Ask the grumpies: When is a school good/awesome enough?

CG asks:

How do you know if your kid’s school is “good enough”? Should good enough even be the goal, or should you be shooting for awesome? Assume cost is not really an object.

Femmefrugality adds:

Along the same lines, does how good a kid’s school is play a relevant role after a certain point?  Where does parent involvement take over in the equation?

Gosh, the answer to this question is going to be so different for different people.  All we (#1’s family) know is our kid, and hir unique needs.  Not only are the kids’ needs important, but family preferences could also be important.  Some families, for reasons we cannot comprehend are really interested in making sure their kids have the best competitive sports opportunities.  Some want to make sure they get training in the fine arts.

Some folks have the ability to supplement sub-par school environments at home.  Some kids have a better ability to weather or entirely avoid things like bullying.  In these cases, the school environment may be less important than for other kids.  Other kids may be more sensitive or “too different” or really want to be “followers” and a bad school environment can have a more permanent negative effect.  Here bad schools can lead to dropping out, under-age pregnancy, drug-use, emotional scarring, and so on.

Awesome teachers have had profound effects on kids from all walks of life.  In an ideal world, we’d easily be able to shoot for “awesome”.  Sadly that’s not so easy, and we may have to go for satisficing at a reasonably low level, or even making-do and supplementing.

Our kid is highly gifted and incredibly sensitive.  We really want to avoid hir having the K-8 experiences that we, ourselves, had.  In addition, ze tends to get into trouble when bored.  So we had to look outside the norm.  In some ways we’re satisficing– we’d certainly love for DC’s school not to be undergoing financial difficulties and we’d really love our time and money back.  But, for us it is worth it.

Awesome is really hard to find.  In the small town in which I grew up, there were a few awesome teachers, but there were no awesome schools.  There was the public school, there was the Catholic school, and there were a small number of scary fundamentalist Christian schools.  My parents bought in the second best school district (which had some of the first best teachers) and supplemented with tons of outside enrichment activities.  Getting through the school day was AWFUL most years.  I still bear scars from middle school.  (so does #2)  We don’t want that for our children.  And it’s hard to predict if the schools will be “good enough” in any place that we move to.  In our current situation we have a couple of private school options at least until 6th grade (assuming no big changes), but who knows what the future will hold.

How do we know our school is “good enough”?  I don’t know how we well would tell a priori.  But we tried.  With our specific needs in mind, we visited and observed different private schools.  DC1 needs mental stimulation and possibly differentiation.  Ze needs to not be bullied.  So we watched for signs of the kids being bored.  The kids misbehaving because they were bored.  How the kids interacted with each other.  We asked the teachers what they would do about DC1’s specific needs.  We crossed off our list the school that said they’d work on hir cutting skills all year because that was the only part of the K curriculum that ze hadn’t already mastered.  (Oddly, DC1 got high praise for hir above-average cutting skills in K the following year, even though we didn’t hothouse those.)

How we know now:  1.  DC1 loves to go to school.  Ze does not come home crying.  2.  Ze is not bouncing off the walls after school (most days anyway– we can always tell when there’s been a sub).  3.  Ze neither receives 100%s nor low scores on hir classwork.  Steady grades mostly in the 90s and the occasional in the 80s on classwork seem to indicate it’s at a good level for hir.  4.  Ze isn’t socially isolated– ze talks about hir friends and recess and after school.  Hir best friend cracks us up.  For extra bonus points, DC1 doesn’t seem to have learned that only girls or only boys do X, and the only comments we’ve heard about race and ethnicity seem to be things ze’s gotten from lessons on black history month or in Spanish class or Religious studies.  (And the school does have a diverse student body.)  5.  Ze tells us all about the super cool stuff ze is learning.  And it’s super cool!

In exchange for all this, we pay thousands of dollars each year, donate a bunch, and spend a ton of time with the school trying to help them with their financial situation.  We do think it’s worth it, but at some point it may no longer be.  Or we may move and we won’t be able to afford the much higher private tuition in cities or the private and public schools may both be anti-acceleration.  We’ll have to figure something new out then.  But CG said to assume cost isn’t an object and I’m getting off topic with my own concerns.

