Parents need help choosing the best school for their children

Excellent Schools Detroit last week released a list of the 31 elementary and middle schools it recommends. There are schools on the list from all governance models: Detroit Public Schools, independent, charters, and Education Achievement Authority. These are schools that offer families a welcoming environment, caring teachers and staff, strong academics, family involvement, community partnerships and a rich array of after-school and extracurricular activities. It is enrollment season in Detroit, which means that schools in the city are actively seeking out new students for the next school year.

Michigan’s education policies -- including ones that expand online schools, allow the unrestricted growth of charter schools, and incentivize traditional districts to accept students from outside their traditional boundaries -- have evolved to be such that parents have to play the role of shoppers. Gone is the assumption that a student will attend the local neighborhood school. Nowadays, the best school may be across town.

In short, families in our state are playing the role of school shoppers because state policy requires it. Given that state policy has created an educational marketplace, you would think that it would also give families a way to know how to navigate it. Surely we would want families to find the best schools for their children, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Michigan.

Despite having one of the more market-driven educational landscapes, one that begs for elucidation and clarity, the state offers little guidance in navigating school choice. It seems to me that the state owes parents a lot more.

“Despite having one of the more market-driven educational landscapes, one that begs for elucidation and clarity, the state offers little guidance in navigating school choice. It seems to me that the state owes parents a lot more.” – Dan Varner, Excellent Schools Detroit

At Excellent Schools Detroit we know parents are hungry for more information about schools. We know that more than 150,000 people searched for schools on last year. With the launch of, we hope to see even more access to detailed school information and reviews. We also know Education Detroit, a Detroit-specific magazine we publish with Metro Parent as a resource for families, is in great demand.

We see that in the way community comes together to collect school climate and culture data for the Excellent Schools Detroit Scorecards. People appreciate having multiple ways to access information, and they want it in different formats. Besides, if our marketplace of schools offers competing information, someone has to cut through the clutter and make sense of it all. We are trying to do just that through our annual Excellent Schools Detroit Scorecard.Families deserve the best possible information we can produce.

Some may argue that the current state rating system gives families everything they need to select a school. I’d argue that current state-produced ratings help policy makers (somewhat) and educators (a little). The information produced by the state was never designed to help families choose great schools for their children.

There is a predictable future for the families and students in our state if they are not given access to better information when they are trying to choose schools for their children. Can you imagine shopping for a car with almost no information about the makes and models that you are choosing between? On the other hand, if we resolve to provide better information to families, they will be more empowered to find the best schools for their children.

In Michigan, families should have better and more meaningful information about the schools they are asked to choose. Period. It should be publicly funded, easy to find, easy to use and meaningful for myriad Michigan families looking for different school experiences for their children.

Dan Varner is CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, which works to improve academic achievement in the city

