Criteria for Choosing a School
As discussed in Module 4: The U.S. Public Education System, states have the authority over school operations and the nature of school choice options available. These variations across states can impact military-connected students in transition trying to complete required coursework and exams or meet graduation requirements.
It is important for School Liaisons to be familiar with the school options available and how local schools carry out the implementation of school choice in order to provide informed guidance to families. What follows are some important variations of note that families may face from state to state.
School Liaisons should be familiar with the laws governing school choice in the state and understand whether students are able to transfer to another school in the district or in another district and under what circumstances. School Liaisons should also know the range of school options in a district.
School Liaisons can assist parents in comparing various school options. The School Liaisons should know which schools have specialized programs or particular emphases that might be appropriate for children, and they should be able to get access to data that compares school performance.
School Liaisons should know homeschooling laws and be able to inform parents if they need to use certain materials or have their curriculum approved, if their children must take state assessments, and what opportunities are available through homeschooling consortiums in the area.
School Liaisons should know the range of private schools in a community, understand the enrollment application process and deadlines, and know whether tuition assistance might be available.
While research is mixed on the exact students-to-teacher ratio for optimal classroom learning, conventional wisdom suggests that smaller class sizes are advantageous because they allow opportunities for more personalized learning. Smaller class sizes are typically found in preschool and elementary grades, while middle and high school public school classes can be as large at 35 or 40 students. School Liaisons should be aware of these ranges in their community and share this information with parents. Parents should consider whether their child is able to manage such sizes or whether a smaller structure is more appropriate.
While all schools within a state are expected to meet the same standards, states and districts vary in the extent they allow flexibility for schools to design their own curriculum and instructional programs to meet the standards. Some schools have particular emphases (e.g., mathematics and science or the arts) and some emphasize a particular instructional strategy (e.g., phonics or whole language). School Liaisons should be aware of these variations to enable parents to choose options that are appropriate for their children.
Under ESEA, schools are required to notify parents about the number of teachers in their schools who are designated as “highly qualified.” Teachers are highly qualified if they are certified, if they have a degree in the subject they teach, and if they pass required tests. Teachers who are teaching under emergency credentials are not highly qualified. Parents should be aware if a particular school has a large number of teachers who are not highly qualified. Private schools and many charter schools (depending on the state) are exempt from state certification requirements, but still may require teachers to be certified.
Under ESEA, schools are required to report student performance on statewide mathematics and reading tests for the school overall and for each subgroup of students within the school. Schools that do not make “adequate yearly progress” on these tests are subject to sanctions and intervention. While statewide tests are not the only measure of a school’s quality, they do provide important indicators of academic achievement. School Liaisons should be familiar with the academic record of a school and be able to interpret test scores to help parents decide on a school’s quality.