On Choosing a School (As Schools Are Changing)

  • Co-authored with Becky Schaeffer, Assistant Director of Admissions and Academic Administrator at Waring School

How do I find the right school for my child? In what learning environment will they thrive? New and different models of teaching and learning, while improving schools, are making it harder to place students into the right independent school. With admissions letters right around the corner, it is time to do your research. Schools and the systems within schools are changing arguably faster than ever before. Why? As independent schools feel the market pressure of increased school options (such as charter schools, for-profits, and micro school) and with 2008 not far in the rearview mirror and a recent downturn in our market, there has never been more urgency for each independent school to clearly articulate its own unique value proposition. Now, questions such as “What AP’s or advanced courses does your school offer?” need to be replaced with “How does your academic program prepare students to be flexible, dynamic and persistent problem solvers?” No longer should we think about schools in terms of tiers, believing erroneously that because one school historically was an Ivy feeder that the same school now will prepare students for a changing world, for a changing social and professional landscape. Independent schools, wonderfully so, are being forced to become mission-driven in all that they do, and the result is increased heterogeneity in the independent school market. Because of this, it is imperative that parents, high school placement counsellors and educational consultants do their research. That means not relying on past reputations, and instead focusing on (a) what schools are currently doing and (b) their respective strategic vision.

One of the most important questions that needs to be answered when choosing the right school is: What is your assessment system, and how does your assessment system reflect your mission and academic culture? As many schools and school leaders are (finally) pushing hard, collectively, against traditional grading (the reductive and static 0–100% scale that results in A-F grading), the Mastery Transcript Consortium has galvanized schools, encouraging schools and school leaders to consider what and why we teach and assess. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) has inspired school leaders to ask: what would school look like if it were mission-driven in its teaching, assessment and reporting on students? However, while the MTC has been the catalyst for bringing schools together through an educational movement, what they offer is simply a different version of a transcript. What they offer is a new way of capturing a student’s high school experience. Let’s not undermine this vision: it will allow schools to report on what matters to them, enabling authentic, mission-driven reporting. That being said, it is up to each school to develop what the learning and assessment systems look like inside each respective school.

At the heart of the movement started by the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a fundamental belief that high school students are capable of doing great things. It is time for schools to step up of the way of its students, empowering them to ask their own daring questions and pursue answers with intellectual curiosity and stamina. Inquiry is the most natural way for humans to learn. We know, both from research and experience, that when students have agency in what they learn, the following is true: they are more engaged, the quality of their work is higher, and information and skills are both better retained and more transferrable. One might mistakenly think that student-driven inquiry implies a renouncement of content. Incorrect. Instead, content is the medium through which students are motivated to ask relevant questions. In other words, content is the source for the questions, not the end goal. The questions become the primary focus.

If we want students to learn to ask meaningful questions and pursue them with curiosity and academic rigor, the feedback we provide student must focus on the skills and habits required to do that well. By focusing less on content acquisition and more on skill development, both in terms of the classroom experience as well as the feedback given to students, schools are effectively establishing and executing inquiry-based learning environments. Many schools claim to be student-centered and driven by inquiry, but what does that mean? Advise for the parents and students and educational consultants: Ask the schools what student-centered learning means at the their school in the context of assessment? Because as long as schools continue to assess only content, primarily by means of tests, they will not effectively create a student-driven inquiry environment. The assessment system at schools provides direct insight into school culture.

If you are interested in finding a school with a student-centered learning environment, focus on the assessment systems. Here are some questions you might want to you ask when you visit campus or speak with a school representative.

What are your school’s core-competencies? Many schools have identified a set of skills and habits that are core to student learning across any discipline. These are, as many have described, 21st century skills. Whether it is an English, history, or math class, students receive regular feedback on how they are communicating, thinking critically, and reflecting on their learning. Whether it is in art, science, or world language class, students receive feedback on how they are researching, organizing their work, and collaborating with others. Competencies such as these provide the framework to ensure that learning is inspiring, relevant and meaningful; they also provide an assessment system that allows for student-driven inquiry, thus developing in our students the skills and habits to be nimble and dynamic problem-solvers who thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty. Assessing core competencies shared across disciplines is one way for schools to become mission-driven through their assessment system. As you visit schools, ask them: what are your core competencies, and how do you specifically teach and assess for 21st century skills?

In what ways does your school focus on narrative assessment? The assessment at many schools has taken the form of extensive narrative evaluations, with these written narratives driving a continued conversation between teachers, students and parents about learning and growth. The assessments reflect all of the risk-taking, failure and growth inherent to life experience; in doing so, the assessments capture the school’s mission and values. A graded report card leaves little room for growth and makes the grade the goal. When schools focus instead on narrative feedback, the engagement and learning in the world around us is the goal. Narrative evaluations continue the conversation on how a student is learning in class. They report on class projects — the successful and the unsuccessful — on classroom participation, expression in written and spoken words, leadership, citizenship — and the more standard categories such as timeliness, organization, and development of skills specific to areas of study. These narrative evaluations also further a conversation between teacher and student — they give the students something else to strive for, to look for — another avenue to travel down in their search for knowledge and skill development in any given area. The evaluations are frequently written from teacher directly to student, encouraging them to engage in new ways, to take risks, and even to learn from failure as they do from success. As you visit schools, ask them: in what ways do teachers provide narrative feedback? Maybe even ask them for a few samples of narrative feedback, as they would serve as primary documents that speak to the school culture and values.

Maybe the broadest and most effective question you might ask a school is this: How do students at your school learn to learn? Schools that are student-centered and focused on inquiry develop graduates who are ready to delve deeply into the world around them. Students prioritize the act of learning as its own goal, of engaging with the material — whether it is Homer, the quadratic formula, or mastering a soccer skill — and with the world around them. They learn how to interact with others, including adults — to speak up for themselves and for others, to advocate for themselves and others. The Mastery Transcript is attractive because it attempts to remove the focus from a grade — from a standardization of the student — and to focus on more holistic characteristics of any successful person — citizenship, participation, well-rounded interdisciplinary focus. The Mastery Transcript Consortium has created a movement that supports authentic, student-centered assessment that focuses on the values of each respective school. Given that, as a final question, we recommend that you ask each school: What is your perspective on the Mastery Transcript, and why are you, or are you not, a member?