The Good School -- How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve

Book Review: The Good School, How Smart Parents Get their Kids the Education They Deserve. Peg Tyre, Holt, Henry & Company, Inc., Published Sept. 16, 2011

Review by Jeanne Allen, CER President

I have often said — normally out of frustration — that someday I am going to start a new national advocacy effort to get parents to talk to their children. The idea first occurred to me on a Washington, DC metro ride. I sat across from a parent with her little boy, who was no more than 5, and watched — first with curiosity, and then increasingly with concern — as the clearly inattentive parent ignored the questions of her bright, intuitive child who was peppering her with questions about his surroundings and how to say words he was clearly trying to read. She never answered, never focused, and as I watched with increasing horror and concern, the boy eventually stopped and looked dejected. I’ve seen this too many times to count.

I quipped, to my family, many of those times that I wanted to print and distribute small business size cards in the event of similar situations in the future, saying “Talk to your child - it will help him learn!”

Fifteen years later I’m still talking about it. Peg Tyre, meanwhile, has put words into action, and not just about the scientific value of words and engagement with children, but the value of knowing and influencing what it is education can be as your child moves into schooling at all levels.
In her incredibly brilliant and clearly written book, Tyre informs and leads us about how we can gauge and obtain “the good school” for our children. She reinforces a truism that is often lost in the intimidating world of schooling — that smart parents know how to get the best school for their kids — and oh, by the way we can all be smart!

It is her discussion on finding and choosing the best preschool that got me thinking about my fantasy of instructing parents who don’t speak to their kids. Peg reminds us of the research that connects speaking to learning in children. It’s astounding to think how different a child’s life can be if they have communication (communication that today is interrupted by technology, and crack-berries that reduces the talking and responsiveness of even the most attentive parents). She writes: “Your child’s first teacher is going to have to be one of those highly tolerant and relentlessly positive people who can be kind to your child on the days when it is sunny and your child is laughing and ready to learn, and on stormy days, too, when your young scholar is upset, overtired, and cranky.

“The teacher or teachers in a good preschool classroom also need to talk a great deal and to talk very clearly.” A child’s cognitive development is highly dependent on the spoken word, according to the research, from the earliest years.

Indeed, one wonders if the increase in attention deficit might be partially owing to our own attention deficits and sporadic communication behaviors! Later in the book when she introduces the subject of exercise during the school day, it can’t be lost on readers that movement is essential to the focused mind. Good schools have days that incorporate both academic substance and physical time-outs.

Hardly a book about social issues, however, the real grist of The Good School starts with the best description for the lay person I’ve ever read about how and what test results really mean, which is a feat unto itself. It debunks the commonly held mythology surrounding how tests are developed, scored and what the results actually mean, from within the nation to international comparisons.

Peg undcovers the meaning behind state testing results as she instructs parents how to really know how schools are up to the task. From whether and how much class size should play a factor, to assessing quality of instruction, one needn’t know much about educational research to be a smart parent, if they know what to look for, what to ask. (hint: Good teachers trump just about every other factor most of us are led to believe matters).

We revisit — but not without a fresh and scientific perspective — how reading and math are taught, and what the differences mean for students, parents and schools. In the search for The Good School, parents must become educated enough to know how to assess whether your child’s reading program has sound/letter recognition or whether that big book with all the pictures and looking very professional might just be a little light on intelligence, heavy on looks. Teaching reading is rocket science, she concludes, and it’s a science that every parent has to appreciate to make sure it gets done right for their student.

Several parent stories give life to the issues surrounding materials and curriculum. We meet highly energized parents who were completely in the dark about why and how much their child was falling behind in school. We see well educated parents grapple with uninformed school personnel in Vermont; Scientists who trusted in their school’s ability be shocked by what they find lacking in basic math instruction in the most elite of public schools. Being good at math isn’t supposed to be fun, as many schools think it should be. It takes hard work, and that’s the difference between why even the best American schools lag behind those in less sophisticated countries.

We read ‘what works’ in all kinds of schools, and why no one kind of school is the right answer. With facts, data and stories you can relate to and multiple and balanced sources, Peg Tyre takes us to school — which you will thoroughly enjoy while there, and will hope to revisit when it’s over. Tyre implores us to be choosy. And, in the words of one couple she interviewed, “the lesson other people might want to learn is that there are rules and laws and that parents have significant rights to be engaged and have an impact.”

The Good School not only helps the uninformed understand the system better, but makes you a good citizen by teaching you what the fuss is all about and why so many want do make so much change so quickly. The psychologist of a mobile health unit in Milwaukee tells Tyre, “Why do I care about reading instruction? I’ll tell you why. I’ve seen children crying, threatening to hurt themselves and threatening to hurt others….they feel shame. They feel stupid. They know their life will never get better until they learn to read. Often parents are assuming the school will teach those children how to read. But when I go to the school, I talk to teachers who simply don’t know how to do it.

The Good School inspires you to act and understand, two things rare in even the best education tomes.

