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Choosing the Right School

If there's one thing I've learned about parental choice, it's that there's no one thing that all parents agree on when seeking a school for their children. I'm not talking about a safe environment, which is non-negotiable. Instead, I'm referring to the way parents evaluate schools ("7 Things You Need to Know About a School (Before you Enroll Your Kid)," Time, Aug. 24).

The reality is that what's important to some parents is not nearly as important to others. For example, Catholic schools are known for their strict discipline and their emphasis on the basics. This combination can be just the ticket for some students, but for others it can be a disaster. By the same token, single-sex schools appeal to parents who believe that co-ed schools have the potential to distract their children's attention from learning. Some students thrive; others languish.

However difficult the decision was in the past, it is now compounded by the publicity given to the results of standardized tests. It's not uncommon to see these scores posted on school marquees and facades. How much weight should parents give to these results? Once again, parents differ in their reactions.

How do parents become aware of good schools? The initial interest in a particular school often arises from casual conversations between parents or even from bumper stickers. There's nothing wrong with using this information as a starting point in the process of finding a good fit between children and schools. But doing due diligence requires more than relying on secondhand input.

The assumption that private schools and charter schools are intrinsically superior to traditional public schools is widespread. But the data do not support this view. Nevertheless, some parents refuse to consider anything that does not reinforce their pre-existing opinions. That's their right, of course, but it often shortchanges their children.

In the final analysis, choosing a school that meets the needs and interests of children is more an art than a science. Whenever parents ask me for my opinion about whether the high school where I taught my entire career is right for their child, I always tell them the same thing: Don't make a snap judgment. Visit the school and ask lots of hard questions. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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