Do we just flip a coin?
October 12, 2011 7:14 AM   Subscribe

How do we evaluate public school options in Massachusetts?

I'm ignorant. When looking for a house/community, what do you look at in terms of evaluating public schools? And how hard do you look at that?

What are the hard data points (test scores, etc?) and where do we find them?

How do we balance those data points against each other? What if there are low test scores in the junior high and really high test scores in the elementary school?

What are the soft skills a school might have and how do we evaluate those (like maybe low test scores, but really caring teachers and low turnover rate, or low test scores, but a tremendous arts program)?

What are the 'absolutely nots' of schools, aside from obvious things like rats in the hallways? What should make us categorically reject a school?

Lastly, we're not looking to split hairs -- if one school seems like a B- and one seems like a B+, we will use other criteria than school systems to determine when we live. We're looking for 'this school district is A+ and this school district is a D-'. So where do you draw a line that says 'I'm over-thinking this?' or 'Good enough!'

A note that some of the places we're looking are quite rural--there might be a little co-op school and a little public school plus some other school. School choice is an option in Massachusetts, and we might use it, but for the sake of the question I'd like to pretend it doesn't exist.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Education (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not really very versed in this, and I have a 2.9 year old so the answers to this will be of value to me, but I do think you're wise to ignore school choice because at least in my city (Gloucester), you are supposed to be able to choose Manchester/Essex or Rockport, but the program is capped very low and therefore they won't even take you on a waiting list... so I don't get the point.
posted by kpht at 7:22 AM on October 12, 2011

You can find MCAS data etc. at, but I would definitely encourage you to not use those as your primary/only way of evaluating schools.
posted by thegears at 7:39 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just bought a house (not in Massachusetts) and had a daughter. I didn't worry too much about the schools or the district because I am thoroughly unconvinced that "good schools" matter as much as everyone says.

Certainly there are bad schools. Schools with gang problems. Schools where most of the children have no parental support. Schools where half of fifth graders can't read. As much as I hate to say it -- and you know it's largely true even if you'll scold me for it -- you can pretty much just use "schools in poor neighborhoods" as the criteria here.

Once you get out of that range and you're talking about the difference between "decent" schools and "excellent" schools, I'm not sure what the difference is. I've never once seen a study that links school ratings back to success later on in life, which is really why you send your kid to "good schools" in the first place, right? I work with guys who went to private catholic schools, Philadelphia public schools, whatever sort of elementary schools they have in China, my own fairly run of the mill average California schools, etc. We all have similar well-paying professional jobs now and none of schooling before college seems to have made a difference. I also know plenty of people who went to the *exact same schools* and never got a computer science degree (I use that as an example because of my field, not because it's the only marketable degree) and can't find work. The differentiation here all happened after high school was done with, though.

I honestly think parental income translates a lot more into financially successful kids than schools do. If you make a decent middle-class income, then you're not going to want to live in a poor neighborhood, and as such your kids will go to a middle class school, and be exposed to middle class opportunities.

If you really can't afford not to live in a neighborhood with really bad schools, then that's a different story, but somehow I don't get the impression that this is the case here. Generally, if you've got the option to live in whatever school district you want, you've already made it past that bar.

I think a better question to ask than "what schools are good" is "what do I want my child to get out of his or her schooling? What would encourage that?"

I'll accept any allegations of classism that get thrown at me for this viewpoint, but I'm really trying to be pragmatic.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:45 AM on October 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

Echoing what tylerkaraszewski said. As long as you're not in a poor neighborhood, you'll be fine.
posted by Melismata at 7:50 AM on October 12, 2011

Some people think that spending per student is very important -- you can find that data here:

