How to Evaluate and Choose a School
Ron Banks; updated by ECAP staff
2002

Factors to consider when choosing a school

Whether parents live in a school district that offers school choice, are changing residences, or have a child entering kindergarten, choosing a school is a complex decision that includes the characteristics of the child, family, and schools.

School quality depends on many characteristics, not all easily measurable, and not all equally important for each individual child or family. Parents may want to consider the following characteristics when evaluating a school.

Child characteristics

Parents will want to think about their child's personality, learning style, and any special needs. Does the child need the structure that a traditional school setting would provide, or does he or she prefer to explore and take more personal responsibility for learning? Could she benefit from some type of alternative schooling approach? Does the child respond differently to being in small and large groups? If, for example, a child learns best in small cooperative work groups, then parents may want to consider finding a school that uses this instructional strategy. If a child has a special interest in music or a foreign language, then some preference might be given to a school that offers or excels in those areas in its regular curriculum or through after-school programming or clubs.

Family characteristics

A family's choice of schools will depend on the family's values, in addition to practical considerations such as transportation and tuition costs for private education. Choosing the neighborhood school regardless of other factors may be the best option for many families with close ties to their neighbors and neighborhood community, while choosing a religious school may be the best choice for others.

School characteristics

School philosophy. Parents can read the school's statement of philosophy or mission statement and ask about beliefs that guide the school's program and teaching approaches.

Instructional approaches. Multi-age grouping, looping, and traditional classrooms offer different advantages, and parents will want to know how the school is organized for instruction. Parents will also want to inquire about average class size at the various grade levels. A school with a traditional structure that provides clear standards and expectations may be a good choice for some children, while a school that allows extra freedom and places more responsibility for learning on the child may work well for other children.

School facilities/personnel resources. Although modern, well-designed facilities do not guarantee higher student achievement, some basic features that parents can look for include a well-equipped library, a collection of age-appropriate books and periodicals in addition to textbooks in each classroom, a separate lunchroom and auditorium or large classroom for meetings and presentations, and adequate physical education facilities. With regard to services, parents can check to see whether the school has a full-time library/media specialist, on-site nurse, secretary, and social worker. Parents can also ask about the background and qualifications of the teachers and what specialties are represented (e.g., English as a Second Language, special education, music, art).

School policies. Parents will want to find out about school policies related to scheduling (traditional vs. year-round) and programming day (e.g., block, flexible, or traditional scheduling, hours of building operation). Parents will want to examine the school discipline policy to see if the rules seem fair and consequences seem appropriate. Parents will also want to find out about homework and grading policies.

School reputation. Parents can ask friends, neighbors, parents, and community leaders about the reputation of the school(s) of interest. After listening to each person's opinion, parents can decide whether the positive or negative views would apply to their family and children. Parents may want to find out about special areas of concern, such as whether community diversity is reflected in the faculty, and whether students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are well integrated into the school culture and activities.

School safety. Parents will want to know how they will be notified in case of an emergency; whether the school has an emergency plan (and they should ask to see it); the policy with regard to guns, knives, and other hazardous items; the school's policy toward bullying; and whether there are formal programs in place to combat bullying. If a parent is especially concerned about school safety, a call to the police department may be appropriate. The National School Safety Center provides additional information on safety at http://www.schoolsafety.us.

Curriculum. Does the school have a strong focus on literacy and other key areas? Does it offer a special focus such as immersion in a second language? Parents can find out how well the school addresses core subjects and skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics by looking at the curriculum, visiting classes, and reading the school's report card (please see information below). Does the school's curricular focus match parents' expectations and educational goals for their child?

Family and community involvement issues. Finally, schools that are working toward excellence are developing many ways to involve parents. Parents can ask for a packet from the school about any programs and policies related to parent involvement. Once a school has been chosen, it is important that parents maintain a real commitment to that school, including supporting the staff and contributing time and talents as they are able. Children who see their parents involved in this way have a greater likelihood of school success (Henderson & Berla, 1994). Strong bonds with local businesses and community groups (for mentoring, guest speakers, service learning, and financial support) and opportunities for community use of school facilities after school and in the evening can contribute to the quality of the school and the support that it enjoys in the community.