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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John Rose
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:49am
Wouldn't it be nice if we have an educational system that benefits all children vs. a "marketplace" system that favors the haves and not the have nots. I feel so badly that the wealthy connected person may have a difficult time "choosing" the best school. Gotta love the currrent Michigan Public School system that the Detroit Free Press recently reported is at the bottom nationallly! Let's keep up the good work!
Gene Golanda
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 12:04pm
What ever happened to the public school system that made this nation great? It was one where parents accepted responsibility for the quality of their school through the election of a representative school board and participation at meetings of that body. Since they had few other choices, in most instances, due to monetary restrictions, parents took an interest in "their" school system. Who cares now?
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 12:43pm
Acccess to better information. How? First, you have to have some information! We suffer from too much data and too little information. The data that is collected, seat time, headcounts, standardized test scores and the vast array of other data collected and manipulated by the MDE's CEPI lack information that parents and children need to make sound long term learning journey decisions. As long as we resist letting go of the 200 year old paradigm we call education in America our "choices" will be no better than our chances for winning at the tables in Nevada. A common foundational knowledge framework for every school with a rapid turnaround student adaptive testing protocol is a good start. Sadly the bureaucracies are morphing this effort (CCSS and SBA) into the same old prescriptive regimen of curriculum and pedagogy that has doomed real learning for - centuries! We refuse to listen to the people that actually do the work of learning, the students and the teachers and therefore condemn ourselves to ignorance. Give our kids an environment that encourages and supports their demonstration of competency in a discipline of their choice. Scrap the standardized test scores and substitute portfolio, projects and actual performances. Train and support out teachers in this new paradigm. Stop pretending that children share our adult fear of change and challenge! Be patient. Celebrate success (as measured by demonstrated learning evidenced by teachers and students not politicians and pundits) and the relevance of real learning, learning that motivates never ending life long learning. That's information parents and students can use!
Charles Richards
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 3:09pm
"Sadly the bureaucracies are morphing this effort (CCSS and SBA) into the same old prescriptive regimen of curriculum and pedagogy that has doomed real learning for – centuries! " So, nobody has learned anything for centuries? It is obvious that Mr. Fellows is talking about a utopian, transformative process that doesn't remotely resemble the way that older generations transmit information, ideas and values to the young generation. If he can lucidly describe what this process is rather than rely on vague jargon, the community will be happy to evaluate his ideas. Until then, we will be better off exploiting the knowledge we already have about how to educate children. He says, " Celebrate success (as measured by demonstrated learning evidenced by teachers and students ..." How would we determine how well students are learning? What would constitute a demonstration of learning? What if a student/teacher overestimated how well a student was learning? I think he objects to the very idea of knowing. Knowing that Johnny is not learning nearly as well as Mary.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 6:12pm
Mr. Richards. It is correct, nobody has learned anything for centuries (two) about learning since we as a society stick to the same old processes and structure and expect things to improve. The problem is the way the older generations transmit information - education is not a delivery system. Children are fully capable of learning. They don't need to be taught how to learn nor do they need classroom outsiders telling them what to learn. Coach, mentor, guide and listen. Not "Stand and Deliver" ancient dogma. Education is not about comparing the scores of individual students and defining winners and losers. That is another way older generations deem it suitable to transmit information. Wrong. You must do the hard work of listening and observing since there is no pro forma instant pudding singular measure of learning. Every student is different (ask a teacher). The way older generations transmit information is boring especially when the children have almost instaneous access to far better information! Children will clearly demonstrate they have learned once we dispose of the "father knows best" mentality that is a barrier to real learning. You are seeking simple answers. There are none.
Charles Richards
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 3:25pm
I absolutely agree with Mr. Varner that parents need good information about the quality of education offered by different schools. And I tend to agree that the state's grading system isn't very good and should be vastly improved. But until it is I don't think it would be a herculean job for one of the many education advocacy groups to derive a pretty decent scorecard from the publically available information. As a subscriber to his organization's weekly email, I recently inquired as to what percentage of vacancies each of the 31 recommended schools had, and why, if they were so superior, they had vacancies? I have yet to receive a reply.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 04/17/2014 - 10:02pm
This marketplace of schools may be fine for those who can move to a school across town. In the mean time, it has doomed poor kids in neighborhood schools. Business model for schools has produced more losers than winners which I suppose is what competition is supposed to do.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Fri, 04/25/2014 - 10:41am
Here are some simple answers for a few of the questions I see raised here. Just from my viewpoint of course. 'How would we determine how well students are learning?' There is a simple test. A test so simple anyone can do it. By the way has anyone told you there is 'a simple test'? Did anyone describe such a test briefly so you might understand? You ask the student to 'demonstrate' something. You might say to the student, 'Please demonstrate that idea for me.' Let's say the child said he was learning about 'Democracy.' And we want to know if he is learning this well enough to use in his life. You might say, 'Please demonstrate this idea of Democracy, show me how life might be under a Democracy and compare that to how life might be under a Tyranny.' He might look you in the eye and give you a very blank or shocked look. 'A deer in the headlights' sort of look. He might say, 'I don't know how to do that.' Or he might quickly take some small objects, like the change in his and your pockets or some keys, and use the little objects to represent people and maybe each of their ambitions on one side of a table. He places the objects on the table and he describes each of them when places them. After he places them he moves the objects to show what they do. For an ambition he might use some more objects to demonstrate a personal ambition clearly so you can understand his meaning based on the objects and actions he is using to demonstrate the idea with, not his words only. On the other side of the table he might put a coin for a Tyrant and some more objects for the tyrant's ambitions, and some other coins for the people and their ambitions, that have to comply with the tyrants ambitions. The student shows people on the Democracy side accomplishing or working on their ambitions, participating in life and politics, and representing their ambitions freely where they are shared with others. On the Tyranny side he might show the Tyrant placing his ambitions above those of all others. Those people are not free to express their own beliefs or ambitions, they may only express the ambitions of the Tyrant. The student might show that tyrants often get their things done more quickly, and democracies tend to be slower. A Democracy might hire a tyrant to do specific things. In ancient Greece in its Golden Age, tyrants were hired to fight wars, they were called Strategos. They were the generals in war. But free people were asked if they wanted to fight that war and freely participate. Tyrants can be well meaning and benign, as such, they might be said to be a 'benevolent dictator.' He would show how such an idea might fit it. He might show how progressive socialism relates to tyranny. He might show how our Constitution, or a Republic, relates to a Democracy. Again, how a tyrant can be hired to represent their shared ambitions to represent his own. In other words, the student shows by his demonstration that he has 'a clear and true idea or notion of something, or a full and exact knowledge of that something.' He can demonstrate it as if he had some level of skill in its use. You take something the child might need in their life, something the child has been asked to learn. You look for how willing they are to apply what they learned. If they take a long time to show a simple thing, that is not so good as the ability to apply it quickly. I would kind of orient the child to what sort of demonstration you were looking for. I would do this by demonstrating something for them, before I asked them about what I wanted them to demonstrate. When I taught this to some kids last fall, I got a comment after the class that said, 'It was to theoretical.' That boy knew no teacher had ever asked them to demonstrate things like that. He did not fully appreciate that is exactly what an employee does. An employee demonstrates his competence on each thing he does. Some do not. When a student becomes an employee, on his first day of work, he rarely uses skills competently. We might say, 'Those are work skills we can not expect a student to know those.' Well, I don't see it that way. Can a child or student 'demonstrate' what he knows or not? If he knows it well enough to apply in life, guess what, he can demonstrate it. He can 'apply it'. So to summarize: 'How would we determine how well students are learning?' You could ask them a simple question or give them a simple task, 'Could you please demonstrate that idea for me?' Show me how well you are learning. Will that work for parents? For teachers? For employers? Even students. How would a student use this idea? He could ask him self the question, 'How could I apply this to life?' Then he would use actual objects, no matter how small, or draw a picture for himself. He could use this to work out how to apply such things to life. By doing this several times for an idea, he could reach a point where he could apply the things he is learning nearly instantly.