What makes a school a high-quality experience for students? (see CFT blog post entitled, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School?)
Educators and policymakers have been wrestling with this question for decades. In fact, when we go back into the archives of school reform, we find studies, conversations and debates about what makes for a high-quality school experience for students. Most school reform movements in the United States struggle to fulfill their objectives, which have usually been about improving the school experience for our nation’s children. For some reason we have done a poor job of using lessons from history to align our reform efforts to the needs of schools, teachers, families and students. Reforms have included:
- a call to action in 1983 as part of the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Nation at Risk.
- formation of Teach for America, establishing the idea of a National Teachers Corps.
- outcomes-based education in the 1990s.
- Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in January 1994.
- standards-based education in the 2000s.
- No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001.
- National Governors’ Association in 2009 convened a process that led to the Common Core Standards, which has been a hotly debated topic.
- Race-to-the-Top in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We have yet to determine whether this program is fulfilling its objectives.
I would argue that each of these reform initiatives have had an uncertain impact on the quality of schooling in America. Over the past fifteen years, NCLB and Race-to-the-Top have put a great deal of emphasis on year-end, high-stakes tests and teacher evaluation tied to those test results. We have little evidence either of these programs have significantly improved school quality after investment of billions of dollars. Yet we remain focused on testing our students excessively and using these results to evaluate our teachers and schools. Why do we remain fixated on defining a good school by the high-stakes test performance of its students? NCLB and Race-to-the-Top have only institutionalized the mindset that test scores are the defining indicator of student and school success. However, the research would point to the fact that focusing on test scores ignores the multitude of variables that go into defining whether a school is really good. In addition, it is hard for educators to arrive at consensus on the factors or qualities that make for an excellent teacher. Good teachers have a complex and unique set of qualities. Nevertheless, we do know that good schools are built on the backs of good teachers.
With regard to good schools, look at the article published by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) entitled, 25 factors that great schools have in common. Let me just pull out a few of the factors related to being a successful school.
- Create and perpetuate an intentional culture shaped by the adults, rooted in universal values of honesty and caring, and relentlessly oriented toward achievement.
- Eclectically capitalize on the best ideas about what works in schools, those gleaned from the past as well as those deemed best for the future
- Manifest a coherent philosophy of learning for students, be it constructivist, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Montessori, strengths-based, progressive, traditional, 1:1, or whatever — so long as it remains open to ongoing discussion, testing, and constant refinement.
- Make a substantial commitment to professional development for faculty, expecting teachers to grow as learners themselves and to develop mastery in the art and science of teaching. (good teachers are the primary ingredient or secret sauce in good schools, italics are mine)
- Adopt and fund “3 Rs” talent strategies that position the school to recruit, retain, and reward the best and brightest teachers, school leaders, and board members. (developing teachers helps them connect to the larger vision and mission of excellence that good schools clearly articulate, italics are mine)
- Seek data to make data-rich (not opinion-rich) decisions, embracing former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s observation, “In God we trust; all others, bring data.”
Their list of 25 factors is in no way exhaustive. For example, one factor that does not appear in the NAIS list is that good schools give serious attention to develop and nurture students’ social and emotional needs. Good schools care deeply for their students and understand the value of providing SEL (social emotional learning) programs aligned to our understanding of human development, They comprehend that unless they meet their students’ social-emotional needs, it is less likely that they can successfully meet students’ intellectual needs. Also, the list does not address schools that find themselves situated in more underserved population centers in the United States. In these schools, the definition of a good school includes an organization that integrates itself into the larger community. A good school networks with community resources to provide wrap around services to families so that students come to school ready to learn.
Another factor that has led to the failure of some school reform initiatives has been the inability to gain empathy with families, students and teachers. Have any of these programs asked students whether their school experience is high-quality or what factors lead to school being an interesting and relevant place to learn? Not that I am aware of!
In the most recent edition of Education Week, there was published interview with Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education at the College of Holy Cross, entitled, What Makes School Good? It’s More Than Test Scores. The article is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Schneider (click here for the interview). He points out:
Most of us in our hearts know what a good school is and does, but we don’t have the language ready and we haven’t conceptualized it as a broader community. The way I tend to think about school quality these days is shaped by the future. Who are the kids I want to meet 10 years from now? That is not a world that is going to be made by drill-and-kill instruction in math and English.
Good schools will be defined by organizations that provide a vision that allows its students to flourish in an environment designed to meet their social-emotional, intellectual, kinesthetic, and spiritual needs. If a school is not faith-based, I would argue it still has an obligation to promote a learning environment that allows each student to explore his or her spiritual intelligence, a way of thinking rooted in values, morals and ethics, and beliefs.
Putting it all together, I would project the following set of characteristics that all good schools possess:
- A set of shared goals tied to a compelling vision.
- Appropriately challenging standards and expectations for all students.
- Effective school leadership that focuses on supporting a collaborative culture.
- A strategy for designing and implementing a culture of collaboration and good communication.
- Curriculum, instruction, and assessments aligned to a set of standards adopted by the school.
- Evidence of deeper learning and effective teaching.
- A culture that supports high quality professional learning for faculty.
- A supportive learning environment that takes into account students’ interests, learning profiles, and readiness.
- A school culture that values and promotes family and community involvement.
What are your thoughts with respect to this recipe? Are essential ingredients missing? We do have a responsibility to take the pulse of students, families and teachers about what makes the school an interesting, rewarding and exciting place to be.