Choosing an International School: Which is right for your child?
Mamahuhu: a joint column for mamas in Chengdu
By Shanna Mack and Greg Parry
International schools are generally considered schools that serve the needs of an expatriate population and provide one of the predominant internationally recognized curriculums—International Baccalaureate, U.K. or American curriculums. All three of these curriculum models allow students the opportunity to gain undergraduate university credits as demonstrated by academic achievement. But how do you know which one best meets the needs of your child?
Professional educators generally agree that any of the above curriculum models are based on high-quality teaching and learning and prepare students for top universities in the world. The arguments against any particular curriculum model are usually based on personal experience and familiarity (or lack thereof) with the curriculum.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is an internationally recognized and universal curriculum. At the heart of the model's philosophy is a belief in holistic and globally minded student development. The U.K.-based A-Levels and the American-based Advanced Placement (AP) program are well suited for students who want to study specific subjects in more detail. A number of subjects are available, allowing students to specialize in their area of strength and interests.
Regardless of the curriculum model, a high-quality international school should aim to develop well rounded, globally minded students who can think critically. Modern and progressive education is about whole-person development, and good international schools have extensive programs that encourage students to actively participate in sports, the arts, and also community service.
Finally, credibility is obviously an important factor in choosing an international school for your child.
Below is a checklist to help you determine whether a particular international school is right for your child.
International schools must lead with a rigorous curriculum that stretches students to maximize their potential. Here are some questions to ask regarding student achievement:
• Does the curriculum develop critical thinking?
• How does it do this?
• Is instruction driven by data?
• What if your child does not understand an idea or concept? Is extra help available?
Keep in mind that rigorous curriculum does not mean extensive test taking. It means deep, rich learning that is monitored closely and adapted to ensure students are achieving their very best.
Low Staff Turnover
High staff turnover often indicates a school climate that has not retained and supported teachers. Although this is quite common in the startup years of a new school, it is an important factor in a school's "health check." Happy teachers feel supported through resources, professional development, and strong leadership.
Research will tell you that the No. 1 key factor that impacts student achievement is school leadership. Even the finest teachers will teach to their capacity only when they are led and supported by a good principal/headmaster and administrative team.
Open and Transparent Communication
Good schools create climates of openness and transparency. A parent organization that encourages participation and more importantly an administration that admits mistakes, solves problems, and genuinely cares about the needs of all students, teachers and parents is important. If you feel as if answers to your questions are guarded or crafted, consider this as a "red flag."
The network of parents who communicate openly their opinions about schools is an invaluable marketing strategy for schools. Good schools rely on this. With that, be careful of "loud minorities." They are the marginal groups of parents and teachers who may never be pleased. Do your homework and ask many people's opinions. Speak to students, parents, and teachers to get a complete picture of whether reputation matches reality.
Shanna Mack and Greg Parry are published authors and global experts in education reform, curriculum development, teaching and learning practices as well as project management for international education. They own and operate Global Services in Education, Ltd., an international education consulting company and live in Chengdu, China while working on a number of education projects.