Stakeholder Perspectives – A Blog from My Student Survey
January 2018 – 3 Questions that Parents Should Ask on Every School Tour
As many parents are now thinking about school options for next year, there are a lot of questions parents have about how to know what makes a good school. Is it a certain curriculum? Having foreign languages or gardening programs? Multiple teachers in the classroom? It can sometimes feel like you’re drowning in information and pamphlets, so we wanted to provide a consise, research-based set of questions and look-fors that can help parents make decisions. Overall, the research is consistent in the fact that teachers are the biggest school-related factor that influences student success. So how do you get the best teachers? Below are some questions that will give some insights into whether the school you are considering has systems in place that will set it up for getting and keeping the best teachers. If you find more than one school that meet these criteria, THEN you can go with other factors such whether they teach Spanish or do IB, but if they do not have good people in place then all of the other characteristics won’t matter.
1.) What is the process you use for hiring your teachers? What are the stages of the interview process and what happens at each stage?
You’ve probably heard the statement ‘It’s more about what teacher you get rather than what school you choose’. This is true for the majority of schools because the hiring process commonly used by schools does NOT provide enough information about a candidate to ensure success. It does not have to be that way. Most schools ask questions that only test for how well someone interviews and NOT how well they teach. The BEST schools have consistently high-quality teachers because they take the time before hiring the teacher to know exactly what they are going to get.
So what should you look for? Recent research has highlighted the need for a strategic, multi-phase interview process that includes elements of what the candidate will actually be doing… teaching. When you ask this question, you should hear a systematic approach to hiring since this is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT decision that a school can make. At a minimum, the school’s process should include an initial phone screen, an in-person interview, a demonstration of teaching and an opportunity for hearing/integrating feedback on the demonstration lesson. This tells you a few things about the school you’re looking at. 1.) They care about the hiring process to invest time and energy into it. 2.) They recognize that you can’t just ‘know someone is good by talking to them for 5 minutes’ which is a common (and arrogant) perspective of many school leaders that they don’t need to see people teach to know what kind of teachers they are. 3.) They want their teachers to be open to and able to integrate feedback since this is an important part of the school’s culture and one that allows for teacher effectiveness to continually improve. If any of these pieces are missing, ask why. If they say it takes too much time, then they are not investing their time in the place where it matters the MOST.
2.) How do you support the improvement of your teachers’ practice?
Once you have great teachers in the building (because of your hiring process), the best schools have a culture of continuous improvement. This has a few benefits. First, it ensures that teachers are constantly growing which means your child’s teachers will always be getting better. Next, it means that school leaders are consistently in the classroom so that school decisions reflect what’s happening in the classroom. And finally, teachers are more likely to stay in teaching if they feel they are growing as professionals (just like people in most jobs!).
So what should you look for? Every school will likely have some sort of answer (we have school-wide PD sessions, we visit classrooms, etc.), but you should push to have them present a clear strategy for professional growth. Things that great schools do include:
- School administrators conduct frequent classroom observations and hold in-person goal-setting sessions for instructional practice with teachers after each observation
- Teachers collaborate with each other and there are systems in place (such as common planning time) that ENSURE that this happens rather than just hoping it happens
- Teachers regularly look at interim assessment data together (e.g., having half days for data analysis every 6 weeks) and use it to plan
- Teachers continue to strengthen their content knowledge through content-specific professional development or funding for conferences
- The school has mentors or instructional coaches in place to continually support teachers
Overall, you want to have a sense of whether they are checking the box with their answer or if their EYES LIGHT UP when you ask this question because continuous improvement is such an important part of the school’s culture.
3.) What is your teacher retention rate this year and for the past few years? What are things that this school does to improve teacher retention?
Low teacher retention is a sign of underlying issues that may not be apparent on a school tour. What’s the point of hiring and growing great teachers if nobody stays around?? The best principals recognize that high quality teachers are the most important asset in a school and they do WHATEVER IT TAKES to keep them. Things that keep teachers happy are feeling like the school leadership supports them (with student discipline, funding for resources, etc.), feeling like they have autonomy and feeling like they are part of a community. This doesn’t differ greatly from what it takes to create a positive culture in most workplaces.
So what should you look for? A normal retention rate would be between 85-95%. Some degree of turnover is to be expected, but when you start getting below 75% you would want to ask some questions about what was happening. Great leaders will have a systematic and comprehensive approach to this keeping their teachers. If they say things like ‘We hold teacher appreciation week every year’ and stop there, that should be a red flag. Instead, look for key drivers such as teacher involvement in decision making, a strategic method of ensuring that teachers have the resources they need to be at their best and a systematic approach to building culture and community within the school. You can ask specific follow ups such as ‘How are teachers involved in school decisions?’ or ‘How do you support teachers with student behavior?’ or ‘How do you build relationships among faculty members?’ but it should be clear that the school recognizes the value of great teachers and has a clear plan to keep them.
The last thing to keep in mind as you ask these questions is that you cannot be satisfied with a canned answer. As a parent, you deserve to know this information about the school and school leaders should be willing to share this information. Is the answer you get something that SOUNDS like a good answer or does it really give you insight into how the school works? Push further and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions (such as ‘Can you tell me more about that? or ‘What does that look like in practice?’ or ‘Can you give me a few examples of that?’) to be able to tell whether there is something strategic or merely superficial.
Want to know more about stakeholder engagement and how surveys can help improve school decisions? Check out our webpage and tell your school about us!