Evaluating Schools: 5 Questions You Need To Ask

Evaluating Schools: 5 Questions You Need To Ask
As you begin to evaluate schools, keep these five basic questions in mind.

While you are in the early stages of identifying private high schools for your child, you will read plenty of catalogs and scan dozens of school websites. That will uncover a lot of information. Just be aware that all of this is the information which the schools want you to see. These are marketing tools that present the best side to the schools and their programs. While there is certainly nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward, the reality is that you need to lift the hood and see what's inside. Find answers to the following five basic questions as part of your due diligence as you sort through schools and begin to determine which one is the best fit for your child.

Get the answers to your questions two ways: by reading the materials offered and by asking in person. Incidentally, if you have decided to use the services of an educational consultant, these are questions which she can answer for you. Then all you have to do is follow up when you visit the schools and affirm what you already know.

1. What are they teaching?

For most parents, this is the first question on the list. It is our priority #1. It plays to our concern about what kind of college or university our child will ultimately attend. Preparing for that next step is a huge undertaking and we know that we have to get it right. Preparing for college level work is a 3-4 year project.

So, do your research carefully. This is where you need to get granular and actually review the various components of the school's curriculum and determine if they all meet your objectives. If the school offers Advanced Placement, how many courses does it offer? What has been their success rate in previous years? Do they offer the International Baccalaureate diploma preparation? That program is very tightly controlled by the IB organization, so the standards should be high. Both AP and IB will stretch your child. The question in your mind has to be just how much stretching do you want her to undergo.

This video looks at the pros and cons of AP vs. IB.

Many parents want a more progressive approach to the high school years. The academics place less emphasis on tests and test preparation. If that is what you have in mind for your child, then focus on schools that offer that progressive approach. Between the AP and IB schools and the progressive schools is a whole lot of middle ground with schools offer basic AP courses, for example, and a mix of what they like to call experiential education. Each private school is unique. The differences can be subtle. They can also be very marked. It's up to you to figure out which school offers the most appropriate curriculum for your child's needs.

2. How are they teaching?

Like curricula, teaching styles are all over the map. You will see everything from small groups of students sitting around a Harkness table to students sitting at desks lined up in traditional fashion. And in some schools, you won't find any desks at all.

Obviously, the lab subjects require students to be hands on. Examine those facilities and ask about the teaching. Are the students learning by doing? Are they exploring? Discovering? Humanities and languages can be taught in many different ways. Are the students engaged? Are they just regurgitating information? Are they learning how to think critically?

This video offers a comparison of Montessori schools and conventional schools.

Review the sports and extracurricular activities programs. Since private school teachers generally are required to coach a sport or direct an extracurricular activity, it's one more way students will be taught. While it's hard to gauge the effectiveness or the influence of teachers in those settings, you will get a sense of how things are going by the popularity of the activity/sport and its resulting reputation. If that's not clear, then ask the pointed questions.

3. Why are they teaching that curriculum?

Never be embarrassed about asking why the school uses a particular course of studies or approach. That goes to the heart of why you want your child to attend a private school. If you don't agree with one school's approach, you simply move on and find a school that fits the bill. It will be out there.

The manner in which the school answers your questions also is important. If they are proactively, enthusiastically trying to draw new parents in rather than using a more passive 'take it or leave it' attitude, they will be happy to explain. After all they are experts at what they do. You and I may know what we want them to achieve. But they know how to accomplish it. Another matter to consider is that most states offer curricula that meet minimum state requirements. If you have concerns about whether those minimums are being met, you can review the state's minimum course requirements which will be posted on its site.

4. Where do their graduates matriculate?

Schools usually publish that information on their websites matters to you is whether their graduates go to the kinds of colleges and universities which you have in mind for your child. If the information is not available, ask the school for it. Or ask your consultant. Think carefully about where you want your child to go to college. Then find a college preparatory curriculum which will meet your requirements. Tip: look beyond the very competitive colleges just in the same way that you are looking beyond the most competitive private K-12 schools. There are plenty of schools out there which will suit your needs.

5. How qualified are their teachers?

Once again, you should be able to find information about faculty certifications and education on a school's web site. As a general rule, private school teachers will have a first degree in their subject. This differs slightly from public schools where a degree in education is acceptable. Private schools look for degrees in the subject enriched with appropriate education courses. The advanced or terminal degrees may or may not be in that subject depending on the career path a particular teacher has chosen to follow. That matters a great deal to us parents as we want our children to be taught by teachers who are at a minimum proficient in their field and preferably distinguished in it.

This video offers a look at the career path of teachers.

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