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Data vs. Feeling: What to Look for When Judging Schools

There’s a lot to consider when you’re trying to find the right school for your child. We broke down some of the most important features to look for, as part of our 2019 Parent’s Guide to Public Schools.

Two Perkins Elementary School students read books in a classroom. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Lee este artículo en español aquí.

Friday mornings at Ocean Beach Elementary School are a local happening.

A light breeze blows off the water and early light dusts the courtyard. Parents, students and teachers linger together, chatting. The principal makes a few announcements. A man, whose students haven’t attended the school for years, comes to the center with an acoustic guitar around his neck. He plays the song he plays every Friday, and everyone knows the words.

“Follow the rules if you wanna be cool

Help each other out

Make a good choice with your words and your voice

That’s what catchin’ the wave is about”

“Catchin’ the Wave” is full of cheesy clichés, but their ritual singing contains a simpler and deeper truth: Ocean Beach Elementary is a good school. That starts with the intangible community network that materializes every Friday morning. But it ultimately translates to much more than feel-good social events. In recent years, OB Elementary was ranked one of the top 10 schools in the city for educating disadvantaged student groups.

But without being there, knowing what a good school looks like isn’t easy. For a parent with infinite time, the best advice is to visit every school you’re interested in. Visit it at different times. Watch teachers teach. Feel the vibe.

But what parent has all that spare time? That’s where our schools guide can help. We couldn’t poke our head in every classroom in the county or go to every courtyard on a Friday morning, either. What we can do is provide data on each school.

Data isn’t perfect. This year, we have updated the guide with more indicators to help us get closer to a comprehensive picture of each school. But it’s important to remember you can’t feel something like the Friday mornings at OB Elementary or see a teacher get a whole classroom of kids passionate about a subject from looking at data.

Here’s What to Look For

It really isn’t all about test scores. And that’s because, looked at on their own, test scores sometimes make a school look better or worse than it really is. Here’s why: Students from higher income brackets tend to perform better on tests than students from lower income brackets. If you see a school with great test scores, it may just mean most of the kids there are well-off. They may have had more resources growing up, more exposure to books, more time with parents and other educators. It doesn’t necessarily mean the teachers are great.

Great teachers close the achievement gap between poor and rich students – and they close the achievement gap for students of different races, too. The equity rating we provide will help you understand how well a school is doing dealing with these achievement gaps.

Equity Rating

This is one of the most important factors to consider. It rates a school on how well it is closing the achievement gap. For instance, say a school’s population is 90 percent affluent and 90 percent of its students excel at reading and math. Say the kids who don’t excel are the same ones who come from poorer backgrounds. That school would get a low equity rating, because that school really isn’t doing anything particularly special. It isn’t closing the achievement gap.

The equity rating also takes into account how well a school is educating students who speak English as a second language, or English-language learners in school jargon. That’s a big deal in San Diego County, where roughly 20 percent of the county’s 500,000 students are considered English-language learners.

Test Scores

Sure, they’re worthwhile. Our guide will let you know how each school stacks up against the average. Also, crucially, it tells you if the scores are trending up or down.

Free and Reduced Lunch

This metric is far from perfect. But currently, it is the best data available on how many students within a school are living in poverty. In a perfect world, that data wouldn’t matter. But it does. Schools in very poor communities tend to get new teachers, while experienced teachers transfer away. That high turnover makes it hard to build community and educate children well – which ultimately reinforces the cycle of poverty. That being said, look for schools with high percentages of students who receive free and reduced lunch that also perform well on tests. These are amazing schools.

Ocean Beach Elementary is a great example. Even though 58 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the school still performs well on tests. It has a stable workforce. It’s a diverse and healthy school.

Chronic Absenteeism

Looking at how often students are chronically absent is a great way to understand the school’s vibe and atmosphere. Is it a warm, loving school, where children want to show up every day? If it’s not, high percentages of chronic absenteeism will be a sign.

Look at this metric together with others. For example, if a school has high percentages of poverty, but low chronic absenteeism, it’s a sign that children feel safe and want to be there. If the same school’s test scores are low, but trending upward, it’s likely a school in the process of making good things happen. You should learn more about it.

Special Programs

Interest in dual-language schools is increasing rapidly, and school districts are scrambling to meet demand. If one of those is important to you, obviously, factor it highly into your choice.

There Is So Much More to Consider

Does a school have a great drama or music program? Does it provide afterschool care? Does it have a good soccer team? These would all be signs of a good school. But comprehensive data on this just isn’t available – which is a terrible shame, especially in the case of afterschool care. Going off limited data points to understand whether a school is good will always be imperfect. But they can give you a good baseline to know which schools are worth considering. And in the absence of unlimited time for research, a phone call to the principal will help.

San Diego Schools Guide

This feature is part of our 2019 Parent’s Guide to Public Schools. If you haven’t seen it yet, get your free copy here. It’s available in Spanish, too.

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