6 Things to Consider When Choosing the Right School for your Child

A School Choice Guide

6 Things to Consider When Choosing the Right School for your Child

“Where are you sending your child to school?” If this feels like a high-stakes question, it’s because it is. Despite the importance of this decision, it need not be one marked by stress and incoherence. A proper decision making system can help parents navigate the process, sift through the marketing, and peer beyond the veneer to confidently select a school in which their child will flourish. Hopefully this short guide will provide you with such a system!

The Quick List:

  1. Caring AND effective teachers matter – Effective teachers account for substantial differences not only in test scores, but “non-cognitive” social and emotional metrics.
  2. Holistic curriculum and instruction for 21st century skills – Look for curriculum and delivery that reflects a world where creativity, initiation, collaboration, communication and authentic problem solving rule; and there is emphasis on things like persistence, grit, and self-confidence.
  3. Measuring individual achievement and progress – Ask the school questions about their approach to measuring student progress through assignments and testing, and how parents are communicated with about your child’s growth.
  4. Value alignment – Determine if the school’s purpose and core values match who you want your child to become. Look at the people in the school – are they role models you want your child to learn from and emulate?
  5. Community and culture – Is this a community where your child will be warmly embraced, encouraged to take risks, and experience belonging? Ask other parents about their experience, visit events and tour the school, and assess the leaders to determine for yourself if this is a right fit.
  6. Unique opportunities – Learn what special classes and programs are available as part of the curriculum, like art, music, coding, project-based learning or a language. These opportunities provides a chance for your child to explore a potential interest further or migrate in a new direction easily.

The Deeper Dive List:

1. Caring AND effective teachers matter

If the real estate mantra is “location, location, location,” the educational equivalent is, “teachers, teachers, teachers.” Your ultimate goal: a growth experience for your child, designed and delivered by another human being. This personal connection between teacher and student is core to everything else in their world at school.

Great teachers count, as do bad ones. Caring teachers and a safe environment are some of the most important factors for your child’s in-school academic success. Research shows that effective teachers account for substantial differences not only in test scores, but “non-cognitive” social and emotional metrics like attendance, motivation, perseverance and happiness.

How do you identify good teachers?
• Look at experience and training, which matter, then observe for a few key indicators.
• Are teachers well prepared and strategic?
• Are they continuing to learn professionally and revising their methods to improve student outcomes?
• Do they collaborate with colleagues and exhibit passion for their work?
• Can they articulate learning goals for students?
• Does the teacher connect with students?
• Do they ask open-ended questions and express interest in their students’ lives beyond the classroom?
• Can they inspire them to take risks and push themselves?
• Are they warm, encouraging and empathetic?

Important note: don’t confuse personality with practice. There is not a singular personality that correlates with effective instruction – good and bad teachers take many forms – but best practices are shared. In the next section, we’ll discuss the importance of learning design, but remember that the best curriculum will fall flat with an ineffective teacher.

2. Holistic curriculum and instruction for 21st Century skills

If teachers are the master builders, curriculum and instruction are the blueprints. When choosing a school, examine the design for student learning.

Peg Tyre, author of The Good School, says that a school is basically the sum of three parts:
• The quality of curriculum (what is taught)
• The quality of instructional delivery (how it is taught)
• The quality of the teacher (who is teaching)

These three factors are inextricably bound, and good schools will have a strong foundation on each leg of the stool. Is there a comprehensive, integrated curriculum that is followed and regularly reviewed? Is instruction student-centered (focused on what students are doing and learning) or oriented around the teacher?

The world is changing, and so should schools. Look for curriculum and delivery that reflects a world where creativity, initiation, collaboration, communication and authentic problem solving rule. Teaching “21st century skills” doesn’t mean that content from traditional disciplines isn’t relevant, only that authentic application is increasingly essential. In Creative Schools, Ken Robinson states, “If you run a system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.”

Be sure not to overlook the school’s approach to non-cognitive skills. A growing body of research is revealing the positive impact of schools that actively teach qualities like self-regulation, persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Here, as with creativity, seek a program that looks at the holistic, personalized growth of your student.

