Of all the consumer choices we will make in our lifetime, the decision about where our children will attend school is among the most important.
Some parents make this choice when they decide where to buy a home as they look for neighborhoods with schools that have strong test scores and clean and safe campuses. Some pick a school by researching it thoroughly and then finding a way to get the kids there every day even if it’s not in their community. Some scrimp and save to buy what they believe is the best education in a private or parochial school. And some make no informed decision at all, either because they assume the closest school will do fine or because their housing options — and therefore, their schooling options — are limited by poverty.
But regardless of their circumstances, it’s probably a safe bet that no parents want their child to have a poor education.
In the recently released annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on education, 51 percent of Americans — an all-time high — graded their local schools with A’s and B’s. But their perception of schools nationally continues to decline with just 17 percent assigning those top grades to the nation’s schools.
Why the disconnect? Those who were polled said they based grades of local schools on their knowledge of the community and the schools there, as well as pride in their community. They based low grades of the nation’s schools on negative stories in the media.
It’s true that the media often puts out information that casts public education in a negative light. But it’s news when studies show that American schools are falling far behind their global peers. It’s news when another important consumer of education — business and industry — says the system is failing to produce the well-educated, quality workers it needs to remain competitive.
The Phi Delta Kappa poll found that parents continue to give very high grades — 79 percent assigning A’s or B’s — to the school that their oldest child attends. But is that grade based on objective fact, or, does it reflect the parents’ need to believe that they made the right decisions all these years for their child’s education?
When you look at high schools in the East Valley, there are those that, for one reason or another, appear to be standouts. Mesa’s Mountain View High School has a long, revered history of success in competition, both academically and athletically. Tempe Preparatory Academy has distinguished itself as one of the state’s best charter schools through high test scores. Students at Chandler’s Hamilton High School consistently come out on top in difficult science competitions. And those are just a few examples; across the East Valley, there are many schools that can boast about good scores, lots of awards, and happy parents.
But how do those parents really know if their child is getting the education he or she needs to be successful in our rapidly changing world? The government certainly doesn’t make it easy for parents to figure this out. Every year, Arizona assigns a range of academic performance labels — from “excelling” to “failing” — to its public schools based on a formula that takes into account test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates and other data. Every year, based on similar indicators, the federal government says which schools have met and which schools have failed the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. And every year, there are some schools ranked as “excelling” or “highly performing” by the state but “failing” by the feds. This year, Arizona is adding yet another layer to the complicated grading system: It will assign letter grades as well as labels to our public schools.
“I would tend to put stock in what parents say almost over the accountability labels,” Joe O’Reilly, executive director of student achievement support for the Mesa Unified School District, told the Tribune. “They are the direct consumer.”
But with so much information, as well as their own experience with schools, how does a parent decide: Yes, my child is getting a good education?
Perhaps they should base their assessment on higher expectations that keep growing over time. If you think you have high standards now, bump that up several notches because the expectations the world has for kids today is much higher than it was for us and for our parents. If they’re going to compete and be successful, our children must know more, learn it faster, and be able to adapt as our society becomes more advanced.
That means parents have to raise the bar on what they expect of their schools, their kids, and themselves as well.
If America’s schools are indeed going to rise above mediocrity and meet the highest standards, then everyone, especially education’s principal consumer — the parents — must expect more.