Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Good Schools

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..."; no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

One of the great misconceptions of public opinion research on education is that everyone rates the school with which they are most familiar as good and "all those other schools" as bad. Turns out, there is just a smidge of truth to that notion. There are, in fact, good schools everywhere. They exist in every state, province, and country, in every demographic, configuration, and social economic circumstance. And good schools are good schools no matter where they are.

So, how do you know if your child attends a good school? How do you know if you are actually being objective when you say that you work at a good school? Some would say look at test scores. Others would look at neighborhood conditions, graduation rates, the percentage of kids taking or passing Advanced Placement exams, per-pupil spending, and on and on. Our answer is far more comprehensive and defies the kind of false results that are endemic to those types of measures: Use our indicators.

ASCD's indicators of a whole child approach force the user to move beyond the "percent proficient" definition of a good school. They force the user to expand the definition beyond a single teacher, leader, or grade level; beyond a program geared to short term success; and beyond narrow, single-issue reactive strategies to proactive, comprehensive, and sustainable action for each child.

I've framed this column over time using a four-question formula about each of our indicators:

  1. Are our children engaged in their learning, their school, and their community?
  2. How do we know?
  3. What have we done to make it so?
  4. What have we taught them so that they can keep it so?

But I want to be quite clear: Although those questions begin the conversation and move each of us toward the right types of data and the right type of conversations, they fail to capture the level of detail it takes to really do this work. They are necessary and insufficient for a good school.

For example, a good school asks and can provide evidence that

  • The school's health education curriculum and instruction support and reinforce the health and well-being of each student by addressing the physical, mental, emotional, and social dimensions of health.
  • The school teaches, models, and provides opportunities to practice social-emotional skills, including effective listening, conflict resolution, problem solving, personal reflection and responsibility, and ethical decision making.
  • The school offers a range of opportunities for students to contribute to and learn within the community at-large, including service learning, internships, apprenticeships, and volunteer projects.
  • The school personalizes learning, including the flexible use of time and scheduling to meet academic and social goals for each student.
  • Each student in the school has access to challenging, comprehensive curriculum in all content areas.
  • The school's professional development plan reflects emphasis on and implementation of a whole child approach to education, is individualized to meet staff needs, and is coordinated with ongoing school improvement efforts.

When a school can provide evidence that these statements are true consistently and sustainably, then it is most assuredly a good school and nothing else matters.

Comments (1)

Wayne Gersen

March 21, 2012

Buckminster Fuller wrote, “The best way to change the existing reality is to create a new reality that makes the old one obsolete”... and this set of proposed metrics is a step in that direction. Now, if we could only get the corporate types who are advocating tests as the sole means of measuring school performance to realize that everyone learns at a different pace in a different way we might be able to really reform schools.

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