In its first months, the Obama administration declared that it wanted the nation’s 1,000 lowest-performing schools to close and reopen under new management each year for the next five years. Many education reformers welcomed the announcement, but some parents were left with a basic question in the meantime: How do we know whether our school is one of the really bad ones?
Evaluating a school is a complex undertaking — perhaps no more so than with a high school, where student performance reflects not just the efficacy of that school but the effectiveness of every other school students have attended. Nevertheless, we’ve put together a list of the top-five reasons to avoid a high school, even if your son or daughter is begging to be enrolled there:
1. It’s not safe. Bored teachers, uncreative lesson plans, a swim team without a pool — there are ways of working with shortcomings like these in a high school. But if the place isn’t safe, that’s a nonstarter. This isn’t just for parents’ peace of mind. Study after study has shown that concerns about safety at school have a significant affect on learning. If your local high school has a reputation for fight breaking out (or even bullying) there’s no bigger warning sign. After all, if the principal can’t ensure basic safety, it’s likely that other priorities are going unmet too.
2. Bad teaching. Nobody sets out to be a bad teacher, but it can happen over time. Some years back, Guy Strickland published the handbook Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents. The book had its critics, but many parents found Strickland’s breakdown useful. Education magazine came out with a handy summary of bad teachers’ characteristics:
- They lack subject knowledge.
- They have poor classroom control.
- They act unprofessionally.
- They can’t diagnose learning problems.
- They are obsessive about method (particularly about whole language, although Strickland is obsessive about phonics and an avid opponent of Madeline Hunter’s work).
- They focus on the wrong goals.
- They have no goals at all.
3. The kids aren’t graduating. Or at least a lot of them aren’t. If the dropout rate is alarmingly high at the school you’re considering, ask why. Are the teachers fully engaged? Are the students? Are they allowed to advance to the next grade level without meeting basic reading and math competencies? There are certainly examples of great schools that still struggle with a core of underachieving students (these kids are failing despite the schools’ best efforts, not because of them). But when underachievement is the norm, it can be hard for anyone — kids or teachers — to swim against the current for long.
4. Terrible teacher-to-student ratio. There’s evidence suggesting that class size isn’t the holy grail it’s sometimes billed to be. But there’s a caveat to that evidence: within reason. This year represents the first on record that the United States has seen education jobs decline while enrollment rose, according to BusinessWeek. This is a general trend, of course, and individual schools will weather it differently. Nevertheless, it serves to highlight the crisis of overcrowded classes and overworked teachers in some schools. When considering a high school, make sure there’s space for your child — figuratively and literally.
5. It’s not a good school. In a sense, identifying a bad high school isn’t rocket science — as long as you know what the signs of a good one are. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot outlined those very signs in her book The Good High School. “In good high schools students are treated with fearless and empathetic attention by adults,” she writes. “Teachers know individual students well and are knowledgeable about adolescence as a developmental period.” Visit the school you’re considering. If the teachers don’t fit that description, it could be a signal that you should look elsewhere.