Category Archives: Choose a School

Tour de Choice: 6 Tips for School Tours, by Megan Freedman

tour de choice

It’s time to look at some schools for your kid! You may already be convinced that you should go on some school tours, and now the question is, which ones? I toured 11 schools, but I could have done well with maybe half as many tours.

Here are few things to consider as you make your list of prospective school tours.

1) Location

Where do you live? And where do you or your co-parent work? Proximity to school doesn’t just matter for daily drop-off and pick-up. You’ll have to go to your child’s school for field trips, book sales, volunteering in the classroom, holiday lunches, picking up someone early because they threw up, etc. My husband and I aren’t particularly big joiners, but we probably make an extra four or five trips to school per month (in addition to pick-up and drop-off). It really helps your life for the drive to and from school to be short and easy. Our drive is five minutes, the walk is about 15, and that works well for us. You might want to take a map, draw a feasible circle of distance around your house, around your/your co-parent’s office, and then look at schools within those circles.

2) Future location

Are you feeling pretty set living and working where you are—or do you plan to change that in the next few years? Think pretty hard about that now. If you’re more than 75% sure that your home or office will move, it could make a big difference in your school commute time. For reasons why this is important, see #1 above.

3)     Public vs. private

Are you interested in just private schools, just public schools, or both? We were open to considering both, and if you are too, take a moment to explore your feelings about paying for education, because tuition is not nothing. Do you feel that you want to give your child the best your money will buy? Do you want to support the public school system and be an engaged parent who will help improve the system? Will you have one, two, three, or more kids who may be going to school at the same time? Do you need to weigh other costs (for example, vacations, ski passes, summer camps) against educational expenses? If you’re not sure (as we weren’t), be sure to tour both private and public schools. What you see and learn there about what they offer and at what cost will give you great perspective.

4) What type of education does your child need?

This was a hard one for us. For our kindergartener, we had very little idea what kind of a learner he was.  There are traditional schools, gifted schools, foreign language ones, religious schools, schools that focus on the environment or “expeditionary learning,” and more. You can pay a consultant to give your child tests and write up how he or she thinks your child learns and what school type will fit best. A few of my friends did that, and it was very influential on their school choice. Delve into the school’s particular flavor and see if it fits with what you know about your child. If a certain type of school really resonates, that’s fantastic—go to see that school. If nothing jumps out at you, your child might do well at many types of schools.  If you’re like me, you may still feel unsure what type of education your kids need. But realize that you may not know for sure until you see your kids in action (and their reaction) in a real school. Then, if you need to make a change, cross that bridge when you get to it.

5) School popularity

For some public schools, if you’re not within their boundary, you have a very small chance of getting a spot. For some private schools, you almost have to be an alumnus to get a spot. If you’re pressed for time and could take it or leave it, call the school’s office to ask about admissions statistics before you tour. On the other hand, you may want to visit these in-demand schools to see what the fuss is about. I remember touring a couple schools that were supposedly impossible to get into and feeling like, well their floors aren’t paved with gold and Harvard diplomas after all. Or you may tour one and realize you want to throw everything you have into getting in, such as moving within their boundary or starting to work the admissions process. The sooner you take a tour and know this, the better.

6) Where do your friends’ and neighbors’ kids go

I hesitate to bring this up, because most people think about this anyway, and maybe even overly rely on friends’ opinions about what the “best” schools are. And I really think most people (myself included) feel a natural instinct to defend their choices. Who really wants to say “I haven’t felt right about my kids’ school, but it seems like too much work to move them?” So you can’t totally take what people say about their kids’ schools at face value, especially if they’re not close friends who you can be really real with.

That said, where your child goes to school will play a big part in who her friends are, which extra-curriculars she picks, who you’ll be interacting with at school drop-off, activities, play dates, and fundraisers for the next several years—and even where she goes for middle and high school. If you respect and like certain people, and they’ve chosen a certain school, it’s worth adding to your tour list.

Meg FreedmanMegan Freedman is a freelance writer and researcher, with a special focus on medical and wellness topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and three children


The Opportunity in School Choice, by Miranda Stout

Jayden & Marley

Miranda’s children, Jayden and Marley

School choice was a foreign language to my husband and me when our oldest child started school. When our daughter started school, we thought she would just go to the school in our neighborhood and that was it: a choice due to convenience.

