This article was written for publication in the Register, the official newspaper for the diocese of Nashville.
The Tennessean recently ran a story chronicling a kind of "arms race" between 3 private schools in Nashville to out-spend each other building extraordinary high school athletic facilities. Not coincidentally, they each have excellent football teams.
Though having a winning team is fun, in our more sober moments, we know that it pales in importance to teaching, learning and passing on the faith to our children. Yet because so many schools hire professional advertising firms to select just the right images and statistics to sell the school, it’s often easier to pick out a good team than a good school—we need only read the sports pages!
How do we sift our way through the slick ads and the hype to pick the right academic program for our children? Having spent the last 20 years as a high school "head", I'd like to offer a series of "insider" questions that may help.
High schools brag about their "Merit" or "Commended" scholars as a way of conveying an "elite" academic program. We all do it, because we're regarded with suspicion if we don't, but it doesn't tell you much. Merit scholars are chosen by performance on the PSAT test, which measures reading comprehension and math reasoning abilities based on simple algebra and geometry. It's an "ability" test--how well a student uses basic knowledge to solve unique problems--rather than one that measures "achievement"--how well a student has met the goals of an advanced curriculum. A much better measure of a school's top program are A.P. test results, which track how well students do in advanced subject areas like Physics and Calculus and thus reflect the quality of teaching and learning. Even merit finalists can't get 4's and 5's on A.P. Calculus exams unless Calculus is well taught! If you're a parent of a gifted student, you'll want to ask: How many A.P. classes are offered? How many A.P. classes do the best students take over their career? Which classes score the highest? The lowest? How many students were honored as "AP Scholars", "AP Scholars with Honors", "AP Scholars with Distinction" and "National AP Scholars" by the College Board last year? Since some schools urge only their best A.P. students to actually take the tests, thus inflating their "passing" percentages (3+), ask instead 'What percent of students enrolled in A.P. courses, pass the exam'?
Ask, too, about ACT results. ACT scores are more telling than SAT scores because in the south, only the top students typically take the SAT tests, inflating school averages, whereas almost everybody takes the ACT. But ACT data can also be misused. Because some high schools educate students with varying abilities, comparing their average ACT score with a school that excludes weaker students is invalid. Instead, ask ‘What is the average ACT score for the top quartile and top decile of students?’ as a way of comparing apples to apples. And if I am a parent of a child who struggles, I'd like to know the average ACT scores of the bottom two quartiles. Would my child be able to attend a state university with those scores?
Core requirements (4 years of English, Science, etc.) will be roughly similar, but ask about the number of foreign language and fine arts requirements (more is better). Also, into how many “ability tracks" does a school tier its student body? Though some educators will disagree with me, less is better--ideally, an honors track and a general track for all but those with severe learning disabilities. More tiers mean that schools place their weaker students in remedial classes which often become dreary, self-fulfilling prophecies, asking too little. Let them reach! If their grades suffer a bit, that's OK, because colleges value ACT results more so than grades--grades have become too inflated and vary too much between schools to compare students reliably. It's better for our children to stretch with lesser grades and higher ACT's than to cruise without challenge! The key is: Does the school provide the extra aid necessary to help a weaker student stretch? Are teachers available before or after school to tutor students? Often the difference between students isn't what they can learn, but how quickly they can learn it. Giving less able students a legitimate French II course, if learned at a slower pace, with extra help, is much better than never requiring them to take French II.
If I were meeting with the administration, I'd ask them about innovative programs and new initiatives as a quick window into their creativity and energy. Ask them what their weakest curricular areas are, how these are diagnosed and what they're doing to address the them. All schools have weaknesses if they're honest; what you want to know is how pro-active a school is about diagnosing and remedying. Ask principals about their long term goals for the school. Be wary of the language of powerlessness too common in education today, such as "We'd do more if we had more money", or "our hands are tied by..." etc. I'd ask if I could observe hallways at the end of a school day to gauge how well students and teachers interact with each other and to get a feel for the milieu of the school (often disguised in school brochures). While there, ask a few random students what they like and dislike about the school. They don’t read the school brochures, and you're likely to get some unfiltered, honest answers!
National research has shown that children who attend Catholic high schools for 3+ years are half as likely to convert to another faith as adults, almost half as likely to drop all religious affiliation, are likelier to have a prayer life as adults, are likelier to identify themselves as "highly committed Catholics" and are likelier to regard their faith as "among the most important parts of their lives" (Gautier, 2005). Those statistics ought to matter to us as Catholic parents! However, what is true nationally may not be borne out by any particular Catholic school. How often does it celebrate Mass together? How pervasive is prayer? What are the credentials of the religion teachers? How seriously does the school treat religion as an academic subject? What are the school's service requirements, if any? How prominent are religious symbols and Scripture in the school? These are the things that make a long term difference.
I hope I've been helpful.