How many minutes of math instruction do students have per day?
This may be obvious, but the answers can vary between 45 and 90 minutes depending on the commitment of the school to focusing on math. Does more hours mean higher performance? Not necessarily. It may mean that kids are coming to the school insufficiently prepared for the middle school math curriculum. And in Finland, where the math scores are particularly high, there isn’t a huge outlay of time on drilling math. However, if your child needs extra time to absorb math material or she is behind, more "time on task" may be a great advantage to her. Whatever the answer, it will give you a sense of how important math is to the overall curriculum.
What are the electives and how many may the kids choose?
Generally, kids in middle school get to begin choosing some “electives” beyond the core curriculum of math, science, social science and language arts. After that, programs vary hugely: kids may get to choose from second languages, PE, band, art, or drama. At many schools, the electives are limited, so you and your child may have to decide between art which he loves and Spanish which you love. Whether a school offers the right electives for your child may be the tipping point in choosing a middle school.
Is a second language an elective or a core curriculum?
In some schools second languages are seen as part of the academic required classes. In others, they are a choice competing with a drama or music class. If you value learning a second language for your child, it’s worth looking for a school which does not only "offer" a second language but requires it.
Do the science classes have hands-on labs?
In many cash-strapped schools around the nation, science is taught without access to a laboratory, not an ideal situation. If you want your child to have an extraordinary science education, learning through science experiments (not just reading) is considered essential. If the school doesn’t have access to a lab, it’s worth asking about how the teachers manage to teach the subject without it. You may be disappointed in what you hear or you may be pleasantly surprised at the way the teachers are using creative strategies to incorporate hands-on experiments into the curriculum without a lab.
How does your school deal with disciplinary problems?
Safety is crucial. And middle schools generally deal with more safety and disciplinary issues than elementary schools. So it’s worth asking questions like, "How often do kids get disciplined or suspended?" "How many fights have there been on campus this year and last year?" These questions may not make you popular on a tour, but every other parent will appreciated that you dared to talk about the elephant in the room.
Every school should have ready answers for you to these questions. The process for dealing with kids with disciplinary issues should be crystal clear and you should feel comfortable with it. (If it’s too strict or lax, it may drive you crazy later.) You’ll also get a better sense of what the school is dealing with in terms of the student population by hearing some of the disciplinary stats. If the school says it doesn’t keep tract of these, this is a huge red flag. It’s a law that it must track and report these to the state.
How do you measure teacher effectiveness and ensure high teacher quality?
You also might want to ask, "How do you deal with teachers who do not meet your standard?" These are really questions about the depth of commitment of the principal. Principals come in all shapes and sizes, but the really good ones take the jobs on with the sense that the “buck stops here.” Perhaps the most important job is to ensure that the teachers as effective as possible. There are many avenues to this goal but any middle school should have a ready answer for you about how the principal maintains high teacher quality and evaluates/trains/disciplines teachers who fall short of success.
What are your expectations for your students?
Are all students getting college track curriculum? Not all schools track their students in the same way. It’s important to understand that college-ready curriculum isn’t necessarily the norm. For some schools, only the honors program really prepares kids for high school college-ready classes. Some schools, on the other hand, put all children on an "honor’s track." Whatever the case, you need to understand the expectations of the school for its students to know if it fit the expectations you have for your child.
How do you support children with learning issues or academic problems?
Be sure to ask: How do you differentiate for gifted children or kids with special needs? Depending on your child you may want to hear very different answers to questions about LDs, academic problems, and gifted children. If you have a gifted child you may not want to hear that there’s no funding for the gifted program. If you have a child with dyslexia you may not want to hear that she is going to be in a Special Ed class with kids with autism – a very different issue or a general ed class with teacher who have no background in dyslexia. Whatever your child’s needs you want to place her in a school with resources and expertise devoted to kids like her. Otherwise your child may have a difficult time getting the education she needs.
Find out about writing
Ask: What curriculum is used? How are teachers trained? Writing is one of the most difficult things to teach and one of the most important. But since many standardized “bubble” tests don’t test these skills it’s easy for teachers not to focus on them. Ideally, the school has both a writing curriculum as well as a curriculum in which writing is incorporated into other subjects like math, science, and social science. Ask to look at examples of writing and think back to your childhood as to what you were writing at this age or ask to see their “rubric” of writing standards and how they determine what “good writing” looks like at this age.
What’s your explanation for the school’s test scores?
Hint: Look up the scores before the tour!
Of course, if the school has extremely high scores, they’ll likely tell you the scores are a reflection of the excellence of their teachers and students. But if the scores aren’t quite so high, it’s interesting to hear how the school accounts for this. You may not buy these justifications for low scores. But they can be very eye-opening. For instance, a middle school which is a magnet for English language learners may perform on standardized tests at a far lower level because these kids are being tested as if they know English, which they don’t. By the same token, a school which has a high percentage of learning disabled kids may end up also generating lower general scores. For such reasons, it’s important to look at two factors: 1) the general trend in the tests scores — are they going up? And 2), how the kids who match your child’s profile are doing. Looking up the school’s test scores and evaluating scores at the level of subgroup is very useful (if it’s available for schools in your state).
Looking for a middle school? Don't decide without getting the answers to these key questions!