The first time I went to an open house in search of a school for my own child in Washington, DC, years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at classroom bulletin boards. I hoped the children’s drawings, the construction-paper borders, and the rules posted by the teacher would reveal the classroom’s secrets.

Was this a place where learning happened? Was this a place where children felt safe? Inspired? Curious?

It never worked. The bulletin boards did not speak to me. Now I know I was looking in the wrong direction.

Since then, having spent years studying schools around the world, I judge them differently. It’s not easy, of course. Every child is different. An outstanding school for one child might be hell on earth for another.

Still, when it comes to finding a school that is both rigorous and alive, full of spirit and learning, there are a few reliable tricks. Based on what I have seen from visiting schools on four continents, listening to kids, teachers, and parents and studying the research of other, smarter people than myself, here are a few tips from my own evolving guide to spotting a world-class education.

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Watch the students

If you are trying to understand a school, you can ignore most of the information you are given. Open houses? Pretty much useless. Average class size? Not as important as most people think. Some studies have shown that smaller class sizes benefit children in elementary school, but other studies have found no clear relationship. In fact, some of the highest-performing countries (Japan, say, or Korea) typically have larger classes than the United States; and some consistently unimpressive education systems have among the smallest class sizes (Greece, for example, or Italy). Assuming class sizes are within a range from roughly 15 to 35 students, the research suggests that other factors, including the quality of the teaching, matter more than size.

Test data? More helpful, but very hard to decipher in most places. How good is the test? How much value is the school adding beyond what kids are already learning at home?

Instead, the best way to gauge the quality of a school is to spend time — even just 20 minutes — visiting classrooms while school is in session.

When you get there, though, it’s important to know where to look. Turn away from the bulletin boards and watch the students instead. Watch for signs that all the kids are paying attention, interested in what they are doing, and working hard.

Don’t check for signs of order; sometimes learning happens in a lecture hall, but more often it happens in noisy places where the kids are working in groups without much input from the teacher. Some of the worst classrooms are quiet, tidy places that look, to adults, reassuringly calm.

Remember that rigorous learning actually looks rigorous. If the kids are whizzing through a worksheet, that’s not learning. That’s filling out a form. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. They should not be frustrated or despairing; instead, they should be getting help when they need it, often from each other. They should not spend long, empty stretches of time transitioning from one class to another or waiting for the next activity. There should be a sense of urgency that you can feel.

Talk to the students

People, including reporters, rarely ask students for their insight. Young kids are thought to be too small to understand; older kids are presumed to be too jaded. Neither is true, in my experience. As long as you ask intelligent questions, students are the most candid and helpful sources in any school.

Don’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” or “Do you like your school?” What if a tall, smiling stranger came to your office and asked, “Do you like your boss?” You’d wonder if he was a consultant brought in to fire you. Kids have the same reaction. And in any case, liking a teacher is not the same as learning from a teacher. Instead, ask questions that are specific, respectful, and meaningful.

The first thing I usually ask is straightforward: What are you doing right now? Why?

You’d be amazed how many kids can answer the first question but not the second. The second question is imperative, however. To buy into school, kids need to be reminded of the purpose all day, every day.

Ignore shiny objects

Little data exists to compare investments in technology across
countries, unfortunately. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high-tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value.

When I surveyed 200 exchange students who had spent time in high schools in the U.S. and abroad, seven out of 10 agreed that U.S. schools had more technology. Not one American student surveyed said there was significantly less technology in U.S. schools.

The smartest countries prioritize teacher pay and equity (channeling more resources to the neediest students). When looking for a world-class education, remember that people always matter more than props.

Ask the principal the hard questions

When searching for a school, keep in mind that the leader matters more than any other factor. Yes, the teachers are critically important, too, but you can’t pick your child’s teacher in our system. So, you have to rely on the principal to do that for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, How do you choose your teachers? and Do you watch them teach before you hire them?

Finland, Korea, and all the education superpowers select their teachers relatively efficiently, by requiring students accepted to teacher colleges to be in the top third of their graduating high school classes. This selectivity is not enough by itself, but it ensures a level of prestige and education that makes great things possible.

Since most countries, including the U.S., do not take this logical step, the principal is even more important. That leader acts as the filter instead of the education college or the teacher certification system, which is not robust in most places. Nothing matters more than the decisions the principal makes about whom to hire, how to train, and whom to let go.

Finally, don’t forget to ask how the principal makes teachers better once they are hired. The more specifics you hear in response to this question, the better. Most teachers operate without meaningful feedback, in isolation. That is indefensible today.

Whatever you do, avoid the parent traps that exist all over the world. Don’t assume that just because a school has natural light and beautiful buildings, it is a good school. Don’t think that paying a lot of money for a school will guarantee good teaching; worldwide, kids who attend private schools tend to do about as well on international tests as public school students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

And finally, remember the advice given to marathon runners the world over: Drink water. Don’t forget to breathe. And don’t give up.


This essay is excerpted from Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way, published in August 2013 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Copyright © 2013 by Amanda Ripley.