In most countries, parents have some level of choice about where to send their children for school. After conducting thorough research on four continents and extensive conversations with teachers, students, and their families, several indicators have emerged to help identify schools offering world-class educations—or that are merely pretending to do so.
The first thing to do is to observe the students in the classroom—not the teacher. The amount of money spent per student and on open houses with aesthetically pleasing brochures don’t amount to much. South Korea, Finland, and Poland all spend far less than the United States and, clearly, obtain better results. Class size is also not that significant a factor either. Keep an eye on students –not the bulletins or lesson plans. See if the students are engaged and challenged. Don’t let the presence of order and neatness lull you into the belief that a quality education is necessarily being delivered. Sometimes clutter and noise are signs of rigor. If you walk into a classroom, see how many students seem to be mentally checked out—One? Two? Nine?
Another clue is student opinion. Talk with the students. Ask them questions that their teachers couldn’t answer. Don’t think of them as too young or too cynical to have valid opinions. If you ask intelligent questions that convey genuine interest and curiosity, they will likely open up.
Are you learning a good amount of material each day?
Does this course keep you busy or is there a lot of time wasted?
What are you studying right now? Why?
In the case of that last question, most students can readily state what they are learning, but get hung up on the why. Students don’t often ask why—they need to be reminded, and, frankly, the teachers do, too. Perhaps the true reason for education gets muddled by all the self-esteem training, high school football, and high-tech props.
An aside on technology: Don’t be fooled by the presence of state-of-the-art technology. It tends to have very little impact on student success. In fact, the best educational systems in the world are surprisingly spartan when it comes to technology.
Listen to how the parents of students at a school talk. What do they value? Exactly how important is their child’s education? Is reading or basketball a close second to arithmetic? Is basketball even second? Some parents in America seem to rank sports above academics. This confusion is not present in South Korea, Finland, Poland, or other countries with top notch educational systems.
It’s also advisable to grill the principal. Ask hard questions about things like teacher selection, actions taken to push teachers and students to improve, metrics for judging success at the school.
This is not a set-in-stone formula, but observing students and asking the right questions in conversations with students, parents, and principals will give you a good idea as to what kind of education a school is providing.