LAURA SULLIVAN, host: OK, parents. You've made it through those first years, through all those decisions: breast feeding or bottle? Mounted safety gate or removable? Overpriced organic or pesticide-grown strawberries? But just when you're ready to look at your baby, now little person, and say, job done, you're faced with the most challenging problem of all, how to get him or her the best education you can. It wasn't always this way.
PEG TYRE: Well, there was a time when you could enroll your child in kindergarten and about 13 years later sit on one of those folding chairs and dab your eyes as they graduated from high school. And that's really changed.
SULLIVAN: That's education journalist Peg Tyre. Her new book is called "The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve." And most parents know that quest begins even before preschool, and Peg Tyre says it's easy to get sidetracked.
TYRE: All those kids look cute. All that artwork looks creative. That's not a good way to judge a preschool. One of the things you really want to do is you want to look at the relationship between teacher and student. What you want to see is teachers who have a lot of respect for kids, who seem to know their strengths and weaknesses. Those are the kind of rich relationships you want to see because early teacher-student relationships are very, very significant to the outcomes for your child.
SULLIVAN: When you're choosing a good school for your child, one of the biggest concerns is of course the teachers. How do you spot a good teacher?
TYRE: One of the myths that our schools are now struggling with is that all teachers are good. And in fact, the myth that they struggle with is that the first grade teacher can as easily teach fourth grade as she can sixth grade like they're widgets. You can move them around and toss them at - into different classrooms at will. That's just not true.
One of the things I would say is a teacher who is in their first year is not a wonderful sign for an effective instructor for your child. They tend to be passionate, enthusiastic, they have a lot of energy. But research tells us that they are not that effective in their first year.
So the question is what do you do? Do you demand that your child be taken out of that classroom? Well, that's going to create chaos in the school, especially if 10 parents do the same thing.
SULLIVAN: Ten parents do it.
TYRE: But you can go to the principal, and you can ask this question: OK. I know the research says that a first-year teacher is not that effective. What are you doing to support that teacher this year so that my child moves forward this year and is not just a guinea pig for your first-year teacher?
SULLIVAN: Some of the horror stories of the book had parents whose child was not at level, even in first or second grade, and they went into the school and said, I think there's kind of a problem here. My child really hates reading. And the schools did not respond well to that at all. What do you do in that situation?
TYRE: That actually is not a sign of a neglectful parent. That actually happened to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TYRE: So I just want to say that I wish I had this research when I was raising my own oldest son. One of the things that concerns me the most, and I think it's one of the biggest warning signs, is when a child is falling behind in reading. Reading is the kingpin skill for school success. And we know that a third of children in our schools do not learn to read proficiently.
So schools say: You know, don't worry. They'll catch up. Or one of my favorites: He's just a boy. Boys learn later. Or, you know what? Let's wait until he's a little farther behind and then we can get him to the X number special service reading specialists. That is not the answer that you want. You want to talk about specific skills that they're mastering and the ones that they're not mastering so that they can get this. Another year of the same bad instruction is not going to help your child.
SULLIVAN: A lot of parents know when they're on that school tour, when they're looking for school, to ask about class size.
TYRE: Class size seems to have been the one-size-fits-all desire of parents to have small class size all the way through. And when you look at the really substantive research on class size, class size is very significant from kindergarten to third grade. After third grade, there's less of an impact on academic outcome.
SULLIVAN: This is the back to school time. What are a couple of warning signs that parents should look for in these next few days as they bring their children back to school?
TYRE: Well, generally, the first couple of days are a happy time when everyone's pretty enthusiastic about it. The real falloff will be in about three weeks' time when your child doesn't want to get out of bed. But seriously, what you need to look for is a very well-thought-out curriculum around reading, around math. You want teachers who are bringing those subjects in at all grades.
You want teachers who are all engaged in best practices so that they're not learning how to be teachers to the detriment of your child. You do want a school day for your child that's the right balance of seat time and recess. That's very, very important. And school administrators know that children need to move around, but they also know they need to maximize instructional time. And they're trying to figure out what the best use of the school day is and how to fit all those things in to keep children learning and learning well.
SULLIVAN: That's Peg Tyre, author of the new book "The Good School." She joined us from our studios in New York. Peg, thank you so much.
TYRE: Thank you.
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