Was this a place where learning happened? Was this a place where children felt safe? Inspired? Curious?
It never worked. The bulletin boards did not speak to me. Now I know I was looking in the wrong direction.
Since then, having spent years studying schools around the world, I judge them differently. It’s not easy, of course. Every child is different. An outstanding school for one child might be hell on earth for another.
Still, when it comes to finding a school that is both rigorous and alive, full of spirit and learning, there are a few reliable tricks. Based on what I have seen from visiting schools on four continents, listening to kids, teachers, and parents and studying the research of other, smarter people than myself, here are a few tips from my own evolving guide to spotting a world-class education.
Watch the students
If you are trying to understand a school, you can ignore most of the information you are given. Open houses? Pretty much useless. Average class size? Not as important as most people think. Some studies have shown that smaller class sizes benefit children in elementary school, but other studies have found no clear relationship. In fact, some of the highest-performing countries (Japan, say, or Korea) typically have larger classes than the United States; and some consistently unimpressive education systems have among the smallest class sizes (Greece, for example, or Italy). Assuming class sizes are within a range from roughly 15 to 35 students, the research suggests that other factors, including the quality of the teaching, matter more than size.
Test data? More helpful, but very hard to decipher in most places. How good is the test? How much value is the school adding beyond what kids are already learning at home?
Instead, the best way to gauge the quality of a school is to spend time — even just 20 minutes — visiting classrooms while school is in session.
When you get there, though, it’s important to know where to look. Turn away from the bulletin boards and watch the students instead. Watch for signs that all the kids are paying attention, interested in what they are doing, and working hard.
Don’t check for signs of order; sometimes learning happens in a lecture hall, but more often it happens in noisy places where the kids are working in groups without much input from the teacher. Some of the worst classrooms are quiet, tidy places that look, to adults, reassuringly calm.
Remember that rigorous learning actually looks rigorous. If the kids are whizzing through a worksheet, that’s not learning. That’s filling out a form. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. They should not be frustrated or despairing; instead, they should be getting help when they need it, often from each other. They should not spend long, empty stretches of time transitioning from one class to another or waiting for the next activity. There should be a sense of urgency that you can feel.
Talk to the students
People, including reporters, rarely ask students for their insight. Young kids are thought to be too small to understand; older kids are presumed to be too jaded. Neither is true, in my experience. As long as you ask intelligent questions, students are the most candid and helpful sources in any school.
Don’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” or “Do you like your school?” What if a tall, smiling stranger came to your office and asked, “Do you like your boss?” You’d wonder if he was a consultant brought in to fire you. Kids have the same reaction. And in any case, liking a teacher is not the same as learning from a teacher. Instead, ask questions that are specific, respectful, and meaningful.