What is a good school?

I look at dozens of schools each month.  I look for indications of school performance, evidence of student learning, a track record, positive school culture, leadership, data, results, metrics – lots of things.  Mostly though, I look for organizational integrity.  There are many successful school models out there, which is not surprising.  What is surprising is that there is a handful of things they all have in common.

One quality all good schools have in common is a full-depth integrity of intention, practice, and outcome.  Without fail, in all good schools I have found, there is a noticeable alignment in what people say, what people do, and what they expect – and it extends across all constituencies.  The way the administration interacts with the faculty and staff is similar in key ways to the way the teachers interact with students.  Families, board, external partners, the local community – it doesn’t matter.  An authentic school culture is obvious and operative to everyone.

But the alignment of intention and practice and measured outcome is key.  Is what you say you do and what you actually do the same?  And are they both well designed to produce the outcomes you say you want for kids?  Or is your rhetoric mismatched to the lived experience of students and teachers?  Misalignment of intention and practice is one of the first things people will notice about a school.  They said it would be this way; it turned out to be quite different.

Parker Palmer once suggested that the one question every student asks of every teacher at some point is. “Are you the same on the inside as you are on the outside?”  The answer matters.  I will trust you if I think the answer is yes – and learning with a teacher always requires trust.  (I will also slip in here, not too ridiculously, I hope, that that is the scariest thing about clowns – the disparity between outer and inner.)

In my work, I am afforded the opportunity on almost a daily basis to interview school people about their schools.  I talk to superintendents, principals, heads of school, administrators, teachers, and others.  The conversation always begins, in one form or another, with “What’s working at your school?”  And it always progresses to, “How do you know it’s working?”  It is an illuminating question, answered as often with a nervous chuckle as with a straightforward response.  My inclination is always to put folks at ease.  Often I hear myself explaining that I know it is a difficult question, that many schools are struggling to answer it, and that the metrics that measure what matters just haven’t been invented yet.

But I don’t let them off the hook.  It is a simple but important and often neglected question: How do you know that what your school is doing is the right thing for kids?  It asks educators to be reflective, honest, thoughtful about the whole, and compelled.

The answers I get are usually of one of three kinds and in about equal measure.  Defensive, as in, “We don’t need evidence to know that it is happening” or “Not everything can be measured” or “We don’t value what other schools value.”  Honest and unprepared, as in, “Good question.  We don’t know.  We would love to be able to measure what we value most, but we don’t know how to do that yet.”

The last kind of answer I get about a third of the time is confident, as in, “I know our place-based learning practices work because I can drop any of my students in any place in the country and they will start by saying, ‘What can we do here? How can we improve this place?'”  A teacher said that to me once and it blew me away.  Or this, from a principal recently, “We know our performance assessments are working because you can ask any of our students about what they are learning and why and they can tell you.  They could not do that three years ago.”

The ability to answer the question. “How do you know that what you are doing at your school is working for students?” is critical because it integrates intention, practice, and outcome, and because it is one hallmark of a good school.

Caveat, and this opens a larger conversation for a later date: the important part is not just coming up with an answer to the question.  The important part is doing the work that enables a confident and authentic answer.   In a nutshell, that entails first identifying your intentions for kids.  What do you intend for your students?  Second, naming your outcomes.  What skills and understandings will manifest from your program?  And third, designing the practices, experiences, and structures that support your outcomes in the service of your intentions for kids.

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