HomeFind a School

The top-five reasons to avoid a high school

High schools don't post banners announcing when they are failing. So how are parents supposed to know which ones aren't doing their job?

By GreatSchools Staff

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.


Comments from readers

"So this is saying not to go to high school? Not a very good message for the kids! It depends on what high school, catholic high schools are a very safe environment and have very good teachers. To assume the teachers are bored and don't know what they are talking about leads me to dislike this article. Maybe you could state some pros instead of all the cons. "
""a signal that you should look elsewhere." For most people, there is no elsewhere! "
"I'm 15 and at least for me its all about attitude. If want to learn and do well, all the while loving learning. You will do fine! "
"Children are influenced by their surroundings. The kind of neighborhood can have a bad reflection in the schools. Irma Suarez Montes de Oca "
"You can tell how bad a school is by looking at what kind of students are attending and by looking at the staff that runs the school, especially in the main office. It has a lot to do with the neighborhood."
"What's not mentioned is the lack of good support. What I want is a site budget which covers my basic needs as a teacher, as I no longer am willing (or able) to buy the students basic learning supplies. I am no longer going to buy educational DVD's, little treats to make them behave, or much of anything else. The consequences of non-support of our public schools are becoming evident. Teachers like me simply won't go the extra mile any more, as we're getting assaulted by the standards movement, the Christian people, the charter school people, the gay and lesbian community, the bilingual folks, the be-nice-to-immigrants movement, the I-won't-study-but-you're-to-blame-teacher movement, the sports movement, the music-art-vocational movement, the math-and-science movement. I am also not accepting responsibility for young adults who indulge themselves in drugs, pre marital sex, ridiculous amounts of television and video games, or other wastes of time."
"I can also tell you that a school that allows so many students to dress like gang members with body piercings is another sign of a bad High School. Irma Suarez Montes de Oca"
"It isn't easy or even possible many times to save money in a recession. The poster who thinks parents are being selfish is really out of touch. We are talking foreclosures and 2 years of highly difficult job searches. I know, I am a single mom who was laid off a year and a half ago. My son is home schooled because I can't afford tuition and it doesn't look like I will be gainfully employed any time soon. While I realize I may not be the person you are thinking about while commenting, this is not the time to castigate parents for being unable to save. It is ignorant to reduce it to giving up Starbucks and McDonalds!"
"I am a good teacher. How do good teachers avoid bad schools? Bad principals, and skewed data?"
"In response to the person who was talking about sending their child to an out of district school... 'Should we really be putting a price on our childs education?' I know times are tough, but money shouldn't be an issue when it comes to our childrens education. Education is the most important part of someones life. There are many ways to scrape up the additional money such as cutting back on luxuries (coffee, fast food, jewelry, clothes, getting your hair done, etc... People need to put their children first and stop being selfish. Or if you still cant afford it, try talking with the other school district about getting help with the taxes. It may or may not work, but you can still try. "
"This article is lacking in anything a normal parent would not have already thought of! Give us something insightful."
"I think that a parent has to speak to teachers first and find out what the teacher has hoped to accomplish and find out if what the teacher asked for was either supported by the school's administration or blocked by the school's admin. Many teachers, for example, have a behavior plan that requires sufficient administrative support. Teachers need the support when they decide to send a student out of class for the day when he or she refuses to be respectful to both adults and peers or refuses to be uncooperative. There's a haste to declare that a teacher 'has no control of his/her class.' A teacher has about one third the power of a principal and one tenth the power of a parent not because the average teacher is a lax wimp but because a lot of power has been stripped from teachers today."
"You cannot just pick a high school. If you live in one district but want to send your child to school in another district, you have to pay the school taxes for where you live, plus the ones for the other district. To do this where I live, it would be an additional $7500 a year."
"Your advice, although well intended is not always practical. Schools in most areas have been under court orders to desegregate. This means that students attend schools that they are zoned to attend according to where they live. There is really no 'school choice'. The only choice parents have is whether or not to live in a certain school zone. Property value in good school zones is very high and unaffordable to many. Additionally, the number of students graduating is not always indictative of a schools success. To accommodate NCLB, many schools have lowered their standards in order to pass more students. The problem becomes evident when community colleges have an influx of H.S. graduates who are not able to do college level work."
"Let's stop bashing teachers and start praising and appreciating them instead! They are grossly underpaid for the work that they do day in and day out. They start very early and stay very late WITHOUT being paid overtime. Support your school and your teacher. Give to the PTA...that's how to keep your school funded, safe and GREAT!"
"Articles are obsessed with 'Bad teachers'...what about parents who don't insist their kids do their homework or always believe a teacher 'is out for me altho I didn't do anything' (usually NOT true!) I really think if parents took a few vacation days to really see what goes on in their kids' classrooms they would be surprised at the level of talking back, etc, teachers have to take these days. Public schools have to take all levels of ability and with behavior IEPs can't be disciplined by detention and expulsion but won't respond to intervention and parents often don't really understand the level of acting out that child is performing at, making the teacher caught between trying to meet that behavior IEP and keeping other kids safe. There are a lot of great students, but having several seriously disturbed kids in a class makes it hard to do actual teaching, which is unfair to the majority of the kids and the public school system."
"To the teenagers who have responded to this post: The list you are referring to describes bad teachers--not bad students. If your grownup teacher acts unprofessionally, that is a problem."
"To the teenagers who have responded to this post: The list you are referring to describes bad teachers--not bad students. If your grownup teacher acts unprofessionally, that is a problem."
"I like the information you wrote, but the problem is that, if I choose another school in other city that I know is better, I can't do it because I have to live in that city."
"This is a very astute observation, not to mention common sense. My 14 yo son went to a good, structured private school until 8th grade when he transferred into a different private school that had bad teaching and staff that just didn't 'get' kids. As a result, he disengaged and developed severe behavior problems resulting in placement in a therapeutic setting. At the time i was not aware of these issues and tried addressing them with the school principal and teachers without success. The bad teachers are still at the school. Never underestimate a school's impact on your child."
"I studied and reported on many schools as a project reporter for the Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education in NY State... After a few months, I could tell a school's rating for excellence by walking in the front door... You can feel it! So visit the school when it is in session...walk around... Best, Neal"
"I'm writina paper on Private Schools vs Public Schools, and tis ha been a great sense of information for my paper and statistics are true! I grew up going to public schools, and it wore me out! just with the popularit standards, and definetly the violence! Thanks so much for this!"
"Not every high schooler has no brains. I'm 14 and I know how to act in a classroom with or without a teacher there."
"uhh. me and kate are high schoolers and we highly disagree with this. we know how to act at the age of 16. just because were young and like too have fun doesnt mean we 'act unprofessionally.' were teenagers, not suppost too act like that yet. thanks for your time (:"
"Not only does this article describe our high school but our elementary school as well. If we call the sate, will they tell us if our school is not performing up to standard? What are our options since this is a public school system?"
"Thank you for this article. I am a parent of a middle school child that is looking at our local high schools to see which is the best fit for him. It just validates my concerns to have him receive the best education possible in a safe and engaged learning environment."
"Good high schools have facility concerned about students. If not, you have a bad high school. I have undergrad and 3 years experience in HS and 14 years in Junior Colleges. "