Mass DoE
posted by Perplexity at 7:51 AM on October 12, 2011

Different schools have different "cultures." Some children are super-adaptable, and have the skills necessary to thrive anywhere. Some kids have quirks that become more significant in one setting than in another. If your kid falls into the latter category, you might want to investigate a bit.
When I've moved -- and it's been rather a lot -- I've gone to the schools to get the "feel" during house-hunting trips. Of course, one partial day visiting a school doesn't tell you everything. But it tells you something. You can also talk to some of the parents during drop-off or pick-up and get a feel for what they think is good about their school. Maybe they'll say, "It's great, it's so strict!" when you value creativity, or vice-versa. This is what people do when choosing elite private schools and IMO there's no reason not to be at least partially selective when choosing public schools as well.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 7:56 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would talk to the district's administrations. Find out if the school is one that teaches rote learning. Here are the facts, not repeat them for the test or if the school teaches critical thinking; here are the facts, now apply them. Learning content knowledge over learning how to think critically is a waste. The entire content knowledge of the world is in your pocket on your "smart phone". Need a number fact? Wolfram Alpha. Need to know who the 22nd resident was? Google. Need to know something else? Bing.

Heck, I know it is a cliche, but the job your kids will have when they grow up probably does not exist right now. So how do you educate that kid for a job or even to interact in the real world? The school needs to teach them to think critically and to know how to take content knowledge and apply them to "wicked" (complex and multi-layered) problems. Are the kids working in teams to understand concepts or are they all working alone?

Will your child do fine no matter what school they attend? Yeah, probably if they are average. Will you give your child a leg up if you can find a school that teaches thinking and not just content knowledge? Yes. The question then becomes, how much of an economic value do you place on that type of school.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:10 AM on October 12, 2011

Best answer: The MCAS is a total boat anchor on the Massachusetts education system. I worked at one of the smallest public schools in the state which had some of the best performance on the 10th grade MCAS. This was due to three reasons:
  1. Every student is required to take a class dedicated to learning how to take the MCAS
  2. When a student appears to be underperforming in 8th grade, the student's parents are strong-armed into putting their child in the vocational school, which has some of the worst MCAS scores in the state (imagine that!)
  3. The parents in the town care about their kids' education
#3 is clearly a distant factor. #1 and #2 are the real reasons. Imagine this - each student in high school spends 1/28 of their high school academic program learning to pass this test.

Good MCAS scores might mean good education, but it is just as likely an indicator of a good MCAS prep program.

IMHO, you are better off looking at the results of the school's most recent accreditation.
posted by plinth at 8:37 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Children of well-educated parents tend to do well in most schools. However, schools in poorer communities tend to emphasize rote learning more than critical thinking, whereas the reverse is true in wealthier communities.

One aspect to consider is diversity. If you want your kids to grow up respecting and appreciating people of other cultures and races the more they're exposed to such people at a young age the better.
posted by mareli at 8:39 AM on October 12, 2011

Examples of soft skills:

My 5 year old goes to Kindergarten at the Kennedy School in Somerville. It's been only a month but here are some highlights so far. Her teacher visited us at home before school started, on a weekend in the summer, and spent two hours playing with my daughter and her little brother, getting to know us, having a snack with us and helping us fill out various forms. In the end she had us take a picture of my daugher and her, both of them smiling broadly. Now school has started, at drop-off each morning the kids line up at the door and the teacher crouches at kid height, greeting each child by name and a handshake. We get an email from her on the weekend listing all the activities planned for the upcoming week, including anything we parents will be asked to provide or do. We feel completely connected to the school.
posted by Dragonness at 8:47 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh one more: a little before school started the teacher organized an ice cream social in the class. All kids and parents were invited to a book reading by the teacher. That was followed by ice cream and playing in the school yard.
posted by Dragonness at 8:51 AM on October 12, 2011

Could not agree more with plinth. MCAS is a throttle on anything the schools can do, so schools must try very hard (read: spend money and the time of dedicated teachers) to do anything beyond simply trying to best their previous MCAS scores. This has contributed to schools' turning their attention to "branding" themselves. In some cases this is a real misuse of attention and funds. In other cases it helps clarify the schools values and focus and what school(s) might be a good fit for your kid.

