Where and how to educate your child is one of the most significant decisions you’ll ever make on your child’s behalf. While there is no blueprint for a perfect school, here are tools to help you know what to look for when you tour a school:
Preschools should make learning part of play: Not to put down all-play type play groups — they have their place — but the year before kindergarten, your child should be exposed to plenty of pre-literacy and pre-math skills. That means connecting sounds to letters (“the letter B makes the ‘buh’ sound”), rhyming and clapping out the beats to syllables, plenty of counting, organizing objects by size and understanding the concepts of greater than and less than. Avoid classes that require preschoolers to sit at desks, have worksheets or flashcards. Instead, look for active, interactive activities where academic tasks are masked as fun.
Elementary school reading programs: The bad news is that elementary school teachers are not taught what neuroscientists know: that all children learn to read by connecting sounds to letters and, over time, become adept at sounding out words. No matter what their IQ, about a third of kids learn to do this almost automatically, about a third of kids need substantial exposure to phonics and about a third of kids need explicit systematic instruction in phonics. Make sure your child gets it.
What a good math program looks like: Math skills build on earlier experiences with math. That means you need to start talking about math when your child is a toddler. (Not trigonometry, silly. Count their fingers and toes!) In preschool, that conversation needs to grow and encompass a discussion of numbers. By first grade, children should be learn to solve algorithms fluidly and accurately. Children are not calculators. They need to understand the concept behind the manipulation of numbers. Make sure they get both problem solving and mental math.
The importance of recess: In order to function at our cognitive peak, schools must break up seat time with opportunities for what’s called “gross motor movement.” Activities such as walking, jumping, maintaining balance and reaching are gross motor abilities, which are connected to other physical functions. That’s right: scientists agree that kids need it. Now will someone please tell the school principals?
Why class size matters: Small is better until third grade –- after that, class size can inch up without kids losing ground academically –- as long as the teacher is top notch. If your child is struggling with social or emotional challenges, small class sizes may still be best.
Why test scores don’t mean what you think. Standardized testing can be comforting. They can give us the illusion that we can sum up the whole sprawling messy business of education into a single number. The truth is, though, that standardized tests do nothing of the sort. Standardized tests are a statistical instrument that determine whether a child knows the lower third of the content of the curriculum, nothing more. If a school is teaching to the test they are robbing your child and failing to expose them to the kind of complex material that will allow them to grow as thinkers and learners.
Peg Tyre’s book, “The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve,” was published this month by Henry Holt .