It’s been an interesting week for San Diego Unified schools. On Tuesday, the school board met to workshop a plan for how to keep more kids in their neighborhood schools.

Leading up to the meeting, the district posted data on just how many kids are leaving their neighborhoods to attend schools elsewhere. We jumped on that data, heard from parents on why they think these trends exist, then had San Diego Unified weigh in on the matter.

But let’s slow it down for a moment and look at the underlying theme: school choice. Clearly, there are a bunch of factors that influence parents’ decisions on where to send their kids, including a school’s reputation, its test scores or the personal connections parents are able to make with school staff.

How many of these things actually matter? I thought back to a topic I tackled several weeks ago. It was a question from Matt Stucky, a parent in Mission Valley. He wanted to know what things he should be looking at when considering schools.

I answered the question in a more general way, telling him where he could find information and making a few suggestions on who he could talk to.

But Stucky had already done that homework, and he wanted more (as you’ll see below).

So I decided to call in an expert. I turned to Paula Cordeiro, dean of the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. In addition to the work Cordeiro does on the USD campus, she helps get schools up and running in developing countries. When I first reached out to her on this question, she wrote me from Ghana.

I found her response so interesting I decided to include her email in its entirety.

Question: What kinds of school qualities have a measurable impact on student “success,” however we choose to define that? We talk a lot about API scores or class sizes, but in the grand scheme of things, which factors have the most real and important impact on preparing kids for the future? – Matt Stucky, parent in Mission Valley (This question’s been paraphrased.)

Cordeiro’s response, edited very slightly for style:

Well, the research on in-school learning is quite clear about the key factors for student success. It’s all about quality teaching. So, first and foremost, teachers matter. Give a school all high-quality teachers, and I’ll guarantee there will be lots of learning taking place.

There is a growing body of evidence that school leadership is the next important factor. So, principals matter. All of this is of course contingent on the “conditions for learning.” Sometimes they are called them the “opportunity to learn” standards. In my work in developing countries, I focus on these basic conditions for learning. We take them for granted in most schools in the U.S., but even our schools vary from district to district.

This might sound basic but the research is clear about what conditions must be present for students to learn: adequate lighting, good ventilation and air quality, solid building construction, low noise levels, sufficient learning materials (books, writing tools, access to technology), among others. Variables not quite as important – but still there is evidence they impact learning – include the “beauty” of the learning environment (e.g., color, cleanliness, displays of learning that are inviting to students, etc.).

I believe it very much matters what schools we send our children to. Because I’ve spent my entire career working with and in schools and studying the research on learning, I can spend a few hours in a school and tell you if it’s worth considering sending your children there.

But … finding a school in which every teacher is offering high-quality teaching is like Diogenes searching for an honest man. I have worked with some of the best private schools in our nation and even in those schools, when money to provide really good salaries is not a big challenge, I’ve seen poor teaching. So, to begin with, I recommend that parents meet with the school principal. Is she or he passionate, knowledgeable and well-trained? What does the principal say about his or her teachers? Is this principal a leader in the district? I’m impressed when I visit my doctor and on her wall is her medical degree from Stanford. It’s not a guarantee, but it tells me she has the basic knowledge needed. She also tells me about her ongoing professional development. So, I want the same from principals, teachers and school counselors. I want them to graduate from great preparation programs (nationally accredited, please!) and I want them to be continuously learning and honing their craft. That’s the evidence I seek when I visit schools.

Good stuff. But I wanted to go a little deeper on quality teaching. From what we’ve heard this week from San Diego parents – and from the district itself – teacher quality doesn’t make the priority list. Yet according to Cordeiro, it should be front and center.

Unlike other places, though, San Diego parents don’t have access to  teacher evaluations. So how are parents supposed to recognize good teachers? Here’s Cordeiro’s response:

How can you tell if a doctor is good? OK, so we know this is very difficult, but what do we look for? Good bedside manners? Other people referring the doctor to you? Their credentials?

So, for teachers, I would ask at least three parents (always triangulate your data) whose child had previously been in that teacher’s class if they would elect to put their child in that teacher’s class again. And, if yes, specifically why. I would also basically look at the bedside manners of that teacher. Is she or he approachable? Inviting and welcoming? You know your child, do you think your child would want to have this teacher? I would ask where they received their training to become a teacher and did that training prepare them for this school? I’d ask what they consider to be their biggest challenge in teaching. I’d ask about their professional development.

When I go to my dentist, I always ask him what the latest dental strategies he is learning about are. I really like my dentist because he keeps up to date and is experimenting with new materials and strategies. I expect the same of teachers. Do they go to summer trainings on project-based learning? Or do they visit other schools to observe outstanding teachers and innovative models and strategies? Some of these questions can be answered through the principal. When I was a principal, the toughest question I used to be asked was: Would you put your child in this teacher’s class? If the principal hesitates, or rambles, then the answer might be no!

Ed Reads of the Week

Texas Sends Poor Teens to Adult Jail For Skipping School (Buzzfeed)

We’ve seen what suspensions can do to disrupt kids’ educations. So imagine the havoc that fining kids for skipping school – then jailing them in adult facilities when they can’t afford the fines – might wreak.

That’s what’s happening in Texas, Buzzfeed reported in an astounding investigation this week:

“Though Texas’ truancy system was intended to keep kids in school and headed toward graduation, it often has the opposite effect, driving many teenagers out of school. Days behind bars can count as unexcused absences if students don’t clear them with school officials by providing documentation from the jail. And even when they are not penalized for time in jail, it often means more missed school, rendering already-struggling students that much further behind.”

That piggybacks off a recent report from The Marshall Project, which found that parents, too, are being jailed across the country when fines related to their children’s absences from school go unpaid.

How does a teacher’s race affect which students get to be identified as “gifted”? (Washington Post)

Black students are more likely to be identified as “gifted” when they attend schools with high concentrations of black teachers (and less likely when they don’t).

Ten Signs You’re a Helicopter Parent (Clickhole)

Including, but not limited to: You’re so worried about germs that you won’t let your children play with rusty axes. (This one’s just for grins.)

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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