How to Choose the Best School for Your Child

By Ellen B. Mandinach and Ryan C. Miskell, WestEd

As parents, we are constantly bombarded with loads of information about schools—which schools have the highest test scores, the best sports teams, the most impressive graduation and college acceptance rates. But what do you really need to know when making a decision about your children’s education?

Researchers from WestEd asked a series of related questions to nearly 120 parents in Missouri—such as, “If you were new to an area and were making a decision about where to live, what would you want to know about the schools? Who would you ask? From where would you obtain the information?”

The results showed a universal set of values all families share. Parents want to know about the school environment, school safety and if the school provides a supportive environment, particularly for the youngest children and for children in urban areas. As their children age, parents grow increasingly concerned about whether the school will adequately prepare their children for the future.

When children enter middle and high school, parents obsess over curricula and extracurricular offerings. Are there enrichment opportunities such as I.B. and AP? Are there sports, orchestras, and clubs? Is there a good college and career readiness program? But school safely pretty much trumps everything.

Parents want to feel confident that when they send their child to school, they will be safe and in an environment that supports their success.

A good impression—which parents build by talking to other parents or on a walk-through of the school—will ultimately be more important to them than data about school performance. Parents often must reconcile conflicting information. A high-performing school that fails to elicit a good impression is seen as less desirable than a lower-performing school that “feels good.”

Parents interpret the same information on schools differently.

When deciding where to send their child to school, parents often go with their gut over hard data such as test scores or graduation rates. That doesn’t mean that parents don’t use test scores, graduation and dropout rates, and school performance when making a decision about where to send their child to school.

Take, for example, technology in school. Most parents see technology as an asset to enhance education. Yet, a small number of parents worry that technology access limits students’ interactions with one another, stunting their social growth.

In looking at demographics, most parents interviewed wanted their children to experience a diverse school environment, yet there were a few exceptions. Parents will make a decision based on what they think is right for their children.

Where to get info about schools.

There a variety of websites, like state websites, Great or even realty sites. You can also ask other parents and community members. In fact, parents and other people in your community can often be better resources than websites—personal experiences—which you can’t always find online. Though those personal accounts can come with skewed information and biases.

This is where a local PTA comes in. PTA members are most engaged in their children’s education and are likely the most knowledgeable about the school’s strengths and weaknesses. And these parents will know what’s going on the district and state level and how it relates to your child.

So, when making a decision about where to send your child to school:

  • Gather all the information you can.
  • Do a walk-through of the school if possible.
  • Talk to other parents and community members.
  • And reach out to local PTAs to help with your final decision.

Who knows, maybe that conversation will create a network of people that will help carry you through this first decision and the many other important ones that follow.

Ellen B. Mandinach is a Senior Research Scientist and the Director of the Data for Decisions Initiative at WestEd.

 Ryan C. Miskell is a Research Associate at WestEd.

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