Just as you would in choosing a new hire, choosing a job, choosing a boss, or even choosing a mate, knowing how to make an informed assessment is critical. It is the stuff that any coach who works with executives or leadership teams (like me) should be able to do in their sleep, and it’s the type of thing that any layperson should learn and know how to do.
The failure to be able to make informed assessments means you’re going on gut feel alone. And while I think listening to intuition is really important, it helps to have some analytical data to go with it: a little heart AND mind as it were.
The San Francisco kindergarten application tour scene – private and / or public school version – gives people a great chance to hone their assessment skills. While it’s not of the choosing an applicant / choosing a job vein, there are a lot of similarities and if you can master the K-8 assessment stuff you can master most anything. The SF K-8 school scene is timely since it’s in full swing now, and it presents probably the hardest of examples: it’s a sellers market where applicants are cast into the role of sometimes over eager, almost desperate “buyers.” Last, the memories and examples from our experience a couple of years ago are pretty fresh [Disclosure: I serve as a volunteer applicant tour docent for my son’s grade school] and decent fodder from which others might be able to learn.
Here in no particular order are some key elements, with K-8 examples, in assessment. You can get more specific info (and perhaps some mis-info too) at the SF K-Files Blog here.
For assessment learning, you can swap in any other noun (job, boss, etc.) and you get the idea on how to make an informed choice:
Collect consistent comparative data. In an ideal world, apples are being compared to apples. But in the K-8 scramble, conveniently no two schools on the private side, as well as many of the public schools, are alike. So what do you do? Take the comparison down a notch and compare sub-elements to each other. As a couple of examples, compare course offerings (1 foreign language, or are 2 offered? Does the foreign language start at 5th grade, or do they start earlier?) or teacher tenure (do teachers stay at this school, or do you find it’s 3-5 years and out?) as you look between School A and School B.
Do they do what they say they do? Schools, usually of the private variety, appear to want to optimize their recruiting efforts by getting the best class of kids (and their families) that they can. What is “best” varies though: for some schools it may be smarts, for others diversity, family financial capacity, values or a mix of the above and more. From school to school there may be some degree of spin that gets thrown around. It’s helpful to make valid assessments to be clear about what the facts or evidence that supports what someone says.
I remember at one school the Admissions Director repeatedly talked about how engaged the kids were: what I saw in the 9 AM classes as we toured though wasn’t engagement but rather near rigor mortis – the kids weren’t animated but appeared to be comatose with boredom. It was a case of recruiting spin not being consistent with reality.
Can you use proxies? Can you find a benchmark? You frequently don’t know who things will operate at a school until you’re admitted, but I think you can take some proxies as analogues for how you experience is likely to play-out. As an applicant, one of the best analogues you can use is how schools run their admissions process: is it run well (easy to fill out applications, set up tour times, assessments, etc.) or are things hit and miss – people not showing up, messed tour reservations or other signs of unevenness?
While we don’t attend the school, I often suggest that people use Cathedral School for Boys as the benchmark for how to run an admissions process for a private, urban grade school: tours are well organized, the admission process is well designed, admissions staff is responsive and thoughtful, and staff, some students, and parents are accessible and candid about the school and their program.
What’s your personal experience – and what’s the experience of others? While I think it’s important (at least for my family) to know that we’re picking a school for our child first, our family second, observing how you are treated and how others are treated around you. One of the best bits of data you can get is from families who have changed schools for some reason and find out why they made that change. How easy is it for applicants to get in touch directly with current parents, or do you have to go through someone on the admissions staff to make that contact? Are there forums to talk directly with teachers or administrators?
When we were going through our application process I asked a couple of schools if I could talk to their assistant head of lower school to find out how they thought about families like ours – nontraditional, multi-ethnic adoptive families. One school promptly wrote back and offered to set up a meeting with not only the lower head, but the upper school head as well at our earliest convenience. The other school wrote back several days later and said “It is not customary to meet with the Lower School Head during this process” and suggested we attend one of their affinity group meetings – and then apparently phoned our preschool director to ask if we were a “high maintenance” family.
What that data point told me was that “parent-school” partnership was not part of that school’s offering, and probably not a good choice for our family.
What do schools say about other schools? It’s always interesting to see what schools will say about themselves in comparison to others. Not unlike my experience with organizations and individuals, the stronger and more solid you are, the more you invite inquiry and examination into yourself and the less you talk or point fingers at others. Good schools invite investigation: they encourage it, invite you to get to know them well, and make it easy to do so.
So what do schools say about each other? I know of one co-ed school head who took public potshots regarding single sex schools during our school tours: the fact that it happened suggests someone felt they were on shaky ground.
Cut to the chase: making informed decisions is tough, particularly in a seller’s market. It helps to be clear about the information you have, and clear about the information you’d like to have before you set your heart on any one choice.