The Ideal School

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Somewhere there must be a school community that demonstrates that progress is being made.

Is reform of American elementary and secondary education making any progress? Tough to tell, because the federal role in education is really very small (although fairly noisy), and at the state level, the assessments seem rigged. Either all students pass the new proficiency tests, suggesting that the goal was to look good rather than to create assessments based on quality standards; or most students flunk the state examinations, indicating that there is no reasonable correlation between the tests and the actual curriculum and the professional development of teachers.

Better, perhaps, to look for individual schools that have made some sense for themselves of the reform movement. Somewhere there must be a school community that has clarified its philosophy and values, clearly stated its mission, priorities, and goals, and, even if everything has not yet been achieved, demonstrates that progress is being made. Does that school exist? Let's take a look at an ideal school and its measures of success.

The curriculum of the school is designed by the faculty to match the strengths and to meet the needs of the students at the school, not some mythical median blend of the state's students or the tens of millions of students who attend the other 110,000 schools in the nation.

All teachers teach in their areas of academic preparation, in their college major or minor field of study. No expert in health or physical education is assigned to teach social studies.

Teachers work together across departments, creating a connected curriculum that integrates the research on how the brain functions. Time and money are provided for this interdisciplinary cooperation by an administration and a board of education or trustees dedicated to giving professional development the highest priority. Cooperation exists across the organizational divisions of the school, too, and it is not unusual for teachers of young children and of teenagers to work together, even observe each other's classes.

Every teacher is a teacher of English, holding students to high standards of usage and communication. Written work in mathematics (taken every year by all students) and lab reports are evaluated for grammar and style, just as English papers are.

The fine and performing arts are central, not peripheral, to the core curriculum. There is color and light and movement in high school classrooms, again consistent with the latest research on teaching and learning. Student and professional art is everywhere.

The focus of the school is the student, and the indicators of progress are student outcomes and achievement. One carefully monitored number is average daily attendance; student enthusiasm for coming to school is always a good barometer.

While the school adheres to state and federal standards and requirements, the curriculum is not controlled by the state department of education, the College Board, or book publishers. Of course, students are prepared for the state proficiency tests and Advanced Placement examinations, but there is very limited teaching to the test. Students learn without cramming for exams imposed by outside agencies, and the joy of focused teaching and learning results in high performance.

School officials do not comply with requests from newspapers and magazines for data to compare and rank schools; instead, the school's World Wide Web site and publications have extensive information, and teachers and administrators concentrate on accountability to the parents.

No one at the school misconstrues U.S. Supreme Court decisions to mean that the teaching of values is prohibited. Courtesy and civility are emphasized throughout the school, as are citizenship, responsibility, respect for property, and community service.

There is extensive neighborhood and community cooperation, with ongoing contact among public, parochial, and independent schools in the area. Scheduled meetings for teachers, administrators, and board members, student dramatic and musical productions, and service projects are typical examples of collaboration. The prevailing ethic for all these activities is that, together, the school and other partner institutions are educating young people for participation and leadership in a democratic society.

The focus of the school is the student, and the indicators of progress are student outcomes and achievement.

Active involvement by parents—and grandparents and adults in the neighborhood—is encouraged. There are even adults who audit classes. It is no surprise that senior citizens support operating budgets for education, and in the immediate area, private school parents vote overwhelmingly for the public school operating levy.

Educators believe in checking the pulse of everyone in the school community. Dialogue and polling help the schools stay centered. School leaders know that high-quality teaching, safety, individual attention and small class size, and emphasis on moral development and social responsibility are the characteristics most Americans value in their schools. Parents know that the faculty and board are serious about these priorities because they get translated into funding. The student-to-teacher ratio is 10-to-1, and a psychologist and a counselor are available for every 125 students.

There is enormous respect for diversity. Some families observe their holy days on Friday, others on Saturday, and others on Sunday, and school administrators always carefully plan school activities respecting various traditions. Dietary restrictions based on religious principles are as important as good nutrition; the resulting choice of meals is a happy plus for everyone. Buildings and grounds are fully accessible to the disabled.

Both the letter and the spirit of the law of Title IX are alive, with total parity in opportunity and budget for girls' and boys' athletics and coaches' salaries, number of contests, travel, and uniforms. Several teams are coed, such as track and golf, and as much as possible there is a no-cut policy. Coaches understand that they are, first of all, teachers, and that the school mission emphasizes the opportunity for students to learn through their activities and athletics. The goal is to have all members of the team play in interscholastic contests. This is not to concede the possibility of actually winning, because fundamentals and conditioning make the teams superbly prepared, and the squads are deep in talent because so many student athletes have game experience.

The new arts and communications center proves that the school is on the cutting edge of telecommunications and education technology, but there is also a carpentry shop in the facility, underscoring the mission's commitment "to educate the mind, heart, and hands." While the world's great libraries, museums, and universities are linked to the school's computers, there is a deep feeling for the land and all life, and for playfulness, too. The environment and outing clubs are among the school's most popular activities, you will frequently find a poetry class outside under a tree, and children still enjoy fingerpainting.

Board members are committed to their fiduciary and policy-formulation responsibilities, and are keenly interested in preserving the integrity and independence of the school. Before any application for federal aid is made, the board studies the possible implications of federal involvement, from paperwork burden to invasive, controlling regulations. The board models the school's dedication to the wider community by communicating with other school boards, including collaborating in leadership and trusteeship. The board is not reluctant to take a strong stand on public-policy issues: Last year, there was a resolution on the impact of media violence on young people, and this year, the board is involved with area universities, businesses, and foundations on research for a seamless web of education, from kindergarten through college.

Hypothetical or real, this school community that values all its members—students, teachers, trustees, parents, friends, and alumni? That is taking a rational approach to planning and development?

We can only hope that this school is real, perhaps that it represents many schools creating a network of communication and records of progress to give life to reform in American education. The aggregate statistics do not indicate that quality change is occurring; but by examining the situation school by school by school, we just might find some magnificent developments out there.

Peter D. Relic is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington and a former public school superintendent in Ohio, Connecticut, and North Carolina.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Pages 30, 33

Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as The Ideal School
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