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The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve
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The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve

by Peg Tyre

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Award-winning education journalist Peg Tyre mines up-to-the-minute research to equip parents with the tools and knowledge necessary to get their children the best education possible

We all know that the quality of education served up to our children in U.S. schools ranges from outstanding to shockingly inadequate. How can parents tell the difference?


Award-winning education journalist Peg Tyre mines up-to-the-minute research to equip parents with the tools and knowledge necessary to get their children the best education possible

We all know that the quality of education served up to our children in U.S. schools ranges from outstanding to shockingly inadequate. How can parents tell the difference? And how do they make sure their kids get what's best? Even the most involved and informed parents can feel overwhelmed and confused when making important decisions about their child's education. And the scary truth is that evaluating a school based on test scores and college admissions data is like selecting a car based on the color of its paint. Synthesizing cutting-edge research and firsthand reporting, Peg Tyre offers parents far smarter and more sophisticated ways to assess a classroom and decide if the school and the teacher have the right stuff. Passionate and persuasive, The Good School empowers parents to make sense of headlines; constructively engage teachers, administrators, and school boards; and figure out the best option for their child—be that a local public school, a magnet program, a charter school, homeschooling, parochial, or private.

Editorial Reviews

Education in America is in a sieve-like state: No matter how much money government, communities, and parents pour into schools and tutoring, students continue to turn out underequipped and ill-prepared. Informed parents know that making the right decisions now about their children's educations can be the difference between career success and a lifetime of half-starts. Award-winning education journalist Peg Tyre (The Trouble With Boys) draws on cutting-edge research and her own reporting to provide parents with essential tools to assess classrooms, schools, and individual teachers. Demystifying a picking process.

From the Publisher
"Peg Tyre lays out the fundaments of a good school---and a good education---clearly and without bias." ---Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter
Kirkus Reviews

Award-winning journalist Tyre (Journalism/Columbia Univ.;The Trouble With Boys, 2009, etc.) adds new perspective to the depressing state of American education with real-world lessons for parents.

Many parents assume that affluent schools and small class size provide the best education for children. This is not necessarily true, writes the author. Interspersed with dreary anecdotes and myth-busting studies, the author's latest focuses on early education (preschool through junior high) to help parents make good school choices. Dismal facts include the National Center for Education Statistics' finding that "about a third of children in our public schools fail to become proficient readers." Thankfully, Tyre offers solutions. With a splash of history, the author discusses pedagogies, as well as what to look for in a good preschool teacher (highly verbal teachers are most effective). In addition, parents should not be afraid to ask about a teacher's degree or a school's number of first-year instructors. Tyre outlines many red flags, such as the derogatory "widget" mentality—i.e. administrators who view teachers as interchangeable cogs with identical skill sets. She cautions against using standardized test scores as accurate indicators of school performance. Scores broken down by subgroups and long-term trends offer more information. Not everyone has the luxury of choice, but the author provides respectful ways for approaching—or changing—the system. She also emphasizes working with children at home for a greater educational experience.

This is not an indictment of teachers, but rather an eye-opening tool for parental involvement.

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My parents used to say to me, "Tom, finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving." . . . I tell my daughters, "Finish your homework. People in China and India are starving for your jobs."
—Thomas L. Friedman

Why Parents Need Information on Schools. Stat!

There was a time when getting a decent education for your kids was pretty straightforward. You enrolled them in the local public school or you signed them up at the parochial or private academy their cousins attended. When you picked them up from school, you looked at the colorful finger paintings hanging in the hallways and noted what a warm and nurturing place it was. Once a year, you went to Parent Night in order to meet their teacher. Three times a year, you signed a report card. Somewhere along the line you might have made cupcakes for a bake sale, gone along on a class trip, or written a check for an annual fund-raiser. Your kids moved smoothly from elementary school to middle school to high school. Twelve years after you enrolled them in kindergarten, you sat on a folding metal chair beaming as they collected their high school diploma.

That era is gone. Long gone. These days, for better or worse, parents are required to do more—in fact, a whole lot more—in order to secure the best possible education for their child. And all over the country, parents are finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of knowing very little about education while making critical judgments about their children's schooling.