How can parents find information on individual schools?

School report cards

The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind legislation requires an annual school report card for all schools. School report cards describe characteristics of the school, including the number of children, various test scores, ratios of teachers to students, ethnic ratios, poverty levels, and more. Report cards can usually be obtained by contacting the department of education in the state or the school district office where the school is located. If more than one district is under consideration, several districts in the same geographic area can supply this information for comparative purposes. It may also be a good idea to examine school report cards for the last several years and talk to the principal if test scores have declined or if one subject/section of the test leads to dramatically higher results than others. The National Center for Education Statistics provides an analysis of state report cards and links to each state's report cards at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/.

Visiting potential schools

Parents may want to keep in mind that no written set of assessments or test scores can take the place of visiting a school and forming one's own opinion about the overall environment and quality of the school and classrooms. Is the environment welcoming and orderly, yet creative and child friendly? How do the adults interact with the children (friendly? harshly? respectfully?)? Does discipline seem to be enforced? Do the classrooms have desks, or do the children work collaboratively at tables located in various parts of the room? The furnishings in classrooms can cue parents about the teaching philosophy at the school. Classroom arrangement can suggest a structured approach or an approach that encourages independent learning. When parents are thinking about a school, they will want to think about what learning environment is best for their child and how the school accommodates different styles as well as students with special needs. Another important step is to talk with staff and parents in the school. What do they see as strengths and concerns at the school and in the community? What are their goals for the year? Additional advice about school visits may be found in Weston (1989).

While visiting, parents can look for student work on the walls and in display areas, including writing samples and other evidence of literacy projects and artwork. Displays that feature work samples allow parents to see beyond test scores to what the children are learning and how they are learning it. Has the school been recognized with any excellence awards or awards for dramatic recent improvements in achievement? Parents can ask during a visit about turnover of staff and the rate of student transfers, as well as student and teacher absentee rates.

Realtors

Realtors often have information about the reputation of particular schools in a geographic area. They can be a good resource when making decisions about which neighborhood or area of a city might be the best choice based on what the family is looking for in a school.

Recommendations from the National Association of Elementary School Principals

The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP, 1996, 2000) has published articles describing what to look for when visiting a school and presents information on related issues.

  • Moving to a New School
  • What Parents Should Look for in Their Child's Elementary School

The following is advice from NAESP about choosing a school:

1. Check out the school district's annual report to compare the expenditure per pupil in each district you are considering. In many communities, this dollar amount will be closely linked to school quality. This information is often available on the state's department of education Web site. The National Center for Education Statistics offers a searchable resource called the Public School District Finance Peer Search. This resource allows users to find out the per-pupil expenditure for school districts of interest, how those figures compare to school districts that have similar demographic characteristics, and how the district's per-pupil expenditure compares to state and national averages. This resource is located at
http://nces.ed.gov/edfin/search/search_intro.asp
.

2. Check to see what services are available at the school. Look for guidance counselors, an on-site nurse, a librarian, and a secretary, and check to see if they work at more than one school. If any of these key personnel do work at more than one school, be cautious!

3. Check the structure of the school year. Do you want your child in a year-round school or do you prefer a more traditional school calendar?

4. If you are looking at a high school, check to see what percentage of the students go on to college.

5. Check the local library for books and videos on moving to a new school. Look for books for children as well as adults.

6. What is the school's discipline policy? (The school should provide a printed copy of this policy.)

7. How are students graded? (Ask for a sample report card and explanation of the grading system.)

8. How often are textbooks and classroom materials reviewed and updated? (There should be fixed schedules.)

9. Is there a school homework policy? (Some schools prefer to leave homework decisions to individual teachers.)

10. What is the school's safety policy? (Ask about rules for playground activities and strangers on school property.)

11. What extracurricular activities does the school sponsor? (Some schools have student councils and a variety of clubs for special interests like music, drama, and chess.)