Our daughter did not enroll in early childhood education (ECE) because I was unaware of the process it took to enroll, and by the time I knew what to do, I was too late to get her into a program. We thought nothing of it because neither of us had ECE growing up. We both started school in kindergarten, so we did not think it would be an issue. But as a new kindergartener, our poor daughter brought home homework, and she was clueless on what to do with it. Every night was a struggle to get it done. We tried different techniques to help her understand but we were having a really hard time. After all, this whole thing was new for us too.

We were later told by her teacher that she thought our daughter might have a learning disability. We were very concerned and rushed to the school to get an intervention plan in place to make learning a little bit easier for her. We were up for anything to help her. So, she started the intervention and it seemed to be going well. We had not heard anything about her progress. We could tell she was starting to understand some of the basics when it came to doing her homework, but we knew it was difficult for her. To our dismay, when we got her report card, we were told we needed to hold her back. We were okay with that but were crushed that we had not been filled in on throughout the process of the intervention.

One day when I was at work, I received a call about a new charter school that was opening in our area with busing and all the tools we would need to switch schools. My husband and I were not familiar with what a charter school was. So, we did some research and learned this would be a great opportunity, and we were thrilled to find that this was an option for us.

From the beginning of our experience with a charter school as an option, we were welcomed into what we like to refer to as the Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) Family with open arms. Our first interaction with the school was a t-shirt that read “Elevation: Graduation” to thank us for being one of the first families to get our school choice forms in. We also participated in a playdate in the park with future RMP families. We attended orientation and loved the concept of this school and the core values. We were even invited to have lunch with the teachers before school started to express our fears. All of our concerns were addressed.

We decided not to hold our daughter back, and our son started ECE as one of the youngest in the school. I have to say this has been an amazing experience for us, and our kids really care about the education they are getting. Most importantly, our daughter is not ashamed when she struggles. This school has given us tools to help our kids at home, so when they are having issues, we know how to help them. From the beginning we have been informed and welcomed to be a part of their success. Our daughter is far from learning disabled and is actually one of the top readers and writers in her class. When she started, her confidence was not there and she lacked self -esteem. Now two years later, she is persevering and is proud of her accomplishments.

School choice made the opportunity for our kids to attend Rocky Mountain Prep happen. We could not be happier with the experience we are having and we know if we did not have a choice of where our kids attend school we might not be so happy. We know this because we gave another school a chance and the experience was not so pleasant. Having the choice has empowered us as parents to make sure our kids get the best education possible, and we have gotten to be part of it every step of the way.



Confessions of a School Shopaholic, by Megan Freedman

Meg FreedmanMegan Freedman is a freelance writer and researcher, with a special focus on medical and wellness topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and three children.

A few years ago, back when my kids were barely walking and talking, a mom on the playground told me that she’d toured 20 schools to figure out where to send her son to kindergarten. What a type-A turbo mom with too much time on her hands, I probably I thought.

Fast-forward a few years, and I found my own type-A turbo self-slogging through 11 schools tours for kindergarten. Fewer than 20, but still so many. At the time, like any parent, I had a few other things going on. I had a breastfeeding infant in addition to a three- and five-year-old, and I was wading through an intense grad school semester and working part-time. So it wasn’t wildly easy to dig up the time and effort to tour so many kindergartens.

I wouldn’t, however, take back a minute of the time we spent touring schools. For several reasons. First, we have a unique opportunity in our choice system in Denver, and I felt lucky to explore. My friends living around the country don’t have this flexibility to choose. We are also fortunate that Denver has a large variety of schools. The city’s neighborhood schools provide deep connections to the community (and in many cases a conveniently short school commute). Then, dotted around town, you also have charter and innovation schools ranging from expeditionary learning, to environmental change, to foreign language fluency, to gifted education. And they’re all about the same price (i.e, free!). Not to mention the area is also home to a really wonderful range of private schools from more affordable parochial to luxe “day” schools.

At this point, you may be thinking – our neighborhood school is great, so why bother shopping around? And I’d respond – even if every other school you tour outside your neighborhood ends up not being even close to a fit for you and your family, the impressions you gather will cement your decision to go to your neighborhood school. All the school tours I’ve taken have helped remove lots of doubts about fit. Likewise, it helps so much if your family feels at home at your kids’ school, and the context of the alternatives will provide clarity around that.

OR at this point, you may be thinking – I’ve heard the best public schools are impossible to get into, so why would I bother shopping around? And from what I experienced, that’s completely fair. My kids didn’t get any of the schools I listed on my choice forms above our neighborhood school, and very few of my friends’ kids did either. However, one thing that’s also true is, you can’t win if you don’t play. If you’re not fully invested in going to your neighborhood school, you do absolutely have a chance to win the (school choice) lottery.