In many communities, parents, faced with an array of school choices, are growing frustrated and demoralized. After attending their fourth elementary-school Open House, Phoebe and Braken Hale reached the boiling point. Unfortunately, their story is all too common. Like most young parents, this Austin, Texas, couple care deeply about the quality of the education that their son, Rune, four, will get. But unlike most aspects of child rearing, where best practices are handed down from parents or discussed on message boards, over wine at the book club, or in countless books and magazine articles, they found that when it comes to schooling, good information is hard to find. The more Phoebe and Braken tried to learn about the school options for Rune, the less they felt they knew. Phoebe was partial to private schools, but the tuition was sky-high and the Web sites for the private schools in her area posted very little information about tests scores or their curriculum. Some new charter schools were generating a good buzz in the neighborhood but Phoebe, now an aesthetician, had taught in one and seen firsthand just how hard creating a successful learning culture can be.

Putting their trust in the process, Phoebe and Braken dutifully signed up and attended Open Houses for a charter school, a public school, a specialty public school, and a private school. All the schools looked decent. But on the school tours, the Hales and the other parents—even highly educated professional couples—seemed intimidated. No one, it seemed, wanted to ask hard questions: Why do the children get only ten minutes of recess? Why does the school favor one reading program over another? How do they handle kids who have behavioral issues? Phoebe was growing more anxious as the fall approached. She turned to a popular school-comparison Web site to see how her local public school stacked up. The standardized test scores seemed above average—about in line with the other schools in her area. The parent comments were neutral and guarded. Touring that school, she met the principal and received a list of skills upcoming kindergartners were expected to know before the first day. Resigned, the Hales opted to send Rune there. But as fall grew closer, Phoebe grew increasingly unsettled. She prides herself on making careful decisions about her family—and especially about the life of her child. "There just wasn't a lot of information about the academic program they were offering or what it would mean for my son," she said. "I lie awake at night wondering if I've done all I can do. After all, he only gets one chance at this."


There are other factors that have turned what may have once been routine decisions into high-stakes choices. Right now in this country, parents with school-age kids are the best-educated group in history. Many of us have personally benefited from increased levels of higher education, and even if we haven't, we understand the lasting value it confers. What is evident to almost everyone is that the manufacturing sector of the economy, once a font of solid, steady employment to workers lacking a college education, is rapidly vanishing. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for those who don't do well in school. In the 1970s, according to a report compiled by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, nearly three-quarters of workers considered to be middle-class had not gone beyond high school. By 2010, that figure had dropped below 40 percent and has continued to shrink. Not only do highly educated people make more money than less educated ones, but the income gap between those who obtain a high school degree and those who get a college degree is growing larger every year. The Great Recession hammered that lesson home. Following the economic collapse of 2008, hundreds of thousands of people found themselves, abruptly, without a job. But not everyone suffered equally. In the second half of 2010, as the nation slowly emerged from the doldrums, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the jobless rate for college graduates under the age of twenty-five was 8 percent. For high school graduates under age twenty-five who did not enroll in college, the jobless rate was a whopping 24.5 percent. These days, parents understand that finding or improving schools so that their children can be successful is the only sure ticket to anchoring them in the middle class.

Many of these same parents have also grown less trusting of educational professionals. In middle-class communities, that's partially a result of our increased levels of education. Back in our grandparents' day, the principal of our local school might well be one of the most educated individuals in the entire community, along with the town doctor, the local attorney, and the judge. The principal's word was sacrosanct. Today, parents who attend Curriculum Night in a suburban town may have as many advanced degrees hanging on the walls of their home office as the principal and superintendent who are addressing the crowd.