Ok, onto Femmefrugality.  The answer to this question is:  We don’t know!  We know that preschool interventions seem to give more bang for their buck than later interventions.  But later interventions still matter.  We know that high quality schools do a lot more for low SES kids than they do for high SES kids, and that high SES kids are less harmed by low quality schools than low SES kids are.  We know that peer groups at school are important, but we’re not really sure how important they are (it seems to depend on a lot of stuff).  We know that schooling is important for many special needs kids, including gifted kids, and that they will be at a higher risk of dropout in an environment that does not suit their needs.  But we have no idea what the line is where schooling starts being more important than parenting (including the parent’s abilities to supplement, not just the parent’s desires) or vice versa.  Ginormous open research question with a lot of papers but no bottom line yet.

Update on FemmeFrugality’s question:  Just went to a talk on how a teacher’s value added affects testscores, college attendance, teen pregnancy, and income.  Good teachers matter!

Grumpy nation, how important is it to you that schooling be awesome or good enough?  How do you know what awesome or good enough is?  Do you have additional feedback for CG and Femmefrugality?

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23 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: When is a school good/awesome enough?”

  1. plantingourpennies Says:

    I think you hit on a lot of the right notes when figuring out if a school is good enough. Is your kid happy? Are they challenged? Do they have people they can (and want) to talk to?
    My MIL’s PhD is in special ed with a focus on gifted ed, and she is firmly on the side that placing gifted kids with a gifted peer group is the best way to go. From personal experience, I definitely agree. I didn’t start to enjoy school or grow and understand social behavior better until I transitioned from a small private school to the public school district’s gifted program in the 6th grade.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We definitely loved it when we got to be with a gifted peer group. Too bad it took so long!

    • Leah Says:

      yes! I was with a gifted (enough) peer group for some of my happiest years in school. For 4 & 5 grade (before we had to move, sigh), I went to a magnet school. Not everyone was brilliant, but we were all challenged. It was excellent to be at a school that everyone had chosen to go to and had to work hard to stay at. I didn’t really love school again until I got into high school and only had classes with other International Baccalaureate students.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    1. What are “cutting skills”?

    2. What is “SES”?

    3. If I had gone to a school that prioritized compliance, conformity, and test-taking, I’d be completely f*cked today.

  3. Sara G (@sargoshoe) Says:

    My oldest has only been in the public school system for a year, but I think our guiding principle (at this age) is that she enjoys school. So far we have prioritized this above being challenged because the lack of challenge isn’t too severe and she seems to be developing skills to cope (i.e. challenge herself). But all this might change as she gets beyond kindergarten!!

  4. First Gen American Says:

    I asked a similar question to a lady I really respect. She does amazing STEM outreach for girls and is in all our local schools. She said that as long as your kid feels “safe” and is in a nurturing environment, that is the most important thing. By the time they are adults it won’t really matter if they learned their abc’s at age 3 or 5. Similarly, what they didn’t pick up in school that they need later in life, they can learn it on their own if they are so inclined.

    Now, after being in a crappy school and playing catch up for the first 2 years of college, I’d say that I don’t want my own kids to be at a school that’s too mediocre because it is really hard and demoralizing playing catch up.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hm, what she says is not quite true though because certain segments of the population are more likely to drop out, do drugs, get pregnant, etc. if their educational needs are not being met, nurturing environment or not. Probably more true for the 3-5 range because so much of what they’re learning at that age is non-academic and self-directed, but after 3rd grade, it’s kind of a dangerous attitude.

    • hush Says:

      “it won’t really matter if they learned their abc’s at age 3 or 5″ – Well, yes and no. The sooner a child learns to read, in general the better vocab they’ll have, the better verbal test scores they’re likely to eventually have, and so on. In a group of 16-year-old test takers, the kid who has been fully literate for 13 years will probably have an edge over the kid who has been fully literate for 11 years.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        There’s also the worry that some of those 5 year olds might never learn to read if they get unlucky with their early school teachers. They may end up hiding functional illiteracy as they get older and never learn. Maybe an extreme case, but in some (too many) school districts not so rare.