When talking to parents with older kids, I realize that another reason to shop around is to know your options when life, inevitably, changes. Your perspective on what your child needs (how she learns, what types of peers she jibes with, what type of extra help she needs, etc.) may evolve as she progresses through the grades. You may have more kids (or already have them) who turn out to be far different from their older siblings in terms of the type of school that works for them. You may decide to move a little closer to where you work. You may at first choose private school and find it’s too much of a financial strain. Knowing about a range of school options can set you up for riding changes with a little more insight and ease.  Instead of thinking – we don’t like our current school, but we’re stuck, you might think – we don’t like our current school, but I remember from a tour I took a couple of years ago that that other school offered different options in terms of x, y, and z.

And finally, school tours are a great opportunity to connect with other parents. People I met on tours (along with long-standing friends) gave me invaluable insights and perspectives on the choice of public vs. private school, neighborhood vs. charter school, K-8 vs. K-5, etc. There are parents like you out there who have been in your shoes and can speak from experience, and explain something in terms you understand. They may have inside information from a friend whose kids went to x school, or who just transferred out of y school. And you may only encounter some of those people on school tours.

You don’t need to be type-A turbo-parent and tour 20 schools, or even 10. But three to five school tours will only take up a few hours of your life—and perhaps save you years of being in a school that’s not the right fit for your family.

After school choice, the real work begins, by Tara Manthey

Tara Manthey and kidsIn our modern school choice system, you can choose your child’s school, but you can’t choose the parents at that school. I’m lucky to have won “the lottery” with both.

Last school year my child joined the founding crew of Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a Denver Public Schools charter school. Early in the summer I volunteered to join a parent focus group exploring how to start a parent-led effort to support the school, students and families. A year later, I’m the president of the DDES Family Council, an exciting organization that raised more than $30,000, set up afterschool enrichment programs, coordinated community-building events, set up communications channels and organized a network of parents to volunteer in classrooms and throughout the school.

This year of “forming, storming and norming” was one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I’ve experienced outside of becoming a parent. Our first meeting included more than 100 enthusiastic parents ready to get started. Coordinating these groups of strangers, without any established procedures or systems, was a new experience for me. But when everything worked—when we started an afterschool class, made a profit, published a directory, hosted a fun event—it was exhilarating. I learned a lot about navigating personalities, directing enthusiasm and knowing when to say “no” to good intentions in order to keep the group moving forward on the core projects to which we’d committed time and energy.

At the end of the year, we measured our success by the activity bus we bought for the school, the enrichment opportunities we enabled, and the systems we created for communication and organizing. But most importantly, we were successful because we came together amid chaos, confusion and competing priorities to create a community where there wasn’t one.

I think one of the biggest achievements of our first year was our collective recognition that everyone was working with the best of intentions. Mistakes were made, opportunities were missed. But like our students, we shared a “culture of revision” that made it possible to learn from our mistakes and move ahead.

Most importantly, parents at our school believe they are fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of this amazing school. With that blessing comes the obligation to make the most of it, and that is done by being involved in whatever way each of us are able.

We are crew, not passengers.


Guest Post: Key Partnerships Make DPS Stronger

Nate EasleyBy Nate Easley, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Denver Scholarship Foundation

Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Jan. 23 that DPS graduation rates have risen by 23 percent over the last six years. I’m not surprised to see this continual gain in graduation rates. DPS is now the fastest-growing urban school district in the nation because the secret is out. The measures DPS has taken to improve education and college readiness for its students are working.

One of DPS’s strengths is its community. DPS relies, in part, on community partnerships to enhance opportunity for students with additional resources and tools designed to keep students on a path to graduation and to college.

For many DPS students the path to college seems impossible. But, DPS has a key partnership with the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) that provides high school students with one-on-one support to help them achieve their college goals. This partnership is highlighted by DSF’s innovative college access program that supports DPS students as they prepare for and enroll in college.

DSF College Advisors, who are experts in college application and financial processes, serve as valuable resources and mentors for students. They work right inside the high schools, operating Future Centers at 16 different DPS high schools.

DSF College Advisors help students research and define their college and career plans. This includes help finding scholarships, applying for financial aid, and refining their college search. This partnership is part of what makes DPS great.  DPS realizes that it takes a community to help students find success.

