By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
While politicians may define a good school by test scores, education experts say schools are more than the sum of their scores.
“What makes a good school is that every child cannot wait to go to school,” says Andy Hargreaves of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. “And when children are in good schools, the days fly by because they are utterly absorbed in learning and what they are doing. And the weight of the troubles students bring with them to school falls from their shoulders as the minutes and hours of the day pass. When it’s time to go home, they can’t believe it’s time already.”
Mostly, good schools teach to the strengths that children already have and address individual learning styles, says Hargreaves, a guest speaker at CTA’s Summer Institute who has worked with CTA on helping schools supported by the Quality Education Investment Act.
“Children in good schools find that every day engages them in ways they learn best — whether it’s visually by drawing, by playing with things physically, or by listening — and differentiated instruction helps them to improve in areas where they are not so strong,” continues Hargreaves. “In a good school or a great school, the teachers have time, skills and training to know their children and how they learn. They don’t have too many children in their classes, which makes this impossible.”
Hargreaves believes that punishments under NCLB — instituted by President Bush and likely to be continued in the Obama administration — are not the way to transform struggling schools into good ones.
“If schools need to be good places for children, they also have to be good places for teachers. We cannot browbeat teachers into inspiring their kids and tell them that floggings will continue until things improve. Just as kids are inspired by great teachers, teachers are inspired by great principals. Great principals support teachers and involve them in the work and life of the school. They know how teachers learn best and how to engage them.”
Experts agree that good schools have good professional development — taking the form of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) or groups — where they can collaborate, give each other feedback and reflect on best practices. The goal is to create an environment that fosters mutual cooperation, emotional support and personal growth by working together to accomplish as a team what cannot be accomplished alone.
Dennis Shirley, who co-authored The Fourth Way of Change with Hargreaves and collaborates with CTA on improving struggling schools, advocates for professional development and mentoring in a new book, The Mindful Teacher, which he co-authored with a second-grade teacher in Boston.
“The Mindful Teacher is predicated on the observation that the pressures on classroom teachers have become so great that few teachers are able to find time for sustained reflection and modification from one’s teaching in the company of one’s peers,” he maintains. Instead of imposing reforms on teachers, Shirley recommends that schools encourage teachers to participate in a “collegial community” of inquiry and best practices.
In good schools, professional development zeroes in on student learning and using disaggregated student data. But good schools also look at the whole child.
“I believe in the importance of data,” says Shirley. “But I’m seeing educators spending so much time gathering data that they have less time to teach.”
Shirley says good schools share other characteristics. “A good school is a kind and caring school where children learn a sense of ethics and responsibility to themselves and others,” he muses. “Rigorous academic skills are learned and applied to the world around them. What students learn has a sense of history, meaning and purpose. Everyone — including principals, teachers, parents and kids — feels a sense of enthusiasm and joy in learning and achievement.”
Richard Rothstein, author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, believes good schools produce well-rounded students. “In good schools, students are not only expected to master math and reading. In good schools there are other subjects like science, history, art and music appreciation so students have the ability to be creative and express themselves. Good schools teach good citizenship, social responsibility and work skills.”
Historically most schools have taught these subjects, but today there is a narrowing of curriculum and many schools are only teaching core subjects due to NCLB. It is tragic, says Rothstein, to have enrichment no longer offered in schools that serve mostly low-income students.
“There will be consequences if we continue on this path,” says Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute who lectures about education policy issues. “When we eliminate or reduce the efforts of schools to promote good citizenship, create social skills and develop conflict resolution skills, we diminish culture in our students and do tremendous harm to society.”