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What Makes A School Good: Not The Finger Painting

by NPR Staff
Aug 25, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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Peg Tyre is an award-winning education journalist and the author of New York Times best-seller The Trouble With Boys.

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You've made it through those first years, through myriad decisions: breast feeding or bottle? Mounted safety gate or removable? Overpriced organic or pesticide-grown strawberries? But just when you're ready to look at your baby and say, "Job done!" you're faced with the most challenging problem of all: How to get him or her best education you can.

It wasn't always this way.

"There was a time when you could enroll your child in kindergarten and about 13 years sit on one of those folding chairs and dab your eyes as they graduated from high school," education journalist Peg Tyre tells Laura Sullivan, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.

"A lot more is required of parents now," says Tyre, author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve.

How Important Is Finger Painting?

These days the tough decision of where to send your kid to school starts early. You have to choose a preschool when your child might only be three or four years old. When you go on a preschool tour, Tyre says, don't judge the place just by the finger paintings decorating the hallways.

"You want to look at the relationship between teacher and student," she says. "What you want to see is teachers who have a lot of respect for kids, who seem to know their strengths and weaknesses.

"Those are the kinds of rich relationships you want to see because early teacher-student relationships are very significant for your child."

All Teachers Are Not Good Teachers

There's a myth Tyre wants says has to end - that ALL teachers are good teachers and can be moved around from classroom to classroom like widgets.

"That's just not true," she says. "One of the things I would say is a teacher who is in their first year is not a wonderful sign for an effective instructor for your child.

"They tend to be passionate, enthusiastic, they have a lot of energy, but research tells us that they are not that effective in that first year."

So what do you do if your child is placed in a classroom with an inexperienced teacher? Don't march straight to the principal's office and demand a switch, Tyre says.

"You can go to the principal and you can ask this question: [...] What are you doing to support that teacher this year so that my child moves forward this year and is not just a guinea pig for your first-year teacher?"

The Class-Size Question

Many parents know when they tour a school to ask about class size. But Tyre says the research doesn't suggest that a smaller class size is a must.

"When you look at the really substantive research on class size, class size is very significant from kindergarten to third grade. ... After third grade there's less of an impact on academic outcome," she says.

So while it might be worth it in the first few years to seek out a small class for your child, at a certain point her academic success doesn't depend on how many kids she shares a room with, Tyre says.

Back-To-School Guidance

As millions of kids begin the school year this month, Tyre says you need to look for "a very well-thought out curriculum around reading, around math. You want teachers who are bringing those subjects in at all grades.

"You want teachers who are experienced, and if not experienced then well-mentored during the school day so that they're not learning to be teachers to the detriment of your child."

Lastly, you want a good balance between seat time and recess.

"That's very important that children get downtime and free play as well as direct instruction," Tyre says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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