By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
The school a child attends can shape the student’s view of the world. Studies show that school performance can influence a person’s self-worth over the course of a lifetime, and can be a strong predictor of future success. It’s no wonder, then, that parents go to great lengths to make sure their child receives a quality education when selecting a school. Parents have been known to camp out overnight at school sites before registration, pretend to live elsewhere, and even move to new cities to gain attendance to better schools.
Strangely, there is little in the way of hard research as to what really makes a good school. The Chicago Journal has likened the creation of a good school to baking ingredients: “A good school, it turns out, is a lot like a cake. Put in sugar, eggs and oil, but forget the flour, and all you end up with is a sweet, sloppy mess. Without all the right ingredients, success will continually evade you.”
According to the 1994 study “What Makes a Good School?” by UCLA’s Center for Research on Evaluation, “For all the changes implemented in the American classroom, parents and the community in general are ill-prepared to measure the quality of the schools that serve them. As consumers of education, parents and other taxpayers have a right to know if their schools are doing a good job.”
The study identified qualities that set successful schools apart. Good schools, says the study, have strong and professional administrators and teachers; a broad curriculum available to all students; a philosophy that says all children can learn, coupled with high expectations for all students; a climate that’s safe, clean, caring and well-organized; an ongoing assessment system that supports good instruction; and a high level of parent and community involvement and support.
The study also concludes that the configuration of the school or the socioeconomic standard of the neighborhood does not determine whether a school is good and notes that there are successful schools in the inner cities of America and unsuccessful ones in the country’s wealthy suburbs.
Time magazine asked what makes a good school in 1997. “There are no stock answers, like wardrobe or testing or size,” it concluded. “A good school, like a good class, is run by someone with vision, passion and compassion. A good school has teachers who still enjoy the challenge, no matter what their age or experience. A good school prepares its students not just for the SATs or the ACTs, but also for the world out there.”
CTA has been involved in the conversation about what makes a good school and has been at the forefront of researching how investment in schools, instead of punishment, can make them better. The preliminary data shows that the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) is boosting achievement at hundreds of the state’s schools of greatest need.
QEIA, passed in 2006 with CTA’s sponsorship, provides nearly $3 billion over eight years to bring extra resources to 501 schools in the lowest deciles of the Academic Performance Index. QEIA lowers class sizes, provides a credentialed counselor for every 300 high school students, and funds professional development and collaboration time for teachers to develop lesson plans, analyze student data and mentor new educators. Research shows that, on average, QEIA schools scored 5 API points higher than similar schools, and that 351 of them met schoolwide targets set by the state’s accountability system. Several made such significant progress after one year that they exited from Program Improvement status under No Child Left Behind.
“QEIA schools have the resources that should be available to all schools,” says CTA President David A. Sanchez, who describes a good school as having “lots of parental involvement, a highly qualified teacher in the classroom, resources and support personal, and a highly qualified principal.”
CTA’s nonprofit organization, the Institute for Teaching (IFT), has been looking at successful public schools since 1967. Instead of studying what’s not working in our schools, IFT is more interested in observing and asking questions about programs, policies and learning strategies that do work. The IFT is currently involved with programs to reform high schools, reduce the high school dropout rate, and support universal preschool, as well as provide “mini-grants” of $5,000 to teachers.
“A good school continues to grow based on what is happening positively and building on strengths,” says Jim Rogers, a CTA Board member who serves on the IFT board. “There are politicians and other people not involved in day-to-day teaching of our students who want to make quick fixes to our schools. But only continuous, ongoing change based on what is actually working will keep schools continuously growing and improving.”
When the International Society for Technology in Education asked students what made a good school, the students included the following:
- The learning environment should be safe.
- Learning spaces should be open and airy.
- Activities should be hands-on and related to real-world work.
- An array of technology tools and access should be available at all times, from home and school.
- Varied learning styles should be honored.
- Emotional and intellectual support should be offered to students.
The Alliance for Excellent Education has created a list of “Ten Elements Every High School Should Have in Place”:
- Strong leaders
- A safe learning environment
- Extra help for those who need it
- Having students be involved in activities that connect school to the rest of the world
- Family and community involvement
- Personal attention for all students
- Skilled teachers
- Challenging classes
- Necessary resources
- User-friendly information