Since I started this column back in March, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten comes from parents who want to know how to choose schools for their kids.

I’ve looked at that question in a couple of different ways, explaining the choice application process and what sort of elements should make a school desirable (hint: It’s good teachers).


There’s a pretty simple reason for the curiosity. Choosing a school is one of the few – and most important – decisions parents can actually make for their children’s education. Yet, despite parents’ need to know, there aren’t a lot of clear and easy ways to access information.

Schools often list basic information on their websites, things like bell schedules and generic welcome messages from principals. But, for better or worse, it’s not the kind of consumer-review experience you’d find on Yelp.

However, a number of real estate websites are stepping in to fill that void. If you’ve recently been in the market for a new home, you might have noticed that sites like Zillow and Trulia provide information on nearby schools, and tell you, in clear and simple terms, whether the nearest schools are good or ones you want to avoid.

If you’re looking at a home on Beech Street, for example, you’ll see your nearest elementary schools are average but your closest high school is below average. It’s got red font!

But just where do these numbers come from, and how much do they mean?

Question: My wife and I are currently house hunting and using sites like Zillow and Trulia. We came from the east and have lived in SD for almost two years.  Each site has a “Nearby School” rating of 1-10. More often than not every school outside of La Jolla and south of Poway has less-than-average or poor ratings. The San Diego Unified district boasts scores as low as 1-2 in some areas! What are these ratings based on and how “legit” are they? – Craig McGreevy, San Diego

This is a great question. Part of what fascinates me is the idea that school districts can pitch their schools to parents (and journalists), but there’s also a layer of real estate marketers who need to be convinced that a school is good.

When real estate agents are trying to sell a house to young parents, and make recommendations on where to send their kids to school if they move in, that weighs heavily in the family’s decision. (Anecdotally, I’ve heard this is pretty common.)

Both Zillow and Trulia pull their data from GreatSchools, a nonprofit that provides profiles of K-12 schools nationally. They’re supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.

School rankings are only one part of what they do. They also provide space for principals and staff to create a profile for the school and list some of the things that make it unique. It’s really designed to be a resource for parents, where they can get answers to questions like what schools they should choose, or what sorts of things kids should know by the end of second grade.

Now, on to the rankings. You can search by ZIP code, city or school. When you find what you’re looking for, you’ll see a number, 1 through 10, which will tell you how the school stacks up. Rankings 1-3 mean the school is below average; 4-7 is average; and 8-10 is above average.

There is some methodology listed on the site that tells us the numbers reflect student achievement (test scores), growth (past test scores) and college readiness (graduation rates and ACT/SAT scores, where available).

That information isn’t specific to California, and I wanted to know for sure what numbers were being used. So I reached out to GreatSchools’ data associate Andy Alcaraz.

Alcarez said they look at California Standards Tests, which measure students’ proficiency scores in math, English, science and social science. To come up with the ranking, GreatSchools looks at what percentage of students tested proficient in each of these content areas – weighted equally – then compares that score to all other schools in the state.

This ranking doesn’t account for other factors, like number of students in poverty, or number of English-learners. Some ranking systems, like California’s now-suspended API system, ranked schools against those with a similar make-up.

There are a couple of obvious limitations to this, namely, that the data is old. Two years ago, the state retired the California Standards Test to allow schools to transition to the new Common Core tests.

Also, GreatSchools’ analysis doesn’t allow for the kind of nuance to say what exactly separates an 8-ranking from a 9-ranking, for example. So at that level of detail, there’s probably not all that much difference.

Steve Padilla, GreatSchools director of communication, said that’s why the site also allows for principals to create their own profiles – so parents have more to go on than just a single digit.

“We even say on our website, this is just one set of data parents should look at. By all means-, they should do more research. Visit the school.  Sit in on the class.”

So, despite the limitations in GreatSchools’ rankings, they do provide a quick-and-dirty guide for parents. The difference between a single digit is probably negligible. But it’s safe to assume that a 10 is indeed much better than a 1 or a 2.

Ed Reads of the Week

• What Schools Will Do to Keep Students on Track (The Atlantic)

On paper, the Chicago public school system is a Cinderella story. Despite dramatic budget cuts and school closures over the past few years, graduation rates are booming. In 2007, less than half of high school students graduated in four years. By 2014, that had jumped to 68 percent.

Principals and researchers in Chicago chalk up the success to a simple but effective strategy: Get kids through ninth grade successfully, and their chances of making it through to graduation skyrocket. Toward that end, data is closely monitored, and freshmen receive extra tutoring to keep them on track.

It may be working. It may also be a mirage, a product of juked attendance rates and a failure to track dropouts accurately.

• Mexican Government Wants to Tame Disruptive Teachers Union (Washington Post)

The lede of this Washington Post story sets it up nicely: “They have seized public plazas and filled them with sprawling tent cities. They have burned government buildings and choked off a city’s gasoline supply. They have held marches and torched ballots and closed schools for weeks at a time.”

And here’s the kicker: “They” are members of the teachers union. This is a fascinating story of how tensions between the union and government play out elsewhere (You thought it was bad in America!).

The thing is, once you get past all the building-burnings, the demands the union is making aren’t really all that different from the things teachers want here: job security, benefits, decent pay. There’s some similarities in the government’s complaints, too.

• Camping Trip 1986 (Medium)

I was putting my daughter to bed on Sunday night, when I suddenly had words to articulate something that I’ve felt for the past two years but could never express. I wanted to write it down before I forgot – which happens to most of my ideas. So I jumped out of bed and hit the computer. Here’s my best attempt at describing what it’s like to be a first-time father.

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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