How NOT to Choose a World-Class School

Charter schools, magnet schools, school vouchers, citywide schools.  It’s the language of school choice in public education, a bipartisan school reform movement that has outlasted most and gained momentum under the Obama administration.  The school choice movement borrowed from business a core strategy for product improvement—competition.  Schools competing for their market share of families theoretically will become better or ultimately “go out of business.”

There are some shining stars in the school choice movement, but overall, U.S. schools have not greatly improved their ratings in the global education market. We know this mainly through an international test of critical and creative thinking, the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  It’s not that tests scores count everything worth counting, but we wonder, why can’t our schools compete?

One reason may surprise you:  It seems that we Americans who pride ourselves in being educated consumers do not know how to shop for schools.

Let’s take a quiz to find out if you are a wise shopper when it comes to schools.  This is for consumers of school choice as well as of private education.  It’s fall, and it’s time for choice school open houses designed to recruit students for the next school year.  The open house is a sales presentation, but you just need to know what to look for.  So here’s the quiz.

In choosing a school for my child, I would look for:

  1. High test scores
  2. State-of-the-art technology in every classroom
  3. Manicured athletic fields and winning teams
  4. Smiling, friendly teachers
  5. All of the above
  6. None of the above

So which answer did you choose? High test scores?  State-of-the-art technology?  American schools spend a lot of money on those things.  Perhaps you couldn’t decide, and went with “all of the above.”  As it turns out, the correct answer is f. none of the above.  None of these are the essential features of a world-class school, the hallmark of which is a culture that is serious about intellectual rigor.

I learned this from an engaging and thought-provoking book by Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.  Maybe you’ve read it too, because it was a New York Times Best Seller. Ripley followed three American teens to high schools in Finland, Korea, and Poland, democracies that score at the top or are fast improving on tests of higher level thinking like the PISA.  Her story is a fascinating read, but don’t skip Appendix I, from which I derived my little quiz.

So here’s the Answer Key, based on Ripley’s and the teens’ experiences in the world’s top schools.

How NOT to Choose a World-Class American School:

  1. High test scores: The problem here is that there is so much you don’t know about the test: what it measures, and how scores are derived.  Ripley cites a case where an “A” rated U.S. suburban high school scored lower than twenty-three countries in the rigorous PISA math test. This makes the high test scores that contributed to the school’s “A” rating seem pretty meaningless.
  2. State-of-the-art technology: While the push in the U.S. is to have a whiteboard in every classroom and a tablet in every hand, there is very little technology in the high performing Finnish, Korean, and Polish classrooms. Ripley reports that you will still see rows of desks in front of a chalkboard.
  3. Manicured athletic fields and winning teams: World-class schools in Finland do not even include athletics in the regular school curriculum!  Sports take place outside of school in community centers.  Teachers are never hired based on what they can coach or how well.
  4. Smiling, friendly teachers: Ripley advises you to get your eyes off the teachers and onto the students. Visit classrooms and observe.  Are most of the students engaged? Are they paying attention? Can they tell you what they are studying and most importantly, why?  The teacher’s personality is not the chief cause of student boredom; it’s the lack of rigor and challenge in the work, the lack of an intellectual culture in the school.

So, this fall if you are shopping for a school, be a savvy shopper.  Don’t fall for the bells and whistles; demand world-class academics. Your children will be competing globally against students who met world-class standards. Pull back the curtain.  Talk to students, and listen to the parents.  Are they more interested in the football team than the math program?  Fine for them, but you make sure both programs are excellent before you buy in.

I would add some other questions to those in Ripley’s Appendix.  How does the school serve its most advanced students?  Are there options for students to accelerate at their own pace?  Is the curriculum responsive to differing interests and learning styles?  Does it teach the skills of innovators, like creative thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork?

The U.S. has many models of world-class schools.  They exist in all types of neighborhoods.  If you can’t find one, then it’s time, as an educated consumer, to demand it.