"There was a time when getting a decent education for your kids was pretty straightforward," writes author and journalist Peg Tyre in her thought-provoking book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.
"That era is gone," she concludes. "Long gone."
Tyre, who focuses on education, argues that the shift in the U.S. economy away from manufacturing jobs has made it more important than ever for today's students to do better and go further in school. Her book is a call for parents to be more engaged and thoughtful — and to ask a lot more questions — as they search for their child's school.
Increasingly, that process has become more daunting. The movement over the last decade to make schools more accountable and offer families more education choices has left many parents awash in information, some of it useful, some of it not.
How can Pinellas parents look under the hood of a school and know with confidence they've made the right choice? For many, the answer will come with legwork.
Do discovery nights
Discovery nights are a start. They offer basic information about a public school or program in an open house environment, and a chance to meet the staff. Most programs scheduled their discovery nights in December, but 19 plan to hold them this week.
Take a tour
Tours, arranged through individual school offices, are another useful tool.
"That's always a good way for parents to get a sense for what the culture of the school is like and whether or not they're going to be comfortable with their child sitting in those classrooms," said Judy Vigue, director of advanced studies and academic excellence for Pinellas schools.
Be a shadow
The district also allows eighth-graders to shadow a student in a high school program for day. There is still time to shadow, Vigue said, but after the Jan. 23 application deadline, those opportunities are limited to students who applied and are eligible for the program they want to shadow.
Test scores and other data also are part of the school search picture, but Tyre cautions parents to use the information judiciously.
She recalls the naysayers who said at the beginning of the accountability movement that test scores and school grades have no role in making schools better. That was the "old stupid," she says, adding that the pendulum has swung to the "new stupid" of putting too much faith in those numbers.
"Standardized tests are only a single measure of a school's success," Tyre says. "It measures about a third of the curriculum that is taught in a school. Do not rely solely on test scores to evaluate a school."
Vigue cautioned that school grades and test scores are of limited value when considering programs that constitute only part of a school, such as a high school or middle school magnet program.
She also said Pinellas schools use tests besides the FCAT to measure how well students are progressing, and parents researching a school should ask about them.
Tyre says parents and educators should use test scores to frame probing questions. Rather than focus on scores for a single year, she says, parents would be better informed by looking at long-term trends. Also, it's better to study how the school is responding to its low-performing, hard-to-teach students, she says. If the teachers are doing right by them, they likely have a solid plan for the rest of the class.
Getting to a discovery night or a school tour is only the first step, Tyre says. Once there, ask questions about the curriculum and the teachers.
Is the school using a scientifically based reading program? How well do teachers keep parents informed of their child's reading progress? Does the math program move in an orderly and coherent way? How many first-year teachers are on the staff? Are there more than last year? How does the principal evaluate teachers? And how often?
Tyre says schools that can't answer these kinds of questions should raise a parent's suspicion.
"I think it never hurts to ask the questions," Vigue said, "and if a principal isn't able to answer it right away I'm sure that they would do their due diligence to try to get that answer if it's reasonable and feasible."
"I think principals and program coordinators work really hard to want to ensure parents that they're making the right choice if they select their program, so they've got a lot of that background knowledge to serve them as a basis for conversation."