Ten Tips for Picking a Good School

Jay Matthews:

This is the time of year many parents seek advice on how to find a good elementary, middle or high school, public or private, for their children. Usually I send them a Washington Post article I wrote on this subject three years ago. But this is such an important topic to so many families, I decided to update my thoughts. Here are 10 suggestions, in no particular order. As you’ll see in recommendation number 10, your own thoughts and feelings should always be the deciding factor.
1. Buy an expensive house and you can be almost sure that the local school will be good.
This is an admittedly cynical notion, but there is truth in it. Newcomers often say to themselves, “Let’s find a school or school district we like and then find the house.” Yet most school systems in this area are so good, and parental affluence is so closely tied to educational quality, that if you buy a pricey house, the nearest school is almost guaranteed to be what you are looking for.
2. Look at the data.
In my opinion, based on 22 years of visiting schools and looking at data, the two largest school districts in the Washington area, Fairfax and Montgomery counties, are so well run that even their low-income neighborhoods have schools and teachers that compare with the best in the country. I think the same is true for public schools in Arlington, Clarke, Loudoun and Prince William counties, and the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria. (I’m based in Northern Virginia, so I have closer first-hand knowledge of school systems on that side of the Potomac River.) I also think all the D.C. public schools west of Rock Creek Park are as good as those in the suburbs.
My beliefs are influenced by data on how much schools challenge all of their students, even those with average records of achievement, to take college-level courses and tests before they finish high school. I call this the Challenge Index. (For more on the index, see recommendation No. 9 below.) I want to stress that other systems in the area have some fine public schools. Case in point: All four public high schools in Calvert County appear to be pushing students solidly toward college-level work. There are also some good charter schools. But in some places, you have to look more carefully to find them.