12. How many students are assigned to a classroom teacher? (The smaller the class size the better, especially in the primary grades.)

13. Is the library/media center well equipped and organized? (Can children regularly check out books and use the center's resources?)

14. How do the teachers teach? (In many schools, teachers work with students in small groups or work in teams to teach larger groups.)

15. How does the school communicate with parents? (Is there a regular newsletter? Are parents' calls welcome?)

16. Is there an active parent organization? (Ask for a schedule of events and plan to attend the first meeting.)

17. Is there a before- and after-school care program? (This question can be critical for working parents.)

18. Try hard to tour prospective schools. Here's what to look for:

  • A warm welcome by the principal and staff members.
  • A clean, well-maintained campus.
  • Children who are actively involved in learning. Instead of sitting silently, they should be responding to teachers, discussing class work among themselves, and using such technology as calculators, computers, and audiovisual equipment.
  • Teachers who maintain good classroom discipline.
  • Classrooms and hallways filled with students' work.

Several publications and fee-based services also provide information that compares schools, usually by standardized test scores. More information about these resources is provided below.

References

Henderson, Anne T., & Berla, Nancy (Eds.). (1994). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement. Washington, DC: National Committee for Citizens in Education. (ERIC Document No. ED375968)

National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). (1996). Moving to a new school. NAESP, Alexandria, VA.

National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). (2000). What parents should look for in their child's elementary school. NAESP, Alexandria, VA.

Weston, Susan Perkins. (1989). Choosing a school for your child. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document No. ED302872)

Resources

School Information Data Sources

School Choice Guidance

School Directory Resources

  • Boarding Schools Directory
    This site provides information about approximately 300 boarding schools in the United States, Canada, and abroad.
  • Find Your School: Education Information for Students across the Nation
    This site can be searched by public schools, private schools, or a combination of search criteria.
  • NCES National Public School Locator
    This Web site provides a prototype search tool from the National Center for Education Statistics for locating U.S. public elementary and secondary school information. Data include number of classroom teachers, total students, student/teacher ratios, and school population by grade and race/ethnicity.
  • NCES Global School Locator
    This locator contains information collected during the 1999-2000 school year. The locator can be used to retrieve a particular private school or a group of schools, based on specified selection criteria. The information in this locator comes from the approximately 29,000 schools that participated in the 1999-2000 Private School Survey (PSS). The search engine can also be set for public schools, colleges, and libraries.
  • NCES Private School Locator
    The data available on this site come from the 29,939 schools that responded to the 1999-2000 Private School Universe Survey (PSS) conducted by NCES. Available information includes type of school, affiliation, association membership, students by grade, race/ethnicity, and student/teacher ratio.
  • NCES School District Locator
    This site contains the locator engine of the NCES School District Demographics Web site (see above).
  • Peterson's Education Center: Private School Center
    This commercial site provides information on Peterson's database of 1,400 private secondary schools.
  • School Directory Search Database from the National Association of Independent Schools
    This site from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) includes information on admissions and financial aid and allows you to search for NAIS member schools in the United States or other countries.

Reference Books

  • Hattendorf, Lynn C. (2000). Education rankings annual 2001: 4700 rankings and lists on education, compiled from educational and general interest published sources. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.
    This guide lists the best elementary and secondary schools for each state. The guide also compares best schools across states. Criteria for ranking schools are given in the publication.
  • Education State Rankings 2003-2004 (2003) (ISBN 0-7401-0908-1), Lawrence, KS. Morgan Quitno Press.The first edition of this timely and relevant reference book features education statistics at the pre K-12 level for the 50 United States. Hundreds of tables of state education statistics and rankings in an easy to read and understand format. In addition, learn which is the "Smartest State" for 2003. 448 pages; $49.95 (paper) $6.00 s/h per order. All data are at the state level only. There is no district or individual school breakdown of the data.
  • Private secondary schools, 2003. (2002). Princeton, NJ: Peterson's.
    This guide provides information on accredited day, boarding, religious, military, junior boarding, and special needs schools worldwide. The school profiles cover programs, cost and financial aid, facilities, and student life.
  • Unger, Harlow G. (1998). How to pick a perfect private school. New York: Checkmark Books.
    How to Pick a Perfect Private School offers parents a guide to private schools. From military academies to country day schools, the various categories of schools are covered in detail, including the advantages private schools offer, how to finance private school education, how to determine a child's educational needs, the criteria for evaluating a school, how to determine the financial condition of a school, and what to look for during the campus visit. The guide also includes a section giving parents a public-school option, describing magnet schools, high-tech schools, and a handful of academic "super schools."