3. Measuring individual achievement and progress

All schools measure student achievement and track progress in some way. You should look into a school’s approach, because it is critical to know how your child is doing.

Key questions to ask:
• What type of work is graded – assignments, tests, etc? If so, how often?
• What other ways do you measure progress or growth? Benchmarks or other testing types?
• How often are parents updated on their child’s progress?

Many private schools are not held to the same standardized testing requirements as public schools, so it makes it very attractive to families that prefer their kids aren’t taught to a test or are over-tested. While this environment provides freedom and opportunity, be sure to understand how student progress is being evaluated.

4. Value alignment

Schools have different reasons for existing. When selecting a school, ask yourself, does the purpose of this school align with who I want my child to become? A school may well have its act together, but if their core values are misaligned with your goals, it’s worth considering if it’s a right fit.

A growing term in education is the hidden, or invisible, curriculum. The concept suggests that much of the learning that occurs in a school happens outside the stated curriculum. What lessons are being learned that are not directly taught or openly intended? What understandings, values, habits and views is your child developing based on the cultural environment they are in?

What are the school’s purpose and core values? View the school’s articulated purpose. What is their mission and vision? Zoom out from the day-to-day operations and look for their ultimate goals for student growth. Many schools have a detailed “graduate profile,” which describes the characteristics, competencies, and values that they work to develop in students. These are aspirational, but they reveal the core values of the community.

Look at the people. Who are the students, teachers, administrators, and families that form the school? The lives of these people speak. What will your child learn as they listen? Does this square with the person you want them to become?

5. Community and culture

Each school has a distinct culture. For some schools it is a strong sports ethic or collaboration, others promote creative thinking or problem solving, and many more options exist. Depending on what is important to you and your child, you may be looking for an academic and fine arts balance or strengths in certain areas, like music, or science and math.

Who do you want your child to spend the next season of their life with? After exploring and assessing the programs, this simple question can get to the root of the decision.

Who are the mentors, teachers, peers, and parents that you want to surround your family with? Most importantly, is this a community where your child will be warmly embraced, encouraged to take risks, and experience belonging?

This is not to suggest you select a school that is filled with people just like you – it might mean quite the opposite. But understand that the school community you choose will, in many ways, become the most significant social group that your entire family engages with during this formative window in time. Is it a community in which you see your child and family belonging? And how might you find out?

Steps to take:

• Ask other families about their experience.
• Attend open houses and arrange in-school visits through the admissions office.
• Attend school events – concerts, games, community gatherings and student exhibition nights – to get a feel for the 360 degree social circle that exists around students.
• Assess leadership

Where is the leadership? Is school leadership the sole domain of a central administration, which delivers instructions to the rest of the organization? Or is it widely held throughout the school?

Great schools are teeming with leadership and vision in all corners: from teachers, students, parents, even administrators. Roland S. Barth, founder of The Principals’ Center at Harvard University, says that, “a school culture hospitable to widespread leadership will be a school culture hospitable to widespread learning.” Pay attention in your search: where is the leadership, and what culture is it shaping?

6. Unique opportunities

There are so many unique programs and extracurricular options to consider getting your kids involved in, and it can be overwhelming about how to direct your children. So rather than paying for and transporting your kids to additional sports and art classes, see if the school you are considering offers art or music classes, sports, or unique programs like Spanish Immersion, Project Based Learning, art classes, instrument lessons, or a Makerspace during the school day. It’s a great way for your child to try something new and it is little or no extra cost to you for them to try out a potential interest – they can explore further or migrate in a new direction easily.

Take note if the school provides additional programs, because it reinforces their commitment to their values and innovation for teaching in different ways to children.


Naturally, the six topics of this guide are deeply interwoven. Teachers, curriculum and instruction, student achievement, unique opportunities, values, and school community are impossible to isolate as independent factors. But, as with any big decision making process, it is helpful to deconstruct the parts before considering the whole. Following the suggested criteria in this guide won’t make the decision for you, but it can give you a framework for making the choice.

Finally, many parents dread the school decision process because it carries so much gravity. Relax and enjoy yourself! Exploring schools should be fun for you and your student. After all, at the end of the process begins an exciting new opportunity. Have fun, and good luck!


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