How does a Parent Evaluate schools

10 Mar

This was published in the Times of India blogs on March 6, 2012 and can be accessed here

Continuing with the theme of evaluations ( having spoken of examinations and teachers) it is now the turn of schools. Schools have been compared with each other for a while now and school league tables are the battleground for prestige.

School league tables are typically brought out by newspapers and education magazines – which makes them reasonably independent. It is interesting to note how the criteria used by these tables for the evaluation of schools has evolved over time. Most started as performance league tables, with greater emphasis on academic performance in examinations, especially standardized ones. So, a better school was one that had scored higher, had more students with state or national level ranks and had more admissions to premier higher education institutions. While these criteria still remain primary to most school evaluation systems, degrees of sophistication have been built into some. For example, instead of merely measuring just the top range of student performance in schools, many school evaluation tables look at the average grades – since the average is more representative of school performance. Here, if more children manage to score respectable grades, the school is considered a greater success as compared to a school where a significant proportion continues to fail or score badly.

These league tables are important for a few reasons, but must clearly be seen for what they are – a summary measure, no more. League tables reward excellence in school performance, helping outstanding improvers to get the recognition they deserve, and, create incentives and goals for other schools to perform better. They also influence the way schools seek to improve – by the criteria they choose. In a place where the popular league tables focus only on academics, schools seeking recognition will try to improve only on that criteria. When league tables move away from that single focus – as they have in recent years – then other aspects of school life too receive incentives to growth. Most league tables today have included aspects of student well being in their criteria and present a more well rounded view of the life of the school.

This really does not tell us enough about a school if we are seeking deep engagement with it – for example as a parent trying to choose a school for their child (assuming we have the luxury of choice, and yes, it would be good manners to at least maintain the pretence). Nor does it help me if I want to teach in the school or supply resources to the school. It does not help me as a student either, except perhaps to partially explain why certain achievements get support in a particular school and others do not.  It is worth pondering – who do these evaluations via league tables actually serve?

As a parent, what I really want to know is – will my children be safe in this school? Will they be happy? Will they prosper, and grow? Will they learn to hold their own in the world, through good times and bad? These are universal questions, yet no school evaluation system answers these clearly – maybe it is expecting too much. The questions they answer are totally different, such as – will my child learn to compete, will they seek and achieve milestones, will they learn to be focused on one thing to the exclusion of all else and so on. Each of these are good, but limiting. They prepare a student for a test, one at a time, not for life in all its glorious multi-centric chaos. To treat these school evaluation systems as a proxy for  education systems would be a mistake.

How else can a parent chose a school if not by its results? Of course, results matter – and the very same league tables we discussed above are a reliable starting point. But, for our children, the means matter as much as the ends. Our criteria for choosing a school for our children must be designed by us, as parents with inputs from children as they grow more articulate. This too is a parental duty – to design the criteria that works best for our children and to not blindly follow what others may deem successful. For some of us, a happy atmosphere may nurture – for others a structured atmosphere supports growth. Some may look for more sports, others for the arts, and yet others for music. It is rare for one single school to be good at all of these – good enough to inspire students to excel and find joy in ‘extra’ curriculars. If these are important to us, then we must put in the effort to find them by giving more importance in our search criteria. For many of us, a traditional approach works – no reason to shy away from that even if ‘alternate’ schooling is more fashionable. My personal criteria that has over 60% weightage  is – happy students. When I visit the school, if I see happy and confident students everywhere, there is something right with the place.

(I leave out the obvious fact anomaly that schools seem to be evaluated on the basis of student performance, not directly school performance – a discussion for another day)

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