The growing fissure between parents and schools is also partially a result of the so-called accountability movement, which has tarnished our warm feelings about the superiority of the American education system. Since the Department of Education was founded in 1979, the federal government has been keeping close tabs on students' achievement levels. In the last twenty years, a unique combination of social justice types (concerned about the low achievement of poor kids) and fiscal conservatives (fretting about wasted tax dollars) have come together to force federal, state, and local governments, school districts, and schools into keeping closer tabs on how much kids are learning and how much it costs. In the last ten years, all that data—and comparative data from around the world—has coalesced into a sobering portrait. While some schools do a remarkable job and many more are adequate, a great number of kids—about a fifth in middle-class communities and up to half in poor ones—are not getting the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. And as Thomas L. Friedman has pointed out, our children will compete for jobs in a global economy.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, spending for public schools has risen from $5,639 per child in 1980 to $10,041 in 2007 (these in inflation-adjusted dollars). Yet our reading scores have remained about the same: about a third of children in our public schools fail to become proficient readers. The World Economic Forum ranked the United States forty-eighth out of 133 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. The ACT administers subject tests to about 47 percent—some 1.57 million—of America's graduating seniors. From their scores, they determine whether or not students have enough base knowledge to get a B in a college-level course in that subject the following year. Last year's results were distressing: only three out of five high school graduates were prepared to tackle a college English course. Slightly less than one in four high school graduates—24 percent—were likely to pass colleges courses in the four tested areas: science, math, English, and reading comprehension. Private schools and parochial schools are not always the passport to success or the refuge from school failure that parents dream they will be. Not only do parents have to come up with the tuition, but all too frequently they have to counteract mediocre teaching by paying a phalanx of tutors to keep their children moving forward or risk having their child "counseled out." Even students from middle-class and affluent communities who appear to be doing just fine often exit the public school system with a diploma and big gaps in their education. Almost 30 percent of students who get accepted to a four-year university have to take remedial classes in order to do college-level work. Parents who might have once been content to cede power over their children to school authorities are getting a clear message: they need to take a much more proactive role to get their children the education they deserve.


Joe and Mary Ann Tarnoff, who live near Portland, Maine, didn't think they'd ever be the type of people to second-guess their daughter's teacher. Although they hate to admit it now, they used to view the "squeaky wheels" at their daughter's school with a combination of bewilderment and bemusement. In part, this is because they are a busy couple—he's a real estate agent and she's a lawyer—and have had neither the time nor sufficient knowledge to meddle with the way their local schools were run. When they enrolled their daughter, Francesca, at the neighborhood elementary school, they had no reason to worry. The test scores seemed good. But by the time she was in third grade, they began to wonder what was going on in Francesca's classroom. She was actively avoiding books and reading. Last November, they reviewed their concerns as they drove to the teacher conference. At the school, perched uncomfortably on scaled-down chairs, they listened to their daughter's fresh-faced teacher discuss the school's new reading program. When she finished, Joe asked, "So how does our daughter seem to like the new reading program?"

"All the teachers and students think it is fantastic," replied the teacher with great enthusiasm.

"How's our daughter's reading progressing?" Joe asked.

The teacher frowned, then, with seeming reluctance, opened her grade book.

"Well, it says here," she began, running her finger across the spreadsheet. Then she stopped. "Oh. That's interesting."

There was a long pause. Mary Ann and Joe leaned forward in their seats.

"We've had some concern about her reading ability," Joe explained. "She doesn't seem to like it very much. In fact, lately, she seems to avoid it."

"According to her recent tests, well, it doesn't seem like your daughter has made much progress from last year," said the teacher. Mary Ann's heart sank. In the spring of last year, Francesca's second-grade teacher told Mary Ann and Joe their daughter was barely on grade level.

"Well, I guess I'll have to have a discussion with our reading specialists about getting Francesca some support," the teacher said.

But, the teacher added, the reading specialist's schedule was so packed, it was unlikely Francesca would be able to get a formal evaluation before the first of the year. Coming up with an intervention program would, the teacher told them, realistically take months to put in place. Maybe by the spring? Then the teacher checked her watch. Another set of parents, eager to talk about their child's progress, knocked on the door for their scheduled parent-teacher meeting. By the time Mary Ann and Joe got to the parking lot, they had agreed that they were going to have to get a little smarter—and a lot more active—in their daughter's education.


The mounting pressure on parents to get and stay deeply involved in their children's education is not just a result of our higher standards: it is also a product of some well-calculated and long-term attempts to use parents' concern about their kids to force schools to change. Around the country, education reformers all across the political spectrum are hell-bent on transforming low-performing schools into something better. The central idea underpinning most of these reforms is that schools—and especially some public schools—are allowed to do a rotten job year after year because professional educators have a local monopoly on instructing our kids. Private and parochial schools can be a good option, but many of them are lackluster and often the ones that are good are beyond the financial reach of most families. If parents are given a wide variety of affordable, accessible schools to choose from, reformers believe, they will move heaven and earth to enroll their children in the best ones. Parents who are free to choose among different schools, the thinking goes, will unleash the powerful forces of the free market—and those forces will quickly wash away substandard institutions and better schools will grow up in their stead. No one knows if these theories will work, but the experiment is already under way and having a dramatic effect on education around the country.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Compton, California, twenty-five miles and a world away from the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills's chic Rodeo Drive.

