What Makes a Good School?

What Makes a Good School?

In October, the state announced a new school rating system to evaluate all of the public schools in Illinois. Instead of strictly looking at how well students do on certain standardized tests, the new system takes into account multiple factors including academic growth, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and more.

However, the new state rankings conflict with the Chicago Public Schools’ own ranking system, which looks at different criteria. According to CPS, their school rating system is based on several factors including test score performance, academic growth, closing of achievement gaps, school culture, attendance, graduation, and preparation for post-graduation success.

Further complicating matters, the state and CPS base their scores off of different standardized tests. The state uses the PARCC test to evaluate students, while CPS uses the NWEA MAP test for elementary schools and the SAT for high schools.

Plus, the state ratings are based on a curve, so only the top 10 percent of schools can be labeled “exemplary” and the bottom five percent have to be labeled “lowest performing,” while the CPS system doesn’t require a certain number of schools to be at the bottom.

So if you are a parent how can you really tell if a school is “good” or not?

We asked some of our tutors, many of whom are current or former teachers, to share their thoughts on what truly makes a good school and what are some things parents can look for before making their decision about where to send their children.

Small Class Sizes: Gertjand Vriend, an EE workshop instructor with more than 10 years of teaching experience, says small class size is one of the key factors that can lead to a better teaching environment. “One thing that stuck with me from being a student-teacher was when a colleague in the history department retired. He said, ‘I’ve seen school reform policies come and go. The only thing that really seems to be working is reducing class sizes,’” Vriend says. “I think I agree.”

However, Bethany Walter, a tutor who has taught in both Aurora and Chicago, disagrees. “Small class sizes are definitely better for students and desirable for teachers, but they’re not necessarily an indication of a good school. There are many great schools that do not have small class sizes.” Walter thinks teacher longevity is a better indicator.

Low Teacher Turnover: If you’re trying to gauge how happy the teachers are at a school, one of the best things to look at is teacher turnover. “Both teacher longevity and low administration turnover are good signs that the school has a positive and healthy school culture,” Walter says.

Academic Growth: How well a school does on standardized tests doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good school. A better measure may be whether or not its scores are improving from year to year. “In order to achieve growth, a school would need to have an incredibly strong and rigorous curriculum. Teachers at that school would need to be proficient at using formative data to adjust their instruction in order to achieve as much growth as possible,” says Lauren Stummer, a tutor who has been teaching for six years in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. “Not only that, but the teachers would need to be well-versed in the state standards that the assessment is based on, which would mean the school has an aligned, rigorous curriculum. Whereas, a school that solely reports the school’s average could just be showing that the school attracts kids who came in with higher test scores yet learned very little.”

Positive School Culture: Walter says one of the key things that determines the quality of a school isn’t something you can gauge from a statistic; rather it’s a feeling you get when you visit a school in person. “To be able to get a good sense of a school, I would tell parents (if they are able) to walk through the school hallway during a normal day. You can tell so much from the hallway. Is the atmosphere positive and energetic yet orderly? Are students interacting with each other respectfully? Do teachers appear relaxed and happy to be there? Do students overall appear to be looking forward to class? Are there any members of the administration present in the hallway? These are signs of a well-functioning and positive school environment.”

Tutor Brandy Holton agrees. “A positive culture and climate leads to an increase in curiosity and creativity resulting in innovation, problem-solving and meaningful conversations,” she says. “Schools that promote kindness and empathy produce self-directed and intrinsically motivated students who are prepared for the world.”

Fit for Your Child: Erin Nakayama, a tutor who has taught high school math and science, says finding a good school for your child is about knowing your own child’s strengths and weaknesses. “Whether or not a school is ‘good’ for your child depends on the needs of your child. Does she require a lot of structure? If so, perhaps a school that focuses on direct instruction with a rigid discipline policy is a good fit. Is your child someone who pursues his own interests wholeheartedly but has trouble completing homework? Perhaps a ‘good school’ for this child uses project-based learning to teach curricula. Does she work really well by herself but struggles to work in a team? Perhaps a good school for your student would take the Emilia Romano education approach and teach its students how to collaborate, a necessary skill to be successful in the workplace.”

To find out more about the culture of a school, see if you can meet with teachers or administrators in advance or talk to other parents whose children attend that school. For better or worse, parents in Chicago have a lot of options to consider. The right school for your child is out there, and putting in the time and effort to research schools will make a difference.