Relocating families often rely on friends, colleagues and the internet when they face the daunting task of finding the right school for their child in a new location.
In the frenzy of things they need to accomplish in order to actually move, numbers or statistics are a reasonable proxy for quality - or at least the easiest one that is available. In some places, schools, both public and private, are ranked on a national level. In others, only the public sector may be ranked and comparison may only be possible state-wide rather than at the national level. And then there are many locations where private, fee-paying, schools simply do not allow themselves to be evaluated. So at best, relocating families using rankings to identify suitable schools will find only a percentage of those actually available.
Anyone who understands children or child development is aware that not every child thrives in the same academic environment. Despite this obvious point, even under stable circumstances, well intentioned but impressionable parents use every tool in their arsenal to "get their children in" to the schools that someone has identified as "top" or "best." The sad result has been revealed to me in countless conversations with private school admissions officers and psychologists: "getting in" isn't enough. Children pushed beyond their capacity - either intellectual or emotional, are those who fail, get counseled out, or who inevitably suffer from low self-esteem. Often they are subjected to daily tutoring rather than using the hours after school to play with friends, participate in sport, or learn music or ballet.
The debate around rankings centers on the tension between accountability, which most consumers of education agree is worthwhile, versus the ability of statistics to accurately capture what a school, is about - particularly as it is a "people" business. When numbers refer to class size or teacher/student ratio, there is little doubt that small classes, individualized attention and ready access to faculty provide students with unparalleled opportunities. But in some instances rankings rely on university admissions - a criterion which is imperfect, at best. Are university admissions determined by high test scores or rigorous curriculum? Are they a function of which schools the kids attend or how they perform? Or are students admitted based on family connections, monetary donations or other measures that a new parent seeking a school for his/her child may not be aware of?
Unfortunately, parents and students take lists of "top" schools very literally; they reinforce the natural insecurity in human nature and encourage parents to focus exclusively on the name brand. For families in transition, there may be few other mechanisms to determine quality. Do facilities matter? Do children need - or even benefit from - country club like campuses? Should parents be looking at access to facilities rather than grounds and equipment per se? Who gets to play on the 15 tennis courts or the eight lane competition swimming pool or the golf course? Will their child have that opportunity? Do these schools use their lavish facilities to teach sportsmanship or to win? Is the risk-taking behavior and self-confidence encouraged by favorable teacher/student ratios undercut by the exclusivity and competitive spirit that characterize some of these schools?
Parents need to ask the right questions to assess whether a particular school is right for their children. And the right list of questions depends on the child, his or her background as well as personal qualities - not on factors intrinsic to the school alone. For families on the move it may be desirable to get objective assistance to help make a school selection for their child that is right for today, as well as for tomorrow.