Since DSF was founded, college enrollment among DPS graduates has increased by 30 percent. Still, there are too many students who do not know or believe in their own ability to learn and contribute to our community. DSF and DPS are working together to create an environment where these beliefs are defeated – an environment where every student is expected to do well in school, go on to college and become a successful, contributing member of our community.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But, DPS has a distinct advantage because of its partnership with DSF. Recently, Gov. Hickenlooper announced a statewide college completion initiative – Colorado Challenge – that aims to tackle college enrollment and completion. DSF is a proud partner in this effort because of our successful track record providing our students with the support they need to successful graduate from college.

Students who enroll in DPS should know that they are joining a community with great forward momentum. Graduation rates are increasing and college enrollment is up. What’s more, DPS graduates have exclusive access to one of the state’s best college completion resources – the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Nate Easley was appointed as DSF’s executive director on March 1 2013. Prior to his appointment, Easley served as Deputy Director of DSF since 2008, overseeing dramatic growth in the organization’s three-part program to help students from Denver Public Schools succeed in college. 

Choose a School: What to Look For in Programs for English-Language Learners

by Alisha Janes

With the rising number of English-language learners in Colorado, many parents searching for quality schools need to consider the quality of language instruction. Yet, the wide variety of programs and approaches make comparing schools for English-language learners a complex task. Here are a few key considerations for parents, including the type of program, the types of supports that are provided, how progress is measured, and the school environment.

Academic development:

The most important factor to consider when comparing programs for language learners is the need for students to continue their development in all academic areas. Learning a second language is a natural process that takes time. While it may vary across learners, it can take too long for students to ignore other subjects while they try to learn English. How this is addressed depends on the school’s program. In some, this access to other content material is done through instruction in a learner’s native language; in other programs, teachers provide language support to help learners understand lessons in English. Yet other programs take students out of their traditional classroom to provide direct instruction in English that should relate to what students are learning in their classes. Check out this helpful link that helps explain the differences in programs used for English-language learners.

ELL teacher preparation: 

No matter what program model a school uses to help English-language learners, an important question to ask is how teachers have been prepared. Different states require different levels of preparation, and requirements can differ across programs as well. Teachers providing extra support to students in traditional settings should be able to explain how they help students understand the English being used in their lessons. Some possible strategies teachers might list include:

-       Using gestures and photos to add extra context to language,

-       Incorporating real objects to add meaning,

-       Teaching in thematic units to help familiarize students with vocabulary, and

-       Allowing students to work in groups or with a partner.

Teachers should also be able to articulate how they focus on key academic vocabulary to help English-language learners.

Measuring progress:

Another important question for parents is how a student’s progress will be measured. Research has shown that students who remain in programs designed for English-language learners for longer periods of time do not perform as well as their peers who exited the program more quickly. Teachers should use short assessments throughout the year that monitor a student’s progress with language learning as well as their progress in other academic subjects. When students are being tested for their understanding of other content like math or social studies, they may require extra assistance or tools to make sure that they understand the questions and directions. The data from these short assessments should be used to provide students with help in areas where they need it most.

Attitudes about language learning:

Finally, a teacher and school’s attitudes regarding language learning is important. Bilingualism should be considered an asset and not a deficit and teachers should take responsibility for a student’s progress both in learning English as well as learning across subject areas. Students should not be punished for using their native language and overall should feel like they are part of a welcoming community that embraces their culture and native-language skills.

Alisha Janes is a fellow at Colorado Succeeds and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration at the University of Colorado at Denver. Alisha’s previous experience include: coaching new teachers, teaching intervention lessons, and three years of teaching a Bilingual 5th grade class in Houston, TX.










Guest Post: The pros and cons of choosing a diverse school for your child

By Michael Petrilli (@michaelpetrilli)

Executive Vice President at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In the middle of the last decade, in urban communities across America, middle- and upper-middle-class parents started sending their children to public schools again—schools that for decades had served overwhelmingly poor and minority populations. From the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to northwest Denver, to Brooklyn, and beyond, white families in particular have come back to local schools—not in dribs and drabs but in droves. In one D.C. high school, students sarcastically called it “the Caucasian invasion.”

My wife and I lived in one such urban community—an inner-ring suburb outside Washington—with our two small boys, and we loved it.  Still, we weren’t sure we wanted to stay for the long term. Mainly, we were concerned about its schools. They had a mixed reputation and lackluster test scores, largely due to their diverse population of students. (Research has long shown that poor and minority students tend to perform worse on standardized tests than affluent white children.) At our local elementary school, white students were a minority, and one-third of the kids were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch from the federal government.