There, parents like Marlene Romero have unexpectedly become foot soldiers in the battle for this new kind of school reform. Romero, thirty, a stay-at-home mom who recently went back to work, taking a job at Subway, sends her eight-year-old son, Ivan, to McKinley Elementary School, the public school a few blocks from her apartment. McKinley is, by nearly every measure, one of the worst public schools in the state of California. Without an opportunity to learn basic skills, the children who attend McKinley don't stand much of a chance: the district graduation rate is a shockingly low 46.8 percent, and only 3.3 percent of graduates were eligible to attend public universities in 2008. Romero was one of the district's casualties: she dropped out of school in tenth grade. Last fall, with help from some community activists, Romero and other parents of kids at McKinley decided to test a new school reform provision, the Parent Trigger, that had recently become law in California. They held meetings with other parents, explaining that the terrible test scores meant their children were not learning, and then they collected signatures on a petition demanding the school be turned over to the operators of a chain of high-performing charter schools. Last December, Romero and the others pulled the trigger. They boarded two specially rented busses and, in front of a battalion of national news reporters and television crews, presented petitions to the Compton Unified School District. Romero is no Norma Rae. Her days are filled with trying to do what it takes to keep the rent paid and food on the table. For her, pulling the Parent Trigger is a moral imperative. And her reasons for becoming active in her child's school resonate far beyond the confines of her troubled neighborhood. "As parents," she said in an interview, "it is our responsibility to get our children a good education. We want what is best for them."

The problem is that while we parents are being asked to play an increasingly pivotal role in our children's schooling, our knowledge about what makes schools effective is rudimentary at best. While McKinley's failings were easy to see, what most schools offer their students is more variable and the issues are more complicated. Parents of preschool through eighth-grade students are beset by difficult questions: How can I tell if a preschool is up to snuff? What should I be looking for when I'm on a school tour? What kind of math and reading instruction should my kids be getting? Does class size matter? And what about recess? It's got to be about more than just test scores, right? Or are test scores the bottom line? These are questions that often get hashed out around the local playground or at cocktail parties, but savvy parents understand that absorbing each other's impressions and alternately echoing each other's high-minded sentiments and abject fears do not, at the end of the day, help us make good decisions for our kids. We remain ignorant at our peril. The free market approach to school reform may or may not be successful, but it is creating plenty of tumult in a system of education long known for stasis. There will be winners and losers. And while plenty of smart people—from the Left and from the Right—believe the long-term impact on our schools will be a positive one, no one can deny that millions of kids will be on the wrong end of this dramatic transformation of American education.

Many parents—rich, middle-class, and poor—are struggling to find intelligent ways to engage, evaluate, and—when they can—improve schools, and their exasperation is palpable. "It seems like the principals are expecting us to choose a school for our sons while wearing a blindfold—pin the tail on donkey style," said Faith Vargas, a Detroit mother who, with her husband, has been looking at schools for their four-year-old twins. "It's absurd!" interjects Faith's husband, Bob. "When you purchase a house, you get an inspector's report. When you buy a sports car, at least you get to check under the hood. But now we are trying to do something that matters one thousand times more to our family than buying a house or purchasing a car—and what happens? We're expected to attend the Open House, shake hands with the principal, blindly enroll them, and have faith that everything will turn out all right. We don't even get to look under the hood!"


If you are interested in "looking under the hood," this book is for you. It will help bring you up to speed on some of the most crucial issues and controversies that are likely to affect your child's education. It will provide you with a SparkNotes version of the history of education to explain to you why things are the way they are. It will introduce you to the freshest thinking—and some of the most innovative ideas—about how to help our kids do better. But more than that, it will help you judge the value of these ideas by providing you with the most solid research available. In areas where research is not yet clear, you will meet people and hear about research that will be creating headlines—and perhaps school policy—in the years to come.

