some families.

Looking for a “good” school can mean looking beyond the crunched numbers into things that are frequently incalculable, and will vary from family to family. Sometimes, they’ll even vary from child to child. I’ve worked with parents where the same school produced different results for different children.

So while accountability is vital when it comes to finding the right school for your family, it is only the first step in a much more complicated process. One that, in the end, must come down to individual parents’ choice above all. Or else all the painstakingly compiled numbers in the world ultimately aren’t worth anything at all.

What do you think?

More Comments