For many Americans, there's only one answer to the question: What is a good school? It's the one nearest home.
But new competition and fresh ways of measuring school effectiveness are reviving a national debate over what the good school looks like and how to achieve it.
Ask many school administrators and legislators about 21st-century schools and you're likely to hear a lot about cables and modems. The good school is the school that is connected, plugged in, a digital hub, with the latest on the Internet coursing through classrooms.
"In the 21st century, schools will become nerve centers, with walls that are porous and transparent connecting teachers, students, and the community to the wealth of knowledge that exists in the world," states a report by the American Association of School Administrators.
Talk to parents and teachers, and you'll often hear concerns about personal connections: Are teachers connecting with kids and qualified to teach? Are parents raising kids who come to school ready to learn?
That bond between teacher, parent, and student is the connection that a modem cannot make, and it could be the key to school reform in the next century, many reformers argue.
"The partnership between parents and teachers has the potential to be the most powerful partnership in fixing schools," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda, a New-York based group that has directed some of the most comprehensive polling on schools in the nation.
"Teachers say that they see kids coming to school who are not prepared to learn, who are uncivilized, unruly, and they can't teach them. And parents are very confused about how to raise children who are civil and respectful. This issue begs for some honest conversation - for teachers and parents to better hear one another about how each can help the other," she adds.
Polls consistently show that parents want their kids to be safe and known by school staff. Even when they have doubts about the quality of local public schools, most parents would rather fix the neighborhood school than carpool or bus the kids to an alternative.
At the same time, public schools are coming under a tougher regime of measurement than they have ever known. The buzzword in education reform is accountability. The good school, by this measure, is the one that can prove results. Whether it's housed in a strip mall or a state-of-the-art building, it should teach all children to read, to do math, to work hard. No excuses.
While some public-school officials worry the drive to measure results is overdone, they see the demand for continuous school improvement as a given.
"Sometimes we get so hung up on test scores that we might be preparing students for an age that no longer exists," says AASA spokesman Gary Marx. "The digital age is redefining schools, teachers, and learners."
Public schools that are stepping up to these new demands take many forms.
There's the established powerhouse school, such as New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. It's the classic case of the school with more of everything: more facilities, sports teams, orchestras, National Merit scholars, top test scores, and lanes in the swimming pool.
Many students come to New Trier more prepared for college and the workplace than some kids who graduate from schools in poorer communities. Yet even there, there's a increasing focus on making sure that students are known and feel connected to teachers through a tight advising system. Parents are asking the school to take on more responsibility for helping with student problems outside of class.
Then there are upstarts, such as KIPP Academy in Houston, which is sending test scores for at-risk Hispanic kids soaring. KIPP started out teaching kids in the kitchenettes at district headquarters and moved up to a cluster of trailers off a Houston highway.
What KIPP offers kids is teacher commitment and time: a longer school day, a longer week, a longer school year, and the cell-phone numbers of their teachers.
Calling teachers at home isn't a perk, it's a requirement; and parents agree in writing to make sure that children will call if they need help.
And there's the Open School, in Lakewood, Colo., which reengages kids who had lost interest in learning by throwing most of its resources into hands-on projects and research excursions. Every "learning path" is tailored to fit the needs of each student. Like New Trier (though less than a 10th its size), the Open School relies heavily on an advisory system to help students make personal connections to faculty and other students.
All are public schools. All have a clear sense of who they are - and how they'll gauge their success. In different ways, they're all trying make connections with parents and students that are close and committed to achievement.
Many parents who converged on the second annual D.C. Charter Fair in Washington last month came with their own checklist of what makes a better school. Some said they wanted a smaller school or one with more discipline and energy; others, a stronger math and science curriculum or more access to computers. Many said they welcomed the partnership with parents that the city's 19 public charter schools were promising.
Washington parent Chery Richardson says she is looking for a school with higher expectations for her daughter, who is about to enter high school. "My child needs a little more attention. I just didn't want her to get lost," she says.
Chicago parent Marilyn Rittmeyer says that she was willing to pass on the computers if she could be assured that her kids would get a good basic education with teachers who knew and cared about them. She pulled two of her sons out of well-heeled public schools in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights in favor of a private school in a building so old that public schools sold it, she says.
"They do an excellent job teaching them reading and math. The basics are absolutely there. I couldn't be more pleased. What makes a good school isn't money, and it's not the building."
As they look over the options, a growing number of parents are making use of a new tool: a baseline to compare how schools actually perform. New statewide tests and accountability systems are challenging the conventional wisdom on what constitutes a good school.
In some cases, schools that no one ever heard of turned out to be making heroic gains in student achievement, while others better positioned for plaudits are falling short.
The difference is what researchers are calling value-added, or the school effect. Raw test scores often just reflect the level of wealth or poverty in a neighborhood.
"It's possible very accurately to predict the schools most likely not to succeed in high-stakes tests," says John Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based group for school reform. To find a school that adds value, look for schools where kids are scoring better than their Zip codes would predict, experts say.
In Massachusetts, for example, the results of the first comprehensive state assessments were released late last year. At first, the wealthy suburban schools looked like the best in the state. But a closer analysis shows that some moderate-income towns scored as well as or better than many of the upscale suburbs.
"You couldn't do this kind of analysis before, because each district had its own testing protocol, so every system could say, 'We're doing great.' With the MCAS in Massachusetts and the TAAS in Texas, you have the same test everyone has to take, so you can't fudge the results," says Robert Gaudet, senior research analyst at the Donahue Institute of the University of Massachusetts.
States and boards of education are just starting to look seriously at these data and their implications for reform. "What we're doing is aerial reconnaissance. I'm trying to identify places that are effective in adding value to the kid's background," he says. "What highly effective schools seem to have in common is strong leadership. There is a high leadership quotient in these places."
As researchers look for answers in the data on school achievement, parent and community groups in some cities are doing their own research.
A coalition of 35 churches in Jacksonville, Fla., began studying how to improve local schools in 1996. Delegations of pastors and parents visited schools with high levels of achievement for black and Hispanic students in Columbus, Ohio, Portland, Ore., and Houston. They forged partnerships with principals and teachers to lobby for a new reading program, which was adopted in 11 schools.
"There's a great receptivity to this kind of partnership," says the Rev. Paul Cromwell, organizer of the Interchurch Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment.
"We found that the folks on the front lines in those low-income schools were really frustrated about not getting the tools they needed. If we relied just on district bureaucrats to do it for us, it never would have happened."