The truth is, there is plenty of information out there. Razor-sharp people in Beltway think tanks and program directors at prominent foundations develop incisive analysis, publish position papers, and advise state and federal governments. But very little of it is written with parents in mind. Academics, too, have been scrutinizing the process of education for as long as we've had academics. There are people—and many of them are in the education business—who will reflexively dismiss all education research. They say things like, "There's research to support everything," as if no studies about education could begin to approach objectivity. And in some ways they are right: some education research seems more like advocacy. There are academics who fill journals with impressionistic studies that show that whatever pedagogical practice they favor—surprise!—works very well. For our purposes, that kind of research is of limited usefulness and will be considered only in passing. Happily, there are an increasing number of serious-minded and socially responsible academics who are keen to know what works in schools so they can replicate it, convince schools to adopt it, and encourage states to fund it. In the last twenty years, prestigious education organizations—some supported by the U.S. government and others by some of the wealthiest philanthropic organizations in the country—have begun subjecting educational practices to rigorous, objective studies. The results of the best studies could be very meaningful, if parents were aware of them.

But mostly, parents remain unaware. The strongest and most important studies are largely written for other academics and published in journals you are unlikely to find nestled in your pile of New Yorkers, Real Simples, and InStyles. Even if you found one or two that interested you—and I would invite you to call up a couple that are mentioned in the footnotes on Google Scholar—parents quickly encounter another roadblock: most studies are written in such thick jargon that reading a paragraph or two has about the same effect as a double dose of Ambien. There are also some powerful forces who are only too happy to keep you in the dark. Without going all Da Vinci Code on you, I would point out that textbook publishers have a vested interest in parents not looking too closely at what they are serving up to our kids. Some school administrators are less than eager to see parents get smarter. The fewer parents who know enough to rock the boat, the easier it will be to run a school.

I am not advocating one kind of school over another. There are deep divisions among people involved in education and I'm not a partisan for any particular side. For the last ten years, I've been writing and thinking about education, first as a writer for Newsweek covering social trends and education, then as the author of The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, then as a Spencer Fellow for Education Reporting at Columbia University, and lately I've been helping to teach young reporters how to cover education at the Graduate School of Journalism there.

In my capacity as journalist, I've had the opportunity to pore over a lot of education research. On a personal level, I've often reflected how valuable some of this material would have been to me at various junctures in my own life, when I was making decisions about my children's education. In a professional capacity, I've also spent a great deal of time in a wide variety of schools. I've seen ones that do a tremendous job educating class upon class of diverse students. But far too often, I've seen mediocre schools and sometimes really terrible ones. Heartbreakingly, I've sat with eager parents as they fill out endless application forms and seen hopeful parents line up for a high-stakes school lottery—the kind that many moviegoers saw in the documentary Waiting for Superman—hoping to get their children into the newest charter school or specialty program. Then, once the fanfare has grown faint, reality sets in. Well-meaning programs wither and fade. Although the charter school programs in Waiting for Superman get top marks, overall only 17 percent of charter schools deliver better results than the public schools that serve the same populations. They falter. And sometimes they close. Those children, once so full of hope and promise, quietly transfer to another program and parents struggle even more, trying to help them make up for instructional lost time. I've also seen parents exhaust their precious time and scarce family resources on a substandard private education for their children. I'm hoping this book will give you the tools to do better.

This book does not purport to be a blueprint for a perfect school. If I had a prescription for a system of education that I could guarantee would work for all our kids, you can bet I would be charging more—a lot more—for this book. And if you think about it for a minute, you'd agree that if someone tries to tell you there's a one-size-fits-all school formula that will ensure that two kids—the son of two biochemists from Darien, Connecticut, and the son of migrant farmworkers in Oakland, California—will both get into Harvard—well, that person is letting his enthusiasm eclipse our known reality. This book is not a comprehensive soup-to-nuts look at education, either. Instead, I've focused on seven essential domains of education that you need to know about now in order to help your preschool, elementary-school, and middle-school children. My hope is that these chapters will give you good tools to help you make decisions about where and how they will be educated. After reading this book, you may decide that you're still going to enroll your child in a school that is operating in a unique, unconventional, or untested way. Our family circumstances, our children, and our dreams for them are all unique. The goal of this book is to help you make the most informed decision possible. If you are going to take a risk, it will help you figure out just how big a risk you are taking.

