What Makes a School Great? 5 things to Look for in a School

What makes a school great?

How to find the right school for my child?

5 things to Look for in a School?

Introducing a 5-Part series of blog posts on how to spot a great school.

PS191 Museum Magnet School District 3 What makes a great school

“How do I find the right school for my child?” or

“What makes a school great?”

are two questions parents often ask me. So, I’ve compiled this five part series for parents to help them evaluate different schools and find the right school for their child. “What makes a school great?”, is a difficult question.  One answer is “Great Teachers.” Another answer is high test scores.” An additional answer is “a visionary dynamic school leader.” The truth is great schools are hard to spot.  High test scores alone don’t make a great school. A great teacher by herself does not make a great school either.  None of these factors alone make a great school. So, what do parents look for in a great school?

I always answer this question by saying,

“Great Teachers are what make a school great. But, a school is only as good as its worst teacher.”

Schools cannot be judged on a few teachers alone. Teachers can only be successful if all of the components of a school are working together seamlessly. Great teachers don’t work alone because they are part of a community of learners.

A great school is an interdependent eco-system that weaves together administrators, teachers, and parents all working to achieve a common mission.

Just as when you purchase a car you can’t look at the price tag alone without knowing the safety record, maintenance costs and fuel efficiency of the car.  You can’t evaluate schools based solely on one factor like test scores or teachers. You have to look underneath the hood, examine carefully and ask probing questions to spot a great school.  Numbers alone do not give a complete measure of a school. Just as you have to take a car for a test drive, you have to visit a school.

Ok, Sharon, as a parent, “What should I look for in a great school?”

In order to measure a school parents should look for five essential factors of a great school:

1. Great teachers
2. Visionary administrators
3. Excellent curriculum and learning opportunities
4. Collaborative school culture and tone
5. Active community engagement.

Without strength in any one of these factors a school will not be complete or great.

Great schools are an interdependent eco-system. It’s impossible to separate their parts.

Great schools are run by visionary leaders who create a school culture that balances the eco-system by supporting the needs of the whole community including students, teachers and parents. Great schools provide a curriculum with learning opportunities that are aligned with the mission of an active learning community.  No one number can measure each of these factors in a school. Everyone has a different method for rating and ranking schools. The Wall Street Journal ranks schools based on college acceptance at one of the eight most selective colleges listed in the U.S. News & World Report, while U.S. News ranks high schools based on number of students passing AP and IB exams. Forbes ranks based on student/faculty ratio, percentage of faculty with advanced degrees, size of the school’s endowment and matriculation into the top 10 most selective colleges.  But most rating methods are based on either test scores or college acceptances.

In the Forbes.com article,  What Makes a Great School?, Sam Chaltain describes how the method for evaluating schools based on test scores developed with the school choice movement. Bill Jackson founded the Greatschools.org website in 1998 to give all parents access to uniform information so that they could evaluate schools fairly by comparing the same criteria. When greatschools.org began to examine how schools obtained their “ratings” on the website they found many schools were rated based solely or mostly on their No Child Left Behind (NCLB) state test scores. For example,  85% of New York City’s Department of Education’s grade given to its schools on the annual progress report is based on student test scores. GreatSchools.org realized that test scores alone do not provide parents with a complete portrait of a school, so they’ve piloted a new, more comprehensive evaluation tool that measures five factors, excluding test scores, to give parents a more complete picture of schools. I agree with three of their five factors that should be examined to produce a portrait of a school: teachers, active family engagement and supportive environmental conditions.

Huffington Post’s education article by Jim Mcguire What Makes a Good School?,  says “that a great school is an enthusiastic place where students want to be.” I agree wholeheartedly that a good school is bursting with student energy but I disagree with the criteria he chooses to judge a school.  Schools are more interconnected than Jim McGuire describes in his factors to evaluate a school.

I’ve outlined each of the 5 necessary components for evaluating a great school below.

1) Great Teachers – Great teachers guide each student to learn how to learn not just to absorb the material.  Great teachers help students make personal connections with the material so they can learn how to ask questions and how to monitor their own learning process.  When students learn process as well as content they can apply the learning process to other material.

2) Administration – Administrators set the tone and culture for the school with a clear vision of how to communicate and implement the school’s mission. Administrators choose the people to hire, allocate the budget and determine the schedule and curriculum.  Great schools have a culture of high expectations and effective discipline that’s enforced through caring and designed to nurture all types of students.

3) Curriculum and Learning Opportunities – An essential component of great schools is a vibrant community of learners with curriculum that provides depth, breadth, and range:

  • Depth of instruction – a curriculum with depth accommodates different learning styles and many levels of learning from beginners to the most advanced students.
  • Breadth of subjects – a curriculum with breadth offers a variety of classes including not just all the arts and a range of languages but some experimental classes.  Social and emotional learning are taught through an advisory program.
  • Range of opportunities – A great school provides many distinctive opportunities for students to learn, in different modes in and out of the classroom including an advisory program that supports social and emotional learning.  A great school offers not just performances and sports but co-curricular activities like, ongoing community service programs, exchange programs, model UN and robotics teams.

4) Tone and culture – Administrators also set the school culture and tone by deciding which school events to celebrate and how they will embrace a wide range of different students.  I look for schools where high expectations are communicated for all students in a culture that celebrates learning from mistakes as well as successes.

5) Community Engagement Schools that communicate well with parents and students engage the whole community in accomplishing the mission.  Students receive a consistent message from home and school. Great schools have organized, active Parents Associations that work in sync with the teachers and administrators to contribute volunteers as well as funds to the school experience.

Over the next few blog posts, I am going to discuss each of the 5 criteria to evaluate a school: Teachers, administrators, curriculum & learning opportunities, school culture and tone and community engagement in more depth. It’s hard to separate any part of a school from the eco-system because each is so interdependent. But, I am going to try. Before I explain each part in depth,  I hope this post, has laid a foundation for how parents can evaluate a school as a complete eco-system. Check back soon, to read about “Evaluating Teachers.”

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