Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

From Good to Great Schools

By Patrick F. Bassett — February 04, 2004 10 min read
To make good schools better, we need to look at factors other than adequate yearly progress.

While the nation works to “leave no child behind” in poor and underperforming schools, we must be equally concerned about our best-performing schools, public and private. Are they world-class? Will they produce students who can compete well in a global economy and be worthy citizens of the new millennium? How many of our good schools can become great schools?

We need to ask these questions, because even our best students are losing ground to their peers in other countries. The United States could once take solace that, regardless of a wide achievement gap between high-performing and low-performing students, our best and brightest compared competitively with their counterparts in other nations. But this is no longer the case. Today, American 12th graders taking Advanced Placement courses are average or below-average performers on international comparisons of student achievement in calculus and physics, for example.

New forms of mandated accountability for public schools, such as measuring adequate yearly progress, will ensure that more schools pay attention to nontraditional learners and differentiate instruction for every student and student subgroup. But “adequate yearly progress” will not motivate successful schools to raise performance beyond their own status quo, or ratchet up the richness of student portfolios, or ensure that high-achieving students will be concerned about the world beyond their own résumés and Advanced Placement scores. Adequate yearly progress will not help schools better identify ways to use technology to accelerate learning or create new virtual demonstrations of knowledge that have real-world applications in today’s workplaces.

To make good schools better, we need to look at other factors, including the ability to create value-added performance (the degree to which even the highest- performing students are achieving at a pace greater than would be predicted) and values-added learning (the degree to which young people learn not just core curricula but also the importance of hard work, leadership, personal responsibility, and good citizenship). Exceptional schools prepare young people not only for this year’s tests, but for all of life’s tests.

For good schools, minimum-competency testing is irrelevant and wasteful of time and resources. Teachers in good schools get test results and “smile and file” them. Value-added approaches to measurement, developed by William Sanders and other researchers and used widely in Tennessee and hundreds of school districts nationwide, eliminate nonschool factors that influence learning, such as family background and parents’ education, to identify the real impact of the school and its teachers on achievement.

Value-added measurement tracks the performance of individual students over time, to identify whether they are achieving beyond what would be expected based on previous performance. Data generated from this approach can tell us whether schools we consider good or great achieve good or great results by virtue of what they do or what their students already bring to the classroom.

Tracking graduates to see how well they do at the next level of school also will provide a better barometer than one-time tests of the skills and values absorbed at the prior level of schooling. But the real test of whether a school is good or great has less to do with performance on academic assessments than with the impact of their education on students during the course of their lifetimes. To be truly good, schools must demonstrate how well their graduates are prepared for productive and satisfying futures, including postsecondary attainment, careers, earnings, job satisfaction, and citizenship.

The best indicators we have of school success in these areas come from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, or NELS, conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics. While most comparisons of student performance offer only “snapshot” evaluations of academic performance based on data drawn from a single test administered on a single day, NELS traced the life experiences of students who were 8th graders in 1988 into the 21st century.

For good schools, minimum-competency testing is irrelevant and wasteful of time and resources.

A recent analysis of the NELS results indicates that students attending independent schools earn significantly higher SAT scores and are far more likely to graduate from high school than students from other types of institutions, even when the statistics are adjusted for socioeconomic background. They are also more likely to have graduated from a college or university, and to continue to pursue an active range of personal interests after school: reading newspapers, books, and magazines more frequently; attending plays, concerts, and community events more often; engaging in more regular exercise and personal fitness; and using computers more at home.

What is more, these graduates also show a greater commitment to community service and active civic participation than students who graduated from other types of institutions. Nearly one-third (32 percent) said that they regularly participate in voluntary activities in their communities, compared with 22 percent of all survey participants. They were nearly twice as likely to volunteer for political campaigns and causes, and three-fourths of them voted in the 1996 presidential election, compared with just 57 percent overall.

These data are not presented to indicate that a particular type of school is better or worse than any other. Independent schools teach more homogeneous and high-income populations than public schools. They are less constrained by politics, accountability mandates, and high turnover of leadership and faculty than many public schools. Their form of governance (by trustees and leaders responding directly to parents) encourages an unwavering focus on college preparation.

The data are important, however, for what they say about the kinds of learning experiences that encourage both academic achievement and personal responsibility in growth. Many of the strategies in use at schools with the best NELS results, for example, purposefully advance college-preparatory core curricula for all students. They provide an atmosphere of high personal expectations, complemented by a structure of mandatory course requirements that does not offer ready opportunities to opt out of taking essential classes.