We very much liked the idea of our sons becoming friends with kids from other races and backgrounds, and we didn’t think we could afford private school. But we expected that our boys would be entering Kindergarten with the basics—and more—under their belts, and we worried they wouldn’t get the attention and challenge they needed. What if their teachers were focused on helping recent immigrant children learn English or giving low-income kids remedial help? What if the schools were test-prep factories, obsessed only with getting students to basic proficiency in reading and math?

To answer these questions and more, I talked to parents, educators, and experts, dug into all of the relevant research—and wrote a book in the process: The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. So what did I find?

There were some “pros”:

  • Sending our sons to a diverse school would give them an opportunity to learn how to live in diverse twenty-first-century America.
  • It would provide exciting and enriching multicultural opportunities they wouldn’t experience in a homogeneous school.
  • It would reinforce our commitment to the “common school” ideal. We would be standing up to “separate but equal” and helping our sons’ poorer classmates learn more about the world than they would if segregated into schools with only other poor children.

We’d get to stay in the urban community that we love.

There were also “cons”:

  • We would probably have to give up on finding a school that was progressive or artsy or unstructured. (Low-income and minority parents tend to shun such schools—and for good reason, as they tend to have a bad track record with low-income and minority children.)
  • We would be taking some (small) risks with our kids’ safety and would increase the odds that they’d have one or more disruptive students in class with them, which could slow them down academically.
  • If we chose a school that grouped students by performance—which might be best for our kids—the classrooms themselves would probably be largely segregated by class, if not by race.

For us, and for all parents, this is a tough call, a major life decision. It’s essential for parents to go and visit the schools they are considering.

Probably the most important thing to learn is whether the principal is a strong leader and open to tackling these vexing issues of race and class head-on. After all, it takes an extraordinary person to bring together students, teachers, and parents of diverse cultures and backgrounds and make the mix work effectively. It especially requires a ton of outreach and communication on the leader’s part. Is the principal up to this task? Does he or she even see it as part of the job? If not, that’s a big red flag. And if you are treated like a pushy parent for just trying to find out, go somewhere else, fast.

Second, you want to understand the school’s instructional strategies, particularly when it comes to serving kids who are achieving at vastly different levels. How does it group students, and how are students selected for those groups? Do the groups change much over time? If the school uses mixed grouping, how does it challenge all of its students, especially the highest-achieving ones? Likewise, what is it doing to boost the performance of its struggling students? If the school says it differentiates instruction, what evidence is there that this is for real and that teachers are up to the challenge? Ask to see the different kinds of assignments that teachers give to kids at different levels. If the school can’t provide such examples, that’s another red flag. At the middle- and high-school levels, does the school offer honors tracks or Advanced Placement courses?

Third, you want to learn how integrated the school truly is. Is there a lot of self-segregation at recess and lunch? Are people of color represented at PTA meetings? Are parents chatting with moms and dads of different races? What school-wide events are hosted to make people feel included? Is there an International Night? Are there school fairs?

Finally, trust your gut. But also be willing to admit that your gut can sometimes be wrong.


Here’s the good news: Regardless of which schools your children attend, they are very likely to do well. That’s because of what you are already doing as your children’s first teacher: showing an interest in their learning, reading to them, checking their homework, providing a safe and supportive environment at home, enriching their education with trips to museums and libraries and historical sites, and expecting them to go to college.

Keep doing all of that, and any school choice you make will be a good one.

Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He blogs at Flypaper.

Guest Post: Teachers Support Transparency and Accountability

Colorado School Grades is a coalition of 18 partner groups. Our guest posts feature these organizations and others, who will offer tips and advice for parents who want to choose or improve a school.

by Tim Farmer, Policy Director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators

tfarmer sm photoSince the launch of two years ago, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) has been a proud partner in this effort to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public schools. In a state like Colorado, which has abundant school choice policies, PACE recognizes that parents and teachers are looking for an easy-to-understand source for making informed decisions.

By giving every school an easy-to-understand letter-grade ranking, this website has created the simplest and clearest representation of how schools truly are performing – both good and bad. This system allows parents and community members the ability to understand how their local schools are performing. An informed and engaged public will be instrumental in improving schools in the future.

Colorado’s teachers are also faced with the challenge of making decisions about school choice. Teachers can choose to teach at a traditional, public charter, virtual, alternative or many other public choice schools. Teachers must also decide if they want to teach in an urban, rural, turnaround, innovation, or in some other school setting. The information on can also be a benefit to teachers as they make important decisions about their career.

