The other night at a friend’s holiday party, I started picking the brains of people who had kids going to school at the local high school, the one that my own kids are scheduled to attend in a few short years. I got a variety of responses, most of them pretty positive. It”s a smallish country high school, about 950 students 9-12, mostly white middle class, and probably typical in most aspects. I don’t think anyone would rate it as outstanding, but it’ not near the bottom by traditional measures either.

It’s those traditional measures that struck me in the responses I got. One parent, who is a classroom teacher at another school, said “well my daughter scored really well on the PSAT’s, so they [the school] must be doing something right.” Another parent said “well, they’ve got like 10 AP courses which is pretty good.” And a few others commented on the fact that their kids were doing well socially and had a lot of friends. I was struck by how kind of programmed the responses felt. Almost like, it’s a school, what more can you say?

Ironically, I ran into an old friend right before the party who had recently retired from teaching at that school, and he articulated his assessment like this: “If you want your kids get the best experience, you have to advocate for them.” In other words, I’m going to have to find ways to help them get the “best” teachers and to be active in steering them through the program. “Look,” he said. “It’s like 25% of the teachers are great and your kids will learn a lot. Another 40% are fine, and they’ll make it interesting. The rest? They’re just doing their time. Not much different from anywhere else.”

Did I mention there is a board seat opening up this spring? Hmmm….

Finally, one of our good friends went and visited a Waldorf school nearby and spent the day watching students and teachers interact. It was interesting to listen to her talk about the experience. “It was amazing,” she said. “The kids were engaged, making things, talking to teachers. It was totally different.” They had a compost bin, too.

Now I know it’s not totally fair to make comparisons here, but I wish I would have heard more of those types of responses about the high school. I wish I would have heard stories of kids changing the world, of pushing through personal barriers, of creative expressions, of challenges met, of real work for real purposes. I wish it had been more than PSATs and AP tests.

So I’m wondering two things. How are you advocating for your kids? And more importantly, how are you assessing your kids’ schools? If you’re reading this, I’m thinking PSAT scores and number of AP courses probably aren’t too important. (Or are they?) In the 21st Century, what should we be demanding of our schools?

(Photo: “Rows Upon Rows” by natashalcd.)