Many of the best public and private schools reinforce their commitment by providing multiple sections of core classes like Algebra 1 or Spanish, as opposed to offering a much broader range of course electives. This allows teachers to assess the skills and preparation of individual students and place them in sections that will test their abilities without overwhelming them. It also encourages collegiality and creative curriculum development among faculty members who teach the same subjects. The commitment to core requirements fosters an egalitarian sense of community among students based on shared learning experiences. Often, this takes on a “rites of passage” aura: Young scholars form study groups to prepare for tests, while older students who have mastered the material give impromptu help and counsel. The end result is a context for learning that focuses student attention on mastering each course requirement, so that students can move on to the next academic challenge.

Good independent schools, like many of their counterparts in the public sector, get to be great because they are never satisfied.

The NELS data indicate that independent school students are twice as likely to take algebra by the 8th grade, when compared with their peers in all schools. The percentage of students from independent schools who study a foreign language before the 8th grade (85 percent) exceeds the national average of students who study a foreign language before graduating from high school (82.6 percent). Essentially, good schools have an academic ethos and an achievement orientation for all.

Equally significant in this era so focused on leaving no child behind, good schools must buttress core academics with purposeful efforts to instill core values. They need to create nonacademic situations—from service learning to safe, structured programs in which students move outside the classroom to spend time in the workplace, colleges, or in community settings— that can engage young people in positive social interactions and provide space for personal growth and development.

Projects, extracurriculars, and real- world opportunities (“experiential ed”) teach the necessity of cooperation, the importance of reaching beyond oneself, and the value of building relationships with others. Great schools provide students with opportunities to explore their talents, apply what they have learned in class to structured activities, and grow in confidence.

Good independent schools, like many of their counterparts in the public sector, get to be great because they are never satisfied. This is what the management expert James Collins, in his book Good to Great, found also to be true of outstanding corporations. Those who consistently outperform their peers across a broad range of performance measures, he suggests, usually do the following:

  • Set audacious goals. Great organizations identify what they are passionate about, where their greatest strengths lie, and then work to become more efficient and effective. A good school wanting to become great would have expansive ideas— goals that might stun their more pedestrian counterparts—in a whole host of arenas: customizing the delivery of education to individual students through the use of technology, for example, expanding the audience beyond the neighborhood via distance learning, and capitalizing on the intellectual capital in the school.
  • Identify, advance, and organize talent. As James Collins puts it, great organizations get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats on the bus. To become great, a good school would know that the only brakes on moving forward are the inability to attract and keep talent and the failure to extirpate mediocrity or ineptitude. Public school unions and private school cultures often militate against such a posture, a reality that must be overcome for the bus to move forward.
  • Create an entrepreneurial culture, characterized by openness and self- discipline. Great companies encourage risk-taking and cultivate discussion and debate. To become great, a good school would explore what self-discipline and entrepreneurship might look like in the context of that school. How about seeding a team of “early adapters” with time, resources, and the permission to fail, and then let them design, launch, and market, for example, student electronic portfolios that each child would use in student-led teacher-parent conferencing?
  • Rely on enterprise-focused leaders. Typically, great companies are led by understated leaders who sublimate their egos, focus their will, and act more like Lincoln or Socrates than Patton or Caesar. To become great, a good school would invest heavily in a deliberate leadership-development program operating at all levels; build feedback systems that give reliable data on how students, teachers, leaders, and the enterprise itself are faring; and construct “build clocks,” innovative systems that would continue to keep time when the clock-builder himself moved on.
  • Use technology to accelerate transformation. Technology in schools should not be the end but the means. To become great, a good school would tie technology closely to curriculum, and to individualized, customized service to students that would create real changes in teaching, learning, and results.

Even successful schools still have a way to go before the management gurus of the future will readily cite them as benchmarks against which the leaders of other organizations will want to measure themselves. But one day, great schools will be more businesslike (just as great businesses are increasingly more school-like).

For now, however, good schools must set more audacious goals for success than the noble baseline of helping all students reach current standards. We need to find new ways to make seemingly effective institutions stretch further. We need to perfect new approaches to teaching, learning, and measuring performance that will enable these good schools to become true exemplars of learning for the 21st century.

Recasting the old axiom that says “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” James Collins warns us that “good is the enemy of great.” There will be many schools that aspire to greatness. We should encourage them.

Patrick F. Bassett is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, located in Washington. The association’s recently released report on the NELS research and independent schools is available at www.nais.org.

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