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As a former educational researcher, Norris is often appalled by the information that home buyers use in evaluating schools and how they use it. He promotes these few rules of thumb:
  • Rule One: Don't rely on real estate agents or other parents. In a previous lifetime, I did research in several primary schools in the school district where my children were enrolled. The research involved videotaping full days of interaction between teachers and students and interviewing the teachers about what they were trying to accomplish. I was struck by the lack of correspondence between what was "known" in the community about these schools and teachers and what I was seeing in the classroom. When I asked parents about their often very strong opinions of various teachers (what they were like, how they taught, and how they got along with the students), I was stunned to learn that their "knowledge" of their local schools was based primarily on random comments from their 7-year-old -- or their neighbor's 7-year-old. Because schools are so important to parents -- and because they generally know almost nothing about what happens there -- they will grasp at the flimsiest pieces of information and build very strong opinions on them. Take everything you hear on the street with a truckload of salt.
  • Rule Two: It’s best to rely on educational statistics, because that's the only real information you're going to get. Don't rely on them because they'll tell you which school is best for your child. They won't. Most of what is most important in education is not measured by educational statistics. They won't measure whether your child will be inspired to excel or trained to think critically by her teachers. They will, however, tell you whether most of the kids in her school learn to do basic math or read well and take tests. They will also tell you whether the kids in her school learn enough to do well on the standard tests used in college admissions. That's worth something.
  • Rule Three: Don't imagine that school performance is created solely in the school. One of the few things that educational researchers agree on is that there is a very tight correlation between the educational background of the parents and how a child performs in school. Pick a neighborhood where most of the parents have college degrees and you'll find a school where the students perform better than their peers nationally. Pick a school in a more diverse neighborhood and you'll find a school where test scores are more like the national average. If the district has advanced placement courses for your child when they reach high school, your child can probably get an excellent education in a school with average test scores. In the real world, when you're choosing between schools with extremely high test scores and average ones, you're really making a choice between exposing your child to a school where most of the students' parents have college degrees and a school that is more diverse economically and socially. That's a decision that is important to lots of parents, and a decision that school test scores and demographic data can rationalize.