Asking parents three or, even better, eight years ahead of you in the process can be very enlightening, but that's hard to do in the multitude of neighborhoods you may be thinking of. Some other data to look at beyond MCAS is teacher-student ratio, secondary schools placement (high schools and colleges the kids go on to), etc. Ask parents whose kids struggled with literacy in what grade the school caught on to the fact and what its response was (some schools let this slide a long time, others believe you need to nip it in the bud). You can look at the city's stance on middle schools and how that fits with your idea of schooling. I've heard anecdotally that using spending-per-student as a data point is not great because many MA public schools spend quite a bit on students and still don't have much to show for it. You can also look at trending MCAS data (whether a school is improving or declining in its scores) to get a sense of how they intend to address trends.

There are districts (cities) and schools that have good reputations (you can look at Boston Magazine's rankingsand article). Lexington and Newton are perennial cities that new parents flock to because of school quality.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 9:20 AM on October 12, 2011

Generally the single most powerful factor in student achievement is parental socioeconomic status. You also want your child surrounded by peers who have some focus on academics and achieve well, because there's a living up to/living down to effect on any individual child. Which is to say you want to be in a community that values education, which might be an immigrant community with a heavy focus on their children's education, but more commonly is a middle-class-or-above area.

I am more worried about poor junior highs than poor elementary schools; individual student achievement often falls off a cliff in junior high as they go through puberty, get peer pressured that school isn't cool, branch into subjects, get crushes, and behave like obnoxious twits because it's a rough age. (Also many parents are able to home school for the elementary years if it's that big an issue but it gets beyond them in a junior high curriculum.)

You should visit the schools if you can. I prefer controlled chaos -- students are where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there, and not misbehaving, but are allowed to express their natural boisterousness, especially in the elementary grades. I neither want a school that's a free-for-all nor one that's disciplined to the point of feeling like a prison.

I would also look for a school that still has recess, and ideally one with art, music, sports/PE, etc. Enrichment is important.

Oh, also -- the reading curriculum should ideally have CONTENT, not "stuff specifically written for practicing reading" because a) that shit's dull and kids know it and get bored; b) students need to gain subject-matter knowledge; and c) students score better on reading when they are reading something relevant to their lives. I really like programs that are "across the curriculum" -- reading across the curriculum, math across the curriculum, etc. What that means is that in gym class, the teacher will be consciously having them practice math skills in scorekeeping, or in counting off by different numbers. In science the teacher will consciously push them to use reading strategies when working on an experiment, etc. The idea is that every area is reinforcing every other area and you're using the skills you're gaining all across the curriculum instead of treating it like little separate boxes.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:16 AM on October 12, 2011

Find communities that you want to live in, independent of the schools. Places where you feel that you and your kids will fit in. You could go to a place like Brookline that has the "best" schools and find that you really don't like the culture there even though the school has tons of resources. I agree with tylerkaraszewski -- if you can afford to choose, it's unlikely you'd end up with a terrible school.

Once you narrow it down, many communities have mailing lists, Facebook groups, or some other form of communication for parents of school children. You might also be able to find a PTO website or something similar. That will let you know what the parents think about the school and their level of involvement.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:43 AM on October 12, 2011

Plugging my former employer again - GreatSchools has test scores, parent reviews and location-based options.
posted by bendy at 8:44 PM on October 12, 2011

We moved to Worcester about 7 years ago. At the time, the plan was to get out of town and move to someplace more suburban before our (then unconceived) kids got to school age. The logic was that 'of course you don't want to send your kids to a CITY school'.

Our daughter just started kindergarten. The school for our neighborhood is great. We considered a Catholic school but decided against it. We made our decision by going and talking to the folks at the schools. When your checking out towns, call the school district and ask them if they can talk to you about the system.
posted by neilbert at 12:36 AM on October 14, 2011

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