What makes a good school?

By National Motivational Speaker and Educator Alan Haskvitz



This is an interesting question and one most prospective homebuyers are willing to pay thousands of extra dollars for if they think their new digs is in a district with superior schools. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to telling if a school is good for your child or not and most times good schools are a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, if people think the school is good and are willing to pay more money to live in that district the schools are going to better because the attitude of the parents and students is usually better. 

So where does that leave the parent looking for the best school placement for their child? Well, it does not take a genius to realize that standardized test scores have been proven to measure the socio-economic levels of the parents. In other words, if the parent is well educated and capable of providing an enriched atmosphere the child usually does better on standardized tests. However, last year my students did a study of city size on student performance that provided some interesting results. Math scores, regardless of the population of the community, were equal. English, and especially social studies scores, were much higher in communities that had populations between 10,000 and 30,000 residents. The study was restricted to California, but may be of interest to those shopping various communities.

Now, as for comparing schools there are several important facts to consider and all are public record. First, the safety at the school. How many suspensions and expulsions for weapons, drugs, and fighting were recorded. Even the best of schools have problem students, but if that number is limited you can expect your child to have a better chance of being relaxed and able to learn better.

Next, and the most important factor outside of safety, is the qualifications of the teachers. Many studies have been done that clearly indicated that the number one criterion of successful students is a well-educated teacher. The teacher should have at least one college degree in the subject area he or she is teaching. In many states this degree must be in the field they are teaching and not in education. A teacher’s academic qualifications are on record at every district office. If the majority of teachers have this certification you are most likely to get a better program. In addition you should check the experience level of the teachers. Like any occupation, the longer the person has been working at it the better they get.  Now this does not preclude the fact that there are not non-certified, inexperienced teachers without degrees that might do a nice job of educating your child, but you have to go with the research and the averages.

After safety and the qualifications of the teachers take a look at the extra programs the school is offering. The more variety the better chances of your child getting involved and that is always a plus. Music, sports, drama, art, and leadership are typical offerings. What is not are programs that are based on heritage, community, the environment, and service learning. The more the better.

Usually, principals are supposed to be the academic leaders of the school. As such checking out their education and past experience could be quite worthwhile. Some school districts transfer principals around for good causes and others may be trying to alleviate a problem. A good principal communicates well and has reasonable goals that can be measured. It may be interesting to note that in 30 years plus of teaching in many states and countries and districts the number of good administrators that I have dealt with can be counted on one hand. This does not mean they were not qualified, it indicates that to some being a principal was an end in itself whereas to the good ones it was a means to provide progressive educational opportunities for the students. The latter is indeed rare and a good indication of a quality school.

Obviously, one can look at the ratings the state gives to schools based on some testing criteria. And one can check the standardized scores, number of students on the honor roll, and number of dropouts. But each of these figures is based on generalities and does not really offer much of an insight into whether this school might be better than another for your child.

There are many other small factors that can reveal if the school is doing okay. Checking the number of teacher transfers, the number of principal changes, the daily average number of student absences, the size of the community support club, and talking to other parents are all of some value.

Finally, take a look at the district finances. If a school is having budget problems it creates a huge variety of issues from lack of janitorial help to keep the school clean, to unhappy teachers who need to work two jobs to make ends meet, to a lack of classroom resources and even classrooms.

I hardly recommend that one way to check if the school is going to be a good one is to check and see if any bond issues have failed. If they have you can be assured that the residents are not interested in financially supporting the school for whatever reason. And, if the people who live in the area are not interested what incentive is there for others to care. But it should be remembered that most residents of any community do no have children in school and that it usually takes two-thirds of those voting to pass a bond measure so check the vote total.

As for private schools, and I have worked in many, the criteria for the public schools mentioned above are valid, but you need to add a few more. One is the number of students in a classroom. The fewer the better. Next, is how well the students have done once they have left the school? Third, what is the emphasis of the school curriculum? Is it religion, sports, college preparation? If that strength plays into your child’s interests you have a better chance of finding a good placement. However, make sure you check carefully. My son went to a private school for one year and it killed his entire high school experience. The school was into sports and he wasn’t. The teachers weren’t highly qualified, some didn’t have a credential, and the overall effect wasn’t a good fit for a high school freshman who was looking for academic excellence. I moved him to a public school and it took his sophomore year to catch up to what he lost in his freshman year and that continued. In his senior year he was significantly behind in math, but he had caught up in all his other areas earning state honors in chemistry, biology, English, and history.  We had done him a disservice with our placement. So, avoid our error and check closely if the private school has what your child needs.

Regardless, it is nearly impossible to tell if a school is a good one for your child based on statistics alone. At the school where I teach parents from other parts of the world have been known to buy an “uncle” for their children to live with so they can show residence in the district. The result is usually the same as unsupervised children create problems regardless of the community or school. In other words, what makes a good school is a caring parent who understands that a quality education requires teamwork. The parent holds the key to great schools by their interest and positive involvement.

This site contains information about teachers and salaries and other data that may be of interest about the history of teaching.


About the author: Alan Haskvitz has been selected as one of the best teachers in the United States by six different educational organizations. He has earned over 30 awards for his innovative teaching and has been featured on national radio and television numerous times as well as featured in books on improving education. His students have done extremely well winning major competitions in nearly every curriculum area. Haskvitz has taught at every grade level and every core subject in his nearly 30 years as an educator.

He is a working classroom teacher and can be contacted through his website http://www.reacheverychild.com which has over 10,000 free resources for parents and teachers.