One more cautionary note: some children—although probably not as many as we assume—have unique needs that are beyond the scope of this book. Very good resources exist for families of kids who have severe learning disabilities, autism, and physical and psychological disorders. This book is not one of them. If your child requires a specialized educational environment, though, you will still need to go through the process of finding the right school. Most of the topics in this book will be helpful to parents who are looking at schools that serve special ed, as well as mainstream, kids.

A word about the organization of this book: I've written about preschool first, which seems only natural. And while the other chapters are interrelated, the chapter on preschool can be read on its own. We all know that there are plenty of issues that come up in preschool—literacy, arithmetic, the balance of play and direct instruction, for instance, that will echo all through a child's education. We'll revisit some of those topics in more depth later in the book. But I'm betting if you have toddler, you don't have that much time to read. Even if you are a time management ninja and create a couple of empty hours to finish a book, I know that it is almost unfathomable to look at your adorable child, barely out of diapers, and focus your attention on the meaning of standardized test scores or the best approach to help third graders on their way to higher mathematics. If you are facing the first, and one of the most fraught, decisions—how to select a preschool—you can read the chapter on preschool and then put the book away for a year or so. I invite you to do just that.

For parents who have children entering kindergarten through middle school, the rest of the book is for you. I've organized the chapters roughly the same way most parents get informed about schools. Considering a school for your child? First, we hit the Web and check out the test scores. Chapter 2 is aimed at giving you a more sophisticated way to look at those numbers. Still interested in the school? We take a tour and eyeball the class size. Chapter 3 on class size will help you evaluate what you see. If we are really interested in the school, we speak to the principal or attend an Open House to try to learn what really happens inside the classroom. The chapters that follow, on reading, math, and scheduling, will give you an idea of what to look for regarding the curriculum and what kinds of questions to ask about the school day. Chapter 7 is about figuring out if the school you are considering for your child promotes quality instruction. It is very difficult for parents of prospective students to figure out if the teachers are good ones. Even parents of current students stumble here. This chapter will describe how to spot a good teacher and why getting your child a great teacher—and keeping pressure on schools to produce more—may be the single best thing you can do for your family and your community. Chapter 8 gives you a playbook for forming a constructive coalition with your child's school.

In some of these chapters, the evidence is in. In reading, for instance, there are certain practices that have been shown to be better than others. In other areas, open-ended and sometimes even contradictory strains of research need to be carefully weighed. This book will give you the opportunity to begin that process. In many of these chapters, I've delved a bit into educational history. Try to stay with me. I understand how precious your time is and how closely you must guard it. But the way schools are organized and the way teachers teach—how they explain things, what they emphasize, and what they omit—are done for some good and some not-so-good reasons. Some of our thinking about learning—traditions in pre-K education, for instance—can be based on ideas that are over a hundred years old. Other practices—replacing recess and break time with academic learning, for example—are relatively new. In order to support the best practices and discourage ones that are less effective, you should at least know where they come from. Each chapter will also include a section called "The Take Aways," in which the most important information is condensed to a few lines. I've also provided notes for every chapter. (The Notes section is at the back of this book.) You'll learn a lot from reading The Good School, but if you want to go even deeper into a particular subject, check out my Web site, www.thegoodschool.org.


Let me state unequivocally that I feel a deep admiration and respect for excellent teachers and brilliant principals. Being in the same room with an educational superstar feels like being on the bright side of the moon. The drive, energy, enthusiasm, and openness they bring to their work still dazzles me, even after all these years. Most of the best ones enjoy high levels of meaningful and intelligent contact with their students' parents.

Other administrators and teachers—the ones who occupy the many steps below excellent—sometimes seem like they are part of a conspiracy to keep parents in the dark. Nearly every administrator and teacher will tell you they are eager to have what they call "parent engagement"—especially around school trips and fund-raisers. But until recently, many people who run schools seemed unwilling to explain to parents why their teachers make the pedagogic choices they make—or even share basic statistics about the school, for example, the percentage of first graders who need extra support in reading or the number of teachers who leave the school each year—even though our children are the ones directly affected by those statistics and will succeed or suffer as a result.