School Information: Fee-based Services

  • Quality Education Data (QED)
    State-by-state school guides that include demographic descriptions of schools in each state are published by QED based on an annual survey. The guides list all public, private, and parochial schools in each state; provide listings of names and addresses of school district and school building administrators; and list the numbers of computers and predominant brands of computers used in the schools. Mailing lists are also available from this organization.
  • SchoolMatch
    This fee-based service provides comparative information on specific schools in the United States (note: K-12 only). SchoolMatch also includes a free online directory of public school districts, searchable by the metropolitan area of interest, zip code, name of the school system, or the city in which it is located.

Other Organizations and Agencies

How to Obtain ERIC Documents and Journal Articles:

References identified with an ED (ERIC document)or EJ (ERIC journal) are cited in the ERIC database. ERIC Documents (citations identified by an ED number) may be available in full text from ERIC at no cost at the ERIC Web site: http://eric.ed.gov. Journal articles are available from the original journal, interlibrary loan services, or article reproduction clearinghouses.

If you would like to conduct your own free ERIC database searches via the Internet, go directly to http://eric.ed.gov/

ERIC database search through 06/2004 on School Ranking/School Choice Resources

  • Self-Selection and Student Achievement in Urban Schools: Examining the Role of Family Educational Involvement. ED477786
  • Progress on School Choice in the States. The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder. ED474674
  • This Works: Improving Urban Education. Civic Bulletin. ED475872
  • Academic, Socioeconomic and Transportation Correlates in a Rural Public School Voucher System. ED463928
  • Children with Special Needs and School Choice: Five Stories. EJ645078
  • Public Voucher Plans. Trends and Issues. ED472999
  • What Do Parents Want from Schools? Evidence from the Internet. Occasional Paper. ED463587
  • School Choice in New York City after Three Years: An Evaluation of the School Choice Scholarships Program. Final Report. ED462532
  • How School Choice Helps the Milwaukee Public Schools. ED464972
  • Education in America: School and Strategies That Work. EJ644948
  • Public Schooling, the Market Metaphor, and Parental Choice. EJ624308
  • Contributions of Parents' School Opinions and Reasons for Choice to Their Willingness To Support Catholic High Schools: A Structural Model. ED443906
  • The Effects of Parental Characteristics on School Choice. ED442204
  • Parent Involvement, Influence, and Satisfaction in Magnet Schools: Do Reasons for Choice Matter? EJ610802
  • The Impact of Limited School Choice on Public School Districts: Case Studies of How School Districts in Michigan's Largest County Are Responding to Competition from Charter Schools and Public "Schools-of-Choice." ED445163
  • How Choice Changes the Education System: A Michigan Case Study. EJ599849
  • Reasons for Parental Choice of Urban Schools. EJ597101
  • Going to School: How To Help Your Child Succeed. A Handbook for Parents of Children Ages 3-8. ED431533
  • Participation as Parental Choice: Can the Marketplace Create More Democratic Institutions? ED424653
  • "Making Their Minds Up": Family Dynamics of School Choice. EJ594092
  • The Parents' Guide to Alternatives in Education. ED411992
  • Questions for Your Child's School: A Guide for Parents Who Value Learning. ED405706
  • Advice to the Parent of a Black Child. EJ462467
  • Clarifying Issues of Educational Choice for the Parent. ED330120
  • Choosing a School for Your Child. ED302872