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Monday, February 25, 2008

Ten Tips for Picking a Good School

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008; 5:45 AM

This is the time of year many parents seek advice on how to find a good
elementary, middle or high school, public or private, for their children.
Usually I send them a Washington Post article I wrote on this subject three
years ago. But this is such an important topic to so many families, I
decided to update my thoughts. Here are 10 suggestions, in no particular
order. As you'll see in recommendation number 10, your own thoughts and
feelings should always be the deciding factor.

1. Buy an expensive house and you can be almost sure that the local school
will be good.

This is an admittedly cynical notion, but there is truth in it. Newcomers
often say to themselves, "Let's find a school or school district we like and
then find the house." Yet most school systems in this area are so good, and
parental affluence is so closely tied to educational quality, that if you
buy a pricey house, the nearest school is almost guaranteed to be what you
are looking for.

2. Look at the data.

In my opinion, based on 22 years of visiting schools and looking at data,
the two largest school districts in the Washington area, Fairfax and
Montgomery counties, are so well run that even their low-income
neighborhoods have schools and teachers that compare with the best in the
country. I think the same is true for public schools in Arlington, Clarke,
Loudoun and Prince William counties, and the cities of Falls Church and
Alexandria. (I'm based in Northern Virginia, so I have closer first-hand
knowledge of school systems on that side of the Potomac River.) I also think
all the D.C. public schools west of Rock Creek Park are as good as those in
the suburbs.

My beliefs are influenced by data on how much schools challenge all of their
students, even those with average records of achievement, to take
college-level courses and tests before they finish high school. I call this
the Challenge Index. (For more on the index, see recommendation No. 9
below.) I want to stress that other systems in the area have some fine
public schools. Case in point: All four public high schools in Calvert
County appear to be pushing students solidly toward college-level work.
There are also some good charter schools. But in some places, you have to
look more carefully to find them.

In the Internet age, there are plenty of ways to check the achievement
levels of public schools that interest you. All the major school systems
have Web sites that provide information on test scores, courses,
extracurricular activities and strengths of each of their schools. Three key
Web sites --, and offer links to the latest test passing rates for each
school, as required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But don't
judge schools just by average test scores. They usually are better measures
of the wealth of the parents than of the skill of the teachers.

3. Talk to parents of at least two unrelated children in different grades
already enrolled in a school that you are considering.

Your real estate agent might know some parents you can call, or the school
principal's secretary will have the names and numbers of a few PTA leaders
happy to talk to parents. Ask them about the school's strengths and
weaknesses. Find out how well the school serves children whose interests are
similar to your children's, and always ask what they think of the principal.

4. Visit the school and ask to speak to the principal.

I think checking any school you find attractive should include at least a
30-minute conversation with the principal. He or she is the person who is
most responsible for the quality of the teaching, the atmosphere in the
halls and whether your child will be looking forward to going to that
building every day. Ask this person what the school's strengths and
weaknesses are, what should be changed and what the school can offer a child
like yours. Ask yourself, "Would I hire this person to work in my office?"
If the answer is no or, even worse, if the principal has no time to see you,

5. Listen to your kids.

Many of us, in our conscientious desire to find the best schools for our
children, sometimes forget to ask them whether they want to go to the place
at the top of our list. Many elementary and middle school students are going
to find the question mystifying or boring, but high schoolers are old enough
to have useful things to say. If they are putting up a fuss about your
choice and have in mind an alternative that is not significantly more
expensive (if it's a private school) and passes the tests in points 3 and 4,
you might seriously consider letting them go there.

6. The most competitive high schools do not necessarily lead to acceptance
at the most selective colleges.

Many parents think that if their kids can get into the private school where
all the Supreme Court justices sent their children, or into the public
magnet school that rejects 80 percent of its applicants, they are guaranteed
admission into the Ivy League. The opposite is true. A 1997 survey of more
than 1 million high school seniors by Paul Attewell of the City University
of New York Graduate Center found that, except for a few superstars,
attending a very competitive high school hurt students' chances of getting
into a very selective college. The reason is that selective colleges take
only a few students from each school. A student with a 2200 SAT score is not
going to stand out at a high school with several 2300s, but will be at the
top of Yale's list in a school that has only one or two seniors who score
over 2100. (The top score is now 2400.) Of course, those competitive high
schools will still give your child a great education, and perhaps that is
more important than which college sticker you get to put on your car.

7. Don't worry about elementary school.

The fact that you have read this far means you are an energetic parent who
puts great emphasis on education and who, I would guess, has been reading
and talking to your children since they were infants. You have filled your
house with books. You make learning exciting. All the studies show that you
are going to have much more influence over your child's academic achievement
through sixth grade than the elementary school you choose. So as long as the
school is safe and you like it, it really doesn't matter whether its test
scores are not the highest. Your child is still getting a great education
because of you.

8. There are no good middle schools.

I am exaggerating for effect, but there is some truth in this outrageous
statement. It is an itchy age, pre-adolescence. You will discover that no
one will have many nice things to say about whatever middle school you pick,
even the one full of millionaires' kids. Children that age are just too
difficult to teach. So look beyond the weariness of the teachers and parents
who have to deal with those raging hormones and look at how hard the school
tries to get every student through Algebra I by the end of eighth grade. If
at least half the students reach that goal, it is a very good school. If
fewer than 25 percent of a school's students meet this benchmark, you might
want to look elsewhere.

9.Look for challenging high schools.

These days, that means schools that have many Advanced Placement or
International Baccalaureate courses, and that encourage all interested
students, no matter what their grade-point averages, to take those courses
and the independently written and scored AP or IB tests. For a list of which
high schools do this best, look at's Challenge Index

10. Listen to your heart.

You can read all the charts, interview all the neighbors, decide the
principal is a saint and still not like one school as much as another. Go
with your instincts, not the statistics. You have to be happy with the
choice if you are ever to hope that your children will be in a mood to

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