Finding a “Good” School- To Dream the Impossible Dream

Last week, I had my in-laws over for dinner.  As I made a salad, I asked my father-in-law to help my first grader with his math homework.  My FIL needed to read the problem to Liam and then let him solve it.

On one of the problems Liam got stumped, and my FIL, like any good grandparent would do, tried to help him.  But the way he and I learned math is VERY different from the math that is being taught today.  Liam went through his arsenal of strategies and manipulatives.  He determined he didn’t want to use Friendly Tens, and settled on a set of unifix cubes to help him figure out the answer.  My FIL looked at me and said “Things have really changed from when I was a kid.”

They have, and in many ways, I’m glad.  As a person who has studied Elementary Education and a parent of two children, I thought I had a decent grasp of modern education.  Turns out, it is much more complex than I gave it credit for.

I think back to Liam and the way he is learning math.  When it came time to tour Kindergartens, one of the schools I visited was a Montessori.  A girlfriend had raved about how different they were when it came to math.  They used manipulatives.  They focused on problem solving and critical thinking, not memorization and drills to get the correct answer.  When I saw it in action I was dully impressed.  The math beads were new and shiny to me.  I wanted to play with them.

The exact methods and tools may not be the same, but the idea of using manipulatives and teaching problem solving is not limited to Montessori schools.  That’s how math is taught now, at least in our school district.  I didn’t know that because I was assuming my educational experience would mirror that of my sons.  I hadn’t actually spent time in a modern classroom.

I am once again figuring out what I think I know about schools and what is the truth.  It is more confusing than ever.

Remember when you were a kid and you went to the school down the street because that was the school that was closest to your house?  Relegate that idea to the way back machine.  Now, parents compare public schools to other public schools, Montessoris, private schools, charter schools, magnets, Waldorf, and a host of other types of schools you’ve never heard of. (Reggio Emilia? What’s that?)

Being the over-involed smarty pants that I am, I decided to go see how my school fared on rankings this year.  I was happy to see that they moved up 75 spots in the rankings, and remained in the top third for schools in our state.  Our district was 70th out of 283 in the state.  It would seem we were in a “good” school.

Then I looked at the test scores.  The AZMerit scores for all grades at our school showed 48% of the kids were proficient at math, and within the district 54% proficient.  The numbers for English language arts were similar- 49% proficient at our school, 51% district.  How can a school and a district with very respectable rankings have nearly half of their students not test as proficient?  I found this really upsetting.

Unfortunately, this is not unusual for Arizona.  On those same AZMerit tests, statewide, 35% meet the standards for math proficiency, and 34% for English Language Arts.  Arizona is not known as a great place for education.  We rank almost last when it comes to funding for students.

I did the first thing that came to my mind.  I started looking at other schools.

A friend of mine happened to be doing the same thing, and mentioned she had toured one of the most sought after private schools in our neighborhood.  She gushed about the arts program and the smaller class sizes.  I mentioned I had a few friends whose kids go to this school.  She beamed and asked “Do they love it?”

I, being the asshole that I am, responded “Of course they love it.  They pay $13,000 a year per child to go there.  For that kind of money, they better love it.”  The 13k figure is not completely accurate.  There is a break on the second child- a bargain at 11k.  To put that in perspective- that is roughly the cost of the Associate’s Degree I earned at community college.  Yes, community college, but still a college degree.  The PTO budget of one of the elementary schools I toured is $12,000 for the year.  Sooooo- you could fund the entire PTO for a school of 500 or so kids.  Or you could give your one child a golden ticket.

I was teasing her about crossing over to the dark side when she reminded me of the circumstances behind her seeking schools.  Her son has been in public schools and he’s falling through the cracks.  He’s told her that he is unhappy.  He knows he thinks differently and doesn’t fit into the traditional box. Sometimes he doesn’t see this as a gift.  As a parent, she watches him hurting and wants to provide an environment that works for his unique needs.  She believes she found it at this school.  What is wrong with that?

I still believe my children deserve a quality, free education.  EVERY child does.  I started looking at a charter school with an “A” rating and the test scores to match- or so I thought.  When I initially started looking at test scores for this school, the figures I came across were Aims scores.  These scores showed 79% of third grade students proficient in Math, and 90% proficient at reading.  Seems much better than that 48 and 49% at our school.

But then I began to wonder- what is the difference between AZMerit and Aims?  When I looked at AZMerit scores for this school, they did not have them for the students in elementary school (this is a K-12 school).  Their middle/high school students scored 53% proficient for math, and 52% for English language arts- higher than our current school, but not by much.  So I dug deeper and went and looked at Aims scores for our current school- 78% of third graders proficient at Math, and 83% proficient at reading.  Confused yet?  I am.

Looking at this broader picture, the test scores seem pretty similar.  But the public school is a “B” school and the charter is an “A” school.  I began to wonder what accounts for this difference in rating and what it means to my family.  Bottom line, regardless of test scores and rankings, where are MY sons going to get the best education?

My experience so far is that despite the school, a lot of success comes down to the individual teacher and classroom.  We have been lucky to have amazing teachers so far.  Its a gamble as to whether we will continue to get good teachers- or is it?  Did we luck into good educators, or is it a culture within that school to hire great people?

Teachers are employees.  They want and deserve to be paid well for their services.  I started looking at teacher salaries between these two schools.  A starting teacher would earn about $5,000 less at the charter school.  Why would a teacher accept a lower pay?  Is it because he/she is not competitive enough to get a job at a public school?  Are tenured teachers holding the positions at public schools, making it hard to get a foot in the door?Or are there personal reasons for a teacher to prefer whatever the method of the charter school is?

Looking at Linkedin profiles, the charter school seemed to have a lot of teachers straight out of college.  Their prior work experience listed jobs like “barista” or “tutor.”  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  A teacher out of college might have fresh ideas and more energy.  Do we opt for youth or experience?  Of course, I am generalizing here.  Charter schools have experienced teachers.  Public schools have teachers fresh out of college.  I’m just trying to quantify what I learned from my online sleuthing.

One thing that appeals to me and that I’ve heard of as a benefit from families in charter schools is the sense of community and dedication to education.  Families are at these schools because they want to be there.  A public school has to accept everyone.  The charter school I am looking at has a wait list.  Shouldn’t surrounding ourselves with like-minded people give our kids a greater opportunity to succeed?

But we all know that education is not just about math and reading.  By creating a bubble of privilege, do charter schools and private schools limit the opportunity for social interaction that can not be taught in a book?  I brought up this very question to a friend with children in private schools.  She responded that those opportunities do not necessarily have to be given in school.  Parents can create those opportunities for their children through outside friends and volunteers work.

I think that is kind of a dangerous road to go down.  A child might learn empathy from volunteer work, but I think missing that daily interaction can breed a feeling of superiority.  Putting my kids in the bubble would mean they would miss out on the chance to have a best friend who might be someone like me.  My parents would have never thought of putting us in a charter school or private school.  I think my kids can learn a lot from engaging with people of varied backgrounds- kids who get free lunch, kids who vacation in foreign countries, kids who speak English as a second language, kids who have different abilities.

So what school do we choose? What is the best fit?  I can do all this research and comparing, but it still comes down to the real, inner workings of the classroom.  The same way I was completely wrong about how math is taught, I might be completely misreading information on all of these schools and the parents and students who go to them.  That’s the tough part.  Because you can tour and talk and research and gather information.  But you won’t really know if its the right fit until you are living it.

Just another joyous reminder of the impossible job we have as parents.  You’re welcome.  Ugh, my brain hurts.

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