School Quality

Bad Schools Are Like Restaurants With Cockroaches, We Like Them Until We Discover the Cockroaches

When I sent my oldest child to school for the first time I wasn’t sure my wife and I had made the right choice. I mean we’re talking about pre-school here, so I get that the stakes seem pretty low, but still. We had talked to friends whose children had attended the school the year before. We visited the school and compared what we saw to another school in town. We read what we could find online. But during the first two weeks I started to wonder if we should have picked that other school. My 4-year-old would come home completely unable to tell me anything he did during the day. I know, I know, he’s 4! What do you expect? But he wouldn’t have anything to show for his time at school and I found myself wondering if the school would just let me come and sit in the back of class for a day. By the third week, he started bringing home papers where I could see how he had been practicing writing his letters, and see his paintings bursting with color, as opposed to the brownish mishmash that emerges from his typical home-painting project. I started to feel more at ease. Now, a month and a half into the school year, I think I’m pretty happy with the school, but my opinion is based on decidedly little information. I’m still mostly trusting the good experiences my friends had, and the ideals the school wants me to believe about their approach. My experience is typical for most parents, according to research. When it comes to deciding how we feel about our schools, from kindergarten to high school, most of us are content if our kids feel happy and safe, if they’re getting good grades, and if the school has a good reputation. We also tend to value things like sports programs, caring teachers, or a special academic emphasis like Latin or specialized arts programs. But without a way to show parents the school’s track record for helping kids succeed, specifically kids that are similar to our own, the satisfaction we may feel is just an illusion.

Are Happy Parents Enough?

In a recent post on the Fordham Institute’s education blog, Flypaper, Michael Petrilli asks if parent satisfaction is enough when it comes to judging whether schools are good or not. Conservatives are split on the issue. Some argue that it is enough: Parent satisfaction is its own form of accountability—the free market at work—and the more we expand choice, the more low-quality schools will lose enrollment and shut down. While relying on parents to choose the schools they feel are best is certainly one form of accountability, Petrilli, one of the most prominent conservative education thinkers in America, argues that it’s not enough. And if conservatives are interested in “economic growth, upward mobility, and strong families,” they should also be interested in strong school accountability. I agree with him for the same reasons he argues and more. As parents, we can’t dig up enough information on our own to really know if the school will help our kids learn the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. We assume that if these other things are going well, then the school must also be doing a good job of teaching our kids. But that’s not always the case. In a national survey, 90 percent of parents said they believed their kids were on track in reading and math, but in reality, only about 30 percent of kids are on track. A few months ago, a restaurant I liked made the news when the health inspector found 34 violations, “including live roaches, mold presence, and unsanitary conditions by the hand-washing sinks.” By all accounts, people, including me, were satisfied with this restaurant before the news broke. It had good reviews online. The food tasted good. My friends and I had good experiences there. Similar to choosing a school, I had chosen this restaurant because everything I could find out on my own told me it was good. I was satisfied, but that satisfaction was based on a gross lack of information (pun intended). It was an illusion. As parents, we face a similar problem. We’re lulled into school satisfaction only because we don’t have a way to look behind the kitchen door, as it were, or sit at the back of the classroom to see what’s really going on. But a strong school accountability system can act like the diligent health inspector who either shines a light on the cockroaches in the kitchen, or confirms that our beloved institution is really as good as we think it is.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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