Parents Want More From Their Child’s K-12 Education. Here are Five Ways to Find it.

By Jon Deane, CEO, GreatSchools.org
Kids walking into school

Our school system is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many districts continue to experience declining enrollment. Families are pivoting to homeschooling and taking advantage of alternative education opportunities. And, across the board, there is still major learning loss. 

With all this going on, it’s understandable that parents are giving more thought to myriad options to find the right education for their child. They want to know how schools are responding post-pandemic to their longstanding educational priorities, such as learning growth, emotionally supportive environments, rigorous college preparation and the opportunity to explore diverse career pathways.

These desires aren’t new—but for the first time, parents are exploring other ways to meet them. They have become more sophisticated “consumers” of their child’s education and are looking for different educational approaches altogether, from innovative programming like learning pods and tutoring to other more flexible, personalized learning options.

Parents know the kind of educational experience they want their child to have, but without access to quality school information, it can be hard to find. To help families figure out if a school is well positioned to help their child make progress, offer enriching opportunities and make them feel welcomed, here are five important considerations that parents can look for—and the right questions to ask. 

1. Eye Progress Over Proficiency

Although once considered the primary method to evaluate school quality, test scores are just one component of evaluating a school. They are actually often more closely aligned with student demographics than with how skilled a school is at serving all students. If we judge schools only based on those scores, we risk missing out on a more important indicator of success: how well a school helps its students progress year over year.

This is where student progress (or “growth”) data is critical. Test scores give you a moment in time look at how a child performed on a particular test on a particular day. Growth data provide a measure of what a child has learned over the course of the school year. It’s more than whether a student is proficient in math—it’s about whether a school is helping her make progress, how much progress and in what areas. This is particularly important for understanding the experience of students with learning differences or other challenging life circumstances.

Where can you find it? Student growth data is usually available on state department of education sites and is often broken down among different ethnic groups and income levels, which can be particularly important information for families of color or from varying socioeconomic backgrounds to see how their student may fare under the school’s instruction.

GreatSchools.org has also developed a school summary rating scale that includes student growth data. The scale ranges from one – 10, with a one being the lowest performing schools and 10 being the highest. In addition to the growth data, the rating system includes college readiness data for high schools, the school’s efforts to offer an equitable environment for all students and student test scores. I shared more about our rating system designed to help parents make informed decisions in a recent National PTA Notes from the Backpack podcast.

2. Inquire About STEM Programs

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are among the highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs in the United States. This is why it’s important for parents to know whether their child is accessing learning opportunities that will prepare them to compete and succeed in this prosperous job market.

Even if a child shows interest in other fields, such as the arts or journalism, STEM courses teach transferable, critical-thinking skills that are beneficial for whichever path they choose. Access to STEM courses is especially important for Black, Hispanic and female students who are underrepresented in STEM fields. Having equitable opportunities to participate in STEM courses from a young age could narrow representation gaps and position more students for higher-paying careers after graduation.

Parents should inquire about STEM offerings at their school. Some good questions to ask are:

  • How is STEM taught at the school?
  • What classes are offered, and at what grade levels?
  • Are students able to compete in STEM competitions or participate in after-school STEM programs?
  • Is there training for educators to teach STEM subjects?

3. Look for Rigorous Academics

From macroeconomics to psychology, Advanced Placement (AP) classes offer students deeply enriching learning experiences that can prepare them for college-level coursework and sometimes earn college credit while in high school. Knowing whether a school offers advanced courses — and what its enrollment process is — can help parents identify opportunities for their child to participate in rigorous coursework that will prepare them for college.

It’s important to know that access to advanced courses is not equitably distributed. This means that although Black students make up 15% of high schoolers nationwide, they comprise only 9% of students enrolled in at least one AP course. Similarly, nearly a quarter of students are Latino, but represent just 21% of students enrolled in AP courses.

Even as schools adopt more equitable enrollment policies, parents should know what courses are offered and advocate for their child to participate. Parents can speak with the school directly to understand how these programs are administered, asking questions like:

  • What prerequisites do students need to take in order to enroll in AP classes?
  • Who teaches the AP class(es)?
  • How does the AP class reflect the interests and concerns of students in this community?
  • What is the AP exam pass rate for students in these classes?

    4. Ask Other Parents About the Social-Emotional Environment

    Every parent knows that other families can be among the best sources of school information. Research even suggests that anecdotes—whether personal stories or online reviews—influence how people make decisions, at times even more than evidence does. This kind of qualitative information is especially valuable when trying to understand how a school is making sure it’s providing an environment that is emotionally supportive of students and their families. Given the sensitive and personal nature of this topic, data will only tell one part of the story. Learning about other families’ experiences is essential.

    Parents can read reviews from other parents on sites such as GreatSchools or similar outlets (and leave one of their own) or chat with others in their community. Some questions to ask include:

    • How does the school involve families?
    • What does the school do when a student is falling behind?
    • What has your child’s experience been like with their teachers?
    • Does your child come home excited about learning?

    5. Connect with School Leaders About Innovative Approaches

    Similar to parents understanding the need for creativity and ingenuity, schools are forging ahead trying out innovative programs and processes to help their students learn. A great way to find out about these initiatives is to talk to those who work at the school. Teachers are often the lifeblood of a school and great representatives of what makes their school special. Many principals, too, welcome the opportunity to talk about their school — so parents should reach out and ask questions like:

    • How does your school use new ideas from the science of learning and education research?
    • How do you support students in finding their passions or career pathways?
    • What is one thing the school needs to improve on?
    • What identities are represented by the school leadership team?

    As a parent, I know how important it is for your child to get the right education for their learning style. We have more options than ever, which is both exciting and at times overwhelming. Learning should challenge, inspire and support every child—no matter the format. Let’s make sure all parents have the information they need to uncover the rich learning opportunities around them.

    For additional information, listen to episode 62 of National PTA’s Notes from the Backpack podcast, where I share how families can use the GreatSchools.org school ratings as a starting point for making informed choices for your child’s education.

    Jon Deane is a former teacher and school principal, and now serves as CEO of GreatSchools.org.

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