      • bogart Says:

        It’s my impression, though, that the research suggests that controlling for [whatever], as long as a kid has learned to [whatever] by age 7, the age at which they learned it is not really predictive of, well, anything. So, for example, a kid who learns the alphabet at 3 is not “ahead” of the one who learns it at 5 as long as both are reading by 7. Obviously, a kid who learns the alphabet at 6.75 probably isn’t reading (at age appropriate level) by 7, so I’m not saying nothing matters, but it is my impression that being “ahead” at a young age doesn’t mean much.

        Mind you it’s entirely likely, nay, patently true, that I’m not current on the literature on this topic.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If you’re in a poor school district with a lot of terrible teachers, not a lot of books at home, etc., there is some advantage to giving more chances for a child to learn how to read, and each year is another chance. There’s a big problem with functional illiteracy in some places, and early interventions help.

        But no, with your average kid in the average school district, reading sometime between 4 and 7 is totally normal. There’s so much repetition each year in schools that average kids tend to end up at the same grade-level rather than age-level even if redshirted (or accelerated). So red-shirted kids lose their advantage. We don’t really know what it would be like if each kid had an individualized learning program. Some of them (not just prodigies) probably would benefit from earlier instruction.

        And of course, kids in the two tails are an entirely different can of worms. Both sets you want earlier interventions.

      • bogart Says:

        Yeah, clearly (at least) some opportunity to learn before 7 is key, and more such opportunities are probably better but my sense is that in choosing between various good options (e.g. play-based preschool versus academic preschool), there’s no advantage to picking school over play. And, right, that’s “on average” and ignoring the tails, and not a necessarily a prescription for any individual kid.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think somewhere we have a different ask the grumpies on preschools… let me see…

  5. J Liedl Says:

    We sent our two girls to two different schools – Eldest went to the local immersion school while Autistic Youngest went to the local Anglophone school that featured a ASD class and program. Both were good fits. Some peers were shocked that we let Eldest go to local school and didn’t shift her to attend not-local-but-nearby immersion school which got great numbers in the national conservative think tank assessment scheme (and was, clearly, very good). There would have been enormous opportunity costs to get her there – hamstringing us both in terms of our work schedules and requiring us to purchase a second car and, for what? When she met up in high school with peers from that school, it was clear that other local school did a better job of teaching language but her local school had done a better job in sciences – however, neither was subpar.

    That said, we supplemented both extensively. It is the white professional privilege at play, for certain!

    Private schools, excepting for religious academies, don’t exist in our small town. It would be home school or public school, pretty much so we’re lucky that we’ve been able to find good schools and work to make their experiences the best that we could manage. Now that Eldest has accepted an offer at her first choice university, we’re pretty content with the outcome.

  6. Eli Rabett Says:

    Here is a scary number for you from someone who studies how high schools affect college work. To have a measurable effect class size has to be ten or under.

    Oh yeah, EVERYONE has a shitty middle school experience. if you didn’t you were not awake.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I recently came across a Time magazine article that said that people who had good middle school experiences were somehow better adjusted as adults. I was like, huh? (Especially since that doesn’t seem to mesh with other research on middle school social dynamics.) I kind of want to read the article that news story was based on, but not enough to actually hunt it down and read it.

  7. hush Says:

    “How do you know if your kid’s school is “good enough”? You ignore the hype and go see about it for yourself. I live in rural America, and I’ve learned that one group of parents’ self-described “totally awesome” school “where kids can be kids” and “classes are small” and “the PTA has $40k in the bank and does a ton for the school” is yours truly’s idea of a completely crappy school with disturbingly low expectations for student learning.

    The proof is in sitting down and observing some actual classes over time. When I visited a first grade class at the so-called “totally awesome” school, I found a checked out teacher, a class of 27 kids, of whom 5 were visibly special needs, with no classroom aides. Then I witnessed the teacher roll her eyes and make a rude comment when one of the special needs kids was understandably disruptive. If that’s what I saw as a visitor, when the teacher was supposed to be on her best behavior, I shudder to think of what goes on in that classroom when no other adults are looking. It kills me that this is what passes for the “totally awesome” school around here – people are clamoring to buy a house in this school’s district.

  8. Updates | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] still loves school and has requested to stay at the same school another year.  Ze has a new math/reading teacher […]

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