I’ve spent a career offering “How Tos” for citizens and parents in all walks of life. It’s no secret I’m a rabid fan of school choice and accountability as the only levers that will kick the education system into gear. Peg’s take on one form of choice — charter schools — is even with her view on all schools — you need to do your homework to find out if the right teachers are there, if the curriculum is robust, if the standards are in place, if there is time in the day for kids to be kids and if there is constant review and assessment by and for adults. “The good school” has great teachers (eg. masters of their craft and content area), great programs (with depth and scientific grounding) and is constantly assessing how it does. Can that happen in all schools? Well, it depends if the school has the leadership and the operational flexibility to make it happen. The fact is, most systems don’t hire the best and brightest because rules prevent that from happening and they don’t explore new materials and innovations because they take what they do from the hierarchy that creates the rules and sets up the programs without really knowing how to see whether they work or not.

Some parents we have met — and others you will meet in this book — have succeeded despite the obstacles. Their successes require time that many parents don’t have or can’t afford the wait to have their child be exposed to the good education in the goodschool. So how to be a smart parent often depends upon whether you have choices. That’s not what The Good school is about, and opponents of school choice would find this book no less worthy because of the reasons stated above. That said, Peg, like a growing cadre of journalists, recognizes that we live in an age of choosey people, questioning authority and relying on instant technologies to get them the answers so they can move on with their pursuits. And choice in myriad forms is here to stay.

The purpose of this book is key — to help you recognize that, just because the realtors or the neighbors or folklore says so, even your great school isn’t necessarily that good.So, do the work you need to do before you find your child is not surrounded by excellent teachers, getting a solid foundation, a well-rounded environment and an enthusiastic, energetic confidence in learning.

Oh, and don’t forget that talking with your child — and knowing how critical it is that he have such communication from the early years until graduation — is critical to his success.

Evaluating Your Child's School: Questions to ask

How well does your child's school perform?
How does your child's school perform relative to other schools in the state and across the country? How does your child score relative to her peers? How many of your child's classmates will go to college? How many will drop out?

How does your child's school spend money?
How much does your district spend per pupil? How does that compare to other nearby districts? What portion of the school budget is spent on administration and overhead? What is the teacher to administrator ratio? How do their salaries compare?

What are the policies and programs at your child's school?
Who can teach your children? Must all teachers be experts in the subjects they teach? What type of curriculum is taught at your child's school? How is this curriculum chosen? What courses must your child take?

Do parents in your district have a choice?
Can you send your child to a charter school, magnet school, or another traditional public school in the district or state? How successful are these other programs? Are parents of children in these programs satisfied with their school?

Do you and your child feel comfortable at your child's school?
Do you feel comfortable communicating with your child's teachers and principal? Do you feel that your input and opinions about your child's learning are valued? Is your child excited about learning, engaged in the classroom and pleased with her progress? Are you?

As a parent, you have a right to ask these questions. Don't be afraid to speak up and get the answers you deserve.

Homework: How to help your school get it right

There is no doubt about it, homework plays a vital role in your child's education. It's critical that you stay involved and informed. Here are some things parents should expect from the teachers:

The right amount of homework should be assigned. Research suggests students should get about 10 minutes of homework each night for each grade (10 minutes for 1st grade, 20 for 2nd, and so on). Teachers should adjust upward a bit if assignments are mostly reading or your students come from families with strong educational orientations. Don't overload kids with homework. It can ruin motivation.

Teachers need to keep parents informed of the purpose of homework and the class rules. If communication is clear, homework is an important bridge between schools and families. If communication is lacking, homework creates tensions that are hard to resolve.

Teachers should vary the types of homework. Homework is a great way for kids to practice things that are learned by rote (spelling, math facts, foreign language). It is also a great way to show kids how the things they learn in school can apply to things they enjoy at home (calculating batting averages and reading the back of a cereal box, for example). Mix it up.

Teachers need to be careful about parental involvement in homework. If students can't complete their assignments without their parents, then something is wrong. Consider the time and skill resources of parents when requiring their involvement. Working parents may have little time for a direct homework role. Poorly-educated parents may have trouble being good mentors. Students who are doing well in school may benefit most from homework they do all by themselves.
Never give homework as punishment. It implies you think schoolwork is aversive. Kids will pick this up.

Parents need to take charge of what students get assigned. If you find that any one of the above points are not being considered in your child's classroom you need to take the issue to a higher level with your school's leaders and other parents. Here are some ideas:
1. Communicate clearly, calmly and forcefully about what your issues are with homework, first to teachers, then to principals. If you are involved in more than one "family" homework session a marking period, it's too much. Let them know you know homework is important, but let them know you want to help them work out the right balance.

2. Ask them about the connection between various assignments you consider overload and the work they are expected to master. Maybe they haven't seen the disconnect themselves. They are busier than in our day, and a parent's perspective can help.

3. Point out the burden that project-based homework assignments impose on families. Arranging meetings during the week and running errands to find supplies might encourage cooperation, but they suck the life out of families that need time to themselves and may bring little benefit in terms of student achievement.

4. Ask for the subject of homework to be explored, in detail, at internal professional development and teacher training sessions. They should discuss how prevalent the issue is and be encouraged to come up with some changes that help students do better and families stay healthier.

5. Bring up the subject at a home-school association or a parent teacher organization meeting.