In this book, you'll hear from many parents who have tangled with substandard teachers and administrators who seem bent on defending a system that is failing kids. I relate their stories to you in order to help you avoid the pitfalls that other families have stumbled into. But please keep this in mind: our schools and the teachers and administrators who work in them run the gamut from terrible to excellent. In these pages—and in our public discourse—we should not create comic book villains out of all the people who work in our education system. It is counterproductive. It is unrealistic. It is unfair.

In the chapter about teacher quality, schools of education are also, at times, cast in a harsh light. Frankly, some schools of education deserve it. The bad ones charge idealistic young people (mostly women) tuition and prepare them very poorly for the classroom. There are a great many people at all levels of government who would like to see the least effective schools of education revamped or closed. But that doesn't mean that all colleges of education are substandard. There are a number of schools of education that deliver thoughtful, relevant, and thorough teacher training. I hope the graduates from those excellent schools of education end up in your child's classroom.

Here's a good way to separate the good teachers and administrators from the not-so-good ones: the superstar policy makers, excellent school administrators, and highly effective teachers want you to have more information about education not less. They welcome parents who are prepared to enter an informed, constructive, and nuanced dialogue about what is happening to students. They are discovering that connected and satisfied parents—ones who are confident that schools are making good choices for their children—can become, in these difficult times, a school's staunchest allies. Principal James Bushman, head of the University High School in Fresno, a successful charter high school on the campus of California State University at Fresno, says finding informed parents is the key to his school's survival. For ten years, Bushman's staff has done a remarkable job educating five hundred ninth- through twelfth-grade kids and sending his graduates off to college. But getting parents to see what his school offers can be a challenge. "We don't have a lot of fat in our budget. We certainly don't have money for advertising," he says. As the operator of a charter school, he is barred from attending high school fairs given at local middle schools. UHS doesn't have a football stadium or sports teams that garner headlines in the local paper. A couple of times a year, Bushman organizes a comprehensive "information night" for parents of prospective students. His staff has a lot of information to share. "We are not a run-of-the-mill school. We are a super-duper hard-core college prep school. Our program is pretty specialized," he says. But in the early years, even getting parents in those chairs on information night was difficult.

Administrators and teachers at good schools want you to ask questions when you go on an Open House tour. They want you to have a sophisticated idea of what you should look for when you visit a classroom. They also have a lot of demands on their time. Out of respect for the job that teachers, principals, and superintendents do, it behooves parents to get smarter about schools. You can't reasonably expect them to educate you about education and do a great job teaching your child.

One of my heroes, education reformer Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee school superintendent and now the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, is a tireless campaigner for better schools, especially for low-income kids. He frequently writes and lectures parents about trusting schools and school authorities too much in what he calls the Happy School syndrome. "I've seen schools where there was lots of happiness. The teachers are happy. The kids are happy. The parents are happy. But you know what? In terms of academic achievement, the children are not doing well. And so I've asked them, ‘Why are you so happy with your child's school when the children who attend here aren't doing well at all?' And the parents say they are pleased that the school is clean and safe and convenient. Now those things are important considerations. But you can't stop there."

Fuller continues: "Most parents know very little about how schools operate and what works. And if they had the time and inclination to sit down and read the latest research, they'd be stunned. It would be like finding out your doctor is taking out appendixes based on his own ideas of how appendixes should be removed. And even though the medical associations say, no, that is the wrong way to perform appendectomies, he still does it—and [is] risking the lives of his patients who come to him thinking he's using the safest techniques. There are some parents who do their homework. Who get informed. But there has to be a critical mass for things to change."

When it comes to school, we need to get savvier about the choices we make for our children. I'm hoping this book will be your first step on that journey.

Copyright © 2011 by Peg Tyre. All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Peg Tyre lays out the fundaments of a good school—-and a good education—-clearly and without bias." —-Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Meet the Author

Peg Tyre is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Trouble with Boys. She was awarded the prestigious Spencer Research Fellowship at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where she began work on The Good School. Her writing about education has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Family Circle, and iVillage.com. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Peg Tyre is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Trouble with Boys. She was awarded the prestigious Spencer Research Fellowship at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where she began work on her book The Good School. Her writing about education has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Family Circle, and iVillage.com. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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