School & District Management Opinion

The Five Attributes of Successful Schools

By Matthew Lynch — June 29, 2016 5 min read
Illustration of a person looking through a telescope to a red flag at the top of the mountain.
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Students across the globe need effective schools. While the American school system as a whole may be falling behind international standards, there are still some schools that stand out.

Sure, the context of schooling will impact attributes that contribute to effectiveness in specific schools. But at the same time, there are attributes that contribute to effectiveness across schooling contexts. If we understand the attributes of effectiveness, we can observe which attributes exist at successful schools.

There are five common attributes that make up an effective school.

1. Leadership

The first attribute is quality leadership. Students perform better when the principal and school board members provide strong leadership. Effective leaders are visible, can successfully convey the school’s goals and visions, collaborate with teachers to enhance their skills, and are involved in the discovery of and solutions to problems.

2. High Expectations

The second attribute is having high expectations of students as well as teachers. High expectations of students have repeatedly been shown to have a positive impact on student performance. Students are somewhat dependent on the expectations placed on them during this period of their lives, as they are still shaping their personal sense of ability and esteem. Teachers who are expected to teach at high levels of effectiveness can reach the level of expectations, particularly when teacher evaluations and professional development are geared toward improving instructional quality.

3. Ongoing Evaluation

The third attribute of a successful school is the ongoing screening of student performance and development. Schools should use assessment data to compare their students with others from across the country. Effective use of assessment data allows schools to identify problematic areas of learning at the classroom and school levels, so that teachers can generate solutions to address the problems.

4. Goals and Direction

The fourth attribute of a successful school is the existence of goals and direction, According to research, the successful school principal actively constructs goals and then effectively communicates them to appropriate individuals (e.g., students, teachers, and the community at large). School principals must also be open and willing to incorporate innovation into goals for school processes and practices. So it’s important to invite input from all stakeholders in the process of developing school goals. Student performance has been shown to improve in schools where the entire school community works toward goals that are communicated and shared among all in the learning environment.

5. Secure and Organized

The fifth and final attribute of a successful school is the extent to which the school is secure and organized. For maximum learning to occur, students need to feel secure. Respect is a quality that is promoted and is a fundamental aspect of an effective and safe school. Successful schools also have a number of trained staff and programs, such as social workers, who work with difficult or troubled students before situations get out of hand.

Apart from the five attributes of a successful school already mentioned, the size of the school seems to be an attribute in the school’s effectiveness. Research has found that the smaller the school, the better students perform, especially in the case of older students. This is the rationale behind the concept of schools-within-schools. Students in smaller learning environments feel more connected to their peers and teachers, pass classes more often, and are more likely to go to college. Schools-within-schools involve creative use of the same teaching workforce to provide additional opportunities for learning for smaller groups of students or specialized teaching to students who require extra attention.

This environment could be created in the form of divided streams for mathematics education. Students who want to pursue studies in the humanities would need a mathematical education grounded in statistics and graphical representation, because this focus will be more relevant and prevalent during their postsecondary education career.

Students who intend to pursue a career in engineering or applied physics, for example, would have completely different needs, such as a greater focus on calculus and highly theoretical mathematical concepts like number theory. Creating schools-within-schools for these students would have lasting and measurable benefits for them, as well as benefits for the teacher, who could teach smaller groups of students and offer greater individual attention to student queries and difficulties.

A number of school districts view preschool education as an attribute that will influence overall effectiveness across all schools located within the district. Evidence suggests that children with preschool experiences fare better academically and socially as they enter kindergarten and beyond. Experiences in literacy and numeracy among early learners not only prepare preschoolers for a kindergarten curriculum that has heightened expectations of prior knowledge, but also help identify early learners who need additional support to ensure they have positive learning experiences later.

Additional attributes that influence effective schools include time to learn, teacher quality, and parental trust. Research supports the view that the more time a student spends learning, and the more efficiently that time is used, the higher their achievement. Schools that find creative ways to extend learning time will likely be more effective. Furthermore, schools with high-quality teachers also tend to be more effective.

Schools able to hire teachers from high-quality teacher education programs are more likely to be effective. But school effectiveness can also be influenced by the frequency, relevancy, and quality of the teacher professional development offered by the school or school district. Teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to attend prestigious teacher education colleges still have several opportunities to develop after embarking on their professional career. Support for these initiatives at a school or school district level tends to improve overall teacher quality, regardless of their college of origin.

Trust and parental participation are also features of a successful school. Trust between all parties of the school community is vital for enhancing the school’s effectiveness because it supports the prospect that parents and teachers believe in each other’s motives and actions. Parental participation is also important because it sends the message to students that the adults in their lives--both teachers and parents--believe in the importance of education and are willing to make time to support students’ educational experiences and efforts.

How well does your school embody the five attributes of a successful school?

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.