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Peg Tyre (Photo by Greg Martin)

With more states embracing charters and school choice, the decisions that parents have to make about their children’s education are becoming increasingly complex.

For insight into these decisions, The Hechinger Report recently spoke with journalist Peg Tyre, whose book The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve (Henry Holt & Company, Inc.; 256 pages; $26.00) will be released on August 16th.

How important is the teacher when it comes to an individual child’s education?

There’s a big, vigorous debate about teacher quality going on, but no one really thinks about it from the parent’s point of view. So what does it mean for parents? Teachers are not widgets. And just like every other profession—whether it be dentist, lawyer, doctor, plumber—there are good ones and bad ones. And this seems like “Paging Captain Obvious,” but there’s been this prevailing myth that all teachers are good. Now that discussion has changed. Now there is really good and interesting research that suggests that effective teachers really move the ball forward for kids in terms of academic achievement. They can accelerate the academic growth of children, which is a very important phenomenon, especially when you look at the achievement gap. So there’s this whole debate among policymakers, but what does it mean for parents? It means that you do have to be conscious of the teacher assignments your kids get from year to year. And maybe it pays to be that parent, the squeaky wheel, the one who goes in and asks for the better teacher.

But how do parents identify who the better teachers are going to be?

One of the things I would suggest parents look for is whether or not it is a first-year teacher. A first-year teacher is often very enthusiastic and very energetic, but usually not at the top of their game. So a first-year teacher is not a good sign. Also look out for a teacher who never has had experience teaching this particular curriculum. So if you go to school in September and your child’s fourth-grade teacher was last year’s kindergarten teacher, you need to ask what has prepared them for teaching fourth grade. There should have been steps taken. And the other thing I would say is good schools grow good teachers. Yes, there are teachers who just seem to be fantastic naturally, like gifted athletes. But there are good schools that have programs in place that support excellent teaching. For example, you should look for schools with teaching mentors, schools that have professional development, schools that have meetings where teachers from different departments talk about best practices and best ways to impart the curriculum. Those are all signs that the school really cares and understands what good teaching is.

With the best schools often full and limitations on which schools parents can choose from, is there really that much choice?

That’s changing a great deal as we have the proliferation of charter schools, magnet programs, special-ed programs. I think that people all over the country are going to have more opportunities for choice. There are also parent trigger-type laws being at least discussed in legislatures around the country, and that will certainly open the doors to parents enjoying a different kind of place at the table than they have in the past. And if you don’t have a choice about where to enroll your child, you can at least identify best practices so that you can agitate for improvements in the school your child does have access to.

The process of making good decisions about what school to send your child to seems to be all about parents educating themselves. But many don’t. Is there anything being done reform-wise on this?

A lot of school administrators define “parental engagement” as helping with the bake sale. That’s going to change as schools realize there is an increasing amount of federal control over schools. And I think that there’s going to be a counterbalance of parental involvement—people who say “you know, my child goes to this school, and this is what we want as a community.” So I actually see the role of parents coming more and more to the fore. And I think there are a lot of parents who realize that they can’t really trust the so-called educational professionals anymore, and they’re second guessing them. They want to have more of a say, they want to be more informed about the decisions that are being made on behalf of their child.

I also see some schools with forward-thinking school administrators reaching out to parents in a really interesting way. I know, for instance, that Baltimore public schools have been doing huge outreach efforts to try and engage parents not just around school choice, but around preparing their children for school, around different programs within schools that parents should know about and programs that help their children achieve. I do see some signs that districts are waking up to the roles that strong parental involvement can play.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Davin McHenry is the web editor, responsible for overseeing The Hechinger Report website and supporting technical innovations that enhance the site. He has worked at Hechinger since the site's founding...

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