In the emerging age of accountability in public schools, teachers are embracing policies that promote transparency and results. According to a national survey conducted by PACE’s national partner the Association of American Educators, 89 percent of teachers surveyed support services such as, and other programs and organizations that allow stakeholders to search and compare schools in their area via letter grades.

Teachers do, in fact, support policies that easily identify schools based on performance. Although improving schools is a complex issue, we must embrace accountability and transparency in our public schools.


Guest Post: Three Observable Expert Teacher Behaviors

By Kaitlin Pennington, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress

Over the past several years, the connection between teaching quality and student achievement has been a much-discussed topic among education policymakers and practitioners—and for good reason. Research conclusively shows that quality teaching matters to student learning. In fact, it has been identified as the most important school-based factor in student achievement.

But until recently, what quality teaching looks like wasn’t at the forefront of the debate in education. Now, however, many state departments of education and local school districts across the U.S. are developing and restructuring teacher evaluation systems, with the goal of cracking the code of teacher instructional practices that lead to student achievement, and then holding teachers accountable for performing those practices. This is a difficult task that often prompts debate, but one worth pursing for the sake of student learning and the integrity of the teaching profession.

Colorado was at the forefront of teacher evaluation reform with the passage of SB 10-191, the Educator Effectiveness bill. As part of SB 10-191, through a collaborative effort involving diverse stakeholders across the state, leaders developed a State Framework for Teacher Evaluation unique to Colorado. Through this framework, education leaders in Colorado created a tangible idea of what quality teaching looks like regardless of where a teacher works in the state.

According to the Colorado framework, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is determined by professional practice and the other 50 percent by student growth. If the Colorado framework for teacher evaluation lives up to its design, a teacher’s daily practices rating on the evaluation observation rubric will align with student learning data. So, if a teacher’s daily practice rates high on the rubric, that teacher’s students will show increases in learning and vice versa. Therefore, the contents of the observation rubric are important to educators, and have the added bonus of being a useful guide for families when talking with students’ principals and teachers.


However, like most teacher evaluation observation rubrics, Colorado’s is long and quite detailed. I scanned it and summarized traits that I noticed across all of the standards into the three key teacher behaviors that I discuss below. This is by no means a complete list of effective teacher behaviors, but it can serve as a starting point for observing and talking with teachers:

Analyze Student Learning

Expert teachers have a clear understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They can speak at length about their students’ abilities and can support their claims with student work and data. These teachers are intentional about how they assess student learning and then use student assessment results to inform their instruction. Analyzing student learning is a part of high-quality instructional practice, which allows teachers to know what each of their students understand or misunderstand after each lesson. To have a conversation about student learning with a teacher, a parent or family member may ask the teacher to discuss a topic or concept the student understands particularly well or poorly. Ask the teacher to show student work or assessment results that connect to that topic. If it is something the student is struggling with, ask the teacher how she or he is working with the student to clarify misconceptions and how that instructional practice can continue at home.

Differentiate Instruction

Differentiating instruction is an extension of analyzing student data. After effective teachers analyze student data at the end of each lesson or unit, they then use the data to differentiate their instruction in order to ensure that all students are learning. A clear sign (though not the only sign) that a teacher is differentiating instruction is the use of student grouping. Teachers may put a group of students together who are not understanding a specific topic so that she can work with them one-on-one while another group of students who understood the topic move onto a project that applies it to real-life scenarios. When implemented correctly, this method allows for student misconceptions to be addressed while not boring other students who have already mastered the topic. Student grouping should not be used to teach some students less, but rather to give more time and attention to students who are struggling with a particular topic before moving onto the next lesson.

Clearly Communicate Academic Goals to Students and Families

Effective teachers create a roadmap for the academic year. They then break that roadmap up into weekly or monthly units and then, lastly, into daily lesson objectives. In addition to creating the plans, teachers relay those plans to their students and their students’ families so that they can be key players in their education, not simply compliant observers. If a teacher is proficient in communicating academic goals, students should have a clear understanding of their individual goals and a plan on how to achieve those goals. This communication allows students to take control of their learning and ask for help if/when they are not meeting their goals.

The shifts in teacher instructional practices expected due to new evaluation systems—and other concurrent reforms such as the Common Core State Standards—are just beginning and will take some time to fully implement. As the adjustment in the system takes place, asking teachers questions about their practice can help family members better understand students’ academic goals.

Kaitlin Pennington is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Previously, Kaitlin worked at Colorado Succeeds and in the office of Senator Mike Johnston. As a Teach for America corps member, Kaitlin taught middle school English and language arts in Washington, D.C.