What Makes a Good School?

Published February 1, 2001

“Do you know how hard it was to find a good school system? We won’t be able to afford the lifestyle our neighbors live, but at least we won’t have to worry about the schools. Why should it be this hard to find good schools?”

“I went to school and told the teacher point-blank, ‘He’s giving surface answers: I can hardly read the stuff, and you mark it ‘good’! How can it be good when you can’t read it?'”

— White parent
Scarsdale, New York
— African-American parent
Baltimore County, Maryland
from “Time to Move On,” Public Agenda (1997)


Everybody wants good schools, and if they were easy for educators to create or for parents to choose, everybody would have one.

While it’s an easy matter to identify some schools as bad because violence or disruptive behavior shatter the environment for learning, an associate editor of the American School Board Journal warns that a culture of anti-intellectualism also does little for a school’s learning environment.

Not surprisingly, since they have the most to lose from a failure of K-12 education, parents and employers are quite clear about what they want from schools: graduates with good work habits who can think, read, write, and add. As well as mastery of basic skills, parents also want a focus on academics, no social promotion, a safe environment, and no disruptive behavior. According to a recent survey by The American Enterprise, successful schools build on this formula by making additional moral, intellectual, disciplinary, and behavioral demands on their students.


What’s a “Bad” School?

Often, bad schools exhibit features that make it relatively easy to identify the school as one to which a parent would not willingly send a child for an “education.” These recent news stories provide examples of such schools:

  • Ninth-grader Michael Roybal watched 23 movies at Santa Fe High School last fall in drama, history, health, and physical education classes, according to The New Mexican. He would have seen 24 but his mother pulled him out of school and enrolled him in a private school when she discovered he was scheduled to watch the R-rated Leaving Las Vegas in a pre-Christmas health class.
  • Hallway violence is so bad at IS 275 in Harlem that the New York City middle school is often placed in “lockdown” mode like a prison, according to Carl Campanile of the New York Daily News. Only 2 percent of the school’s eighth-graders passed the standardized state math exam last year, and just 9 percent read at or above grade level.
  • “Ten years as a bartender never prepared Lisa Dick for the kind of violence she experienced when she became a teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools,” wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Rick Pierce last December. “Dick, a Froebel Elementary School teacher, has been kicked, punched, bitten, cursed at and ‘flipped off’–all by second-graders.”

Schools that emphasize “fun” activities may not be good schools, either, warns American School Board Journal associate editor Kathleen Vail in the January 2001 cover story, “Nurturing the Life of the Mind.” She contends a child’s intellectual development is shortchanged in schools where “students are watching movies, working on multimedia presentations, surfing the Internet, putting on plays, and dissecting popular song lyrics.”

The likely result of this entertainment-like learning environment, according to Vail, is that children will learn to avoid anything that takes an effort to understand or to appreciate, such as books, poetry, art, music–or even public policy discussions.

“Anti-intellectualism is part of our history and our culture, but it doesn’t have to define our schools,” says Vail, citing project-based learning as one example of how “fun” school activities have diverted significant blocks of time away from teaching basic skills such as reading. Few demands are made on students and lesson content has been de-emphasized in favor of teaching students how to find information on the Internet.

“Perhaps the best way to rid schools of anti-intellectualism is to reintroduce liberal arts: literature, history, poetry, philosophy, art,” concludes Vail, even though she recognizes such a suggestion will generate protests of “elitism” and “it’s too hard for our students.” But she cites the comments of New York writer Earl Shorris, who established a program to teach the humanities to the inner-city poor.

“You’ve been cheated,” Shorris tells his students. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. . . . Will the humanities make you rich? Yes, absolutely. But not in terms of money. In terms of life.”


What Employers Want

“My company needs entrepreneurial minds and intellectual capital–people who can think, read, write, and add,” businessman John H. Scribante told a U.S. House subcommittee last June. Yet, he complained, “I interview many young people who are products of Minnesota schools and they cannot solve simple conversion equations.”

Employers in Cleveland agree, saying recent high school graduates frequently lack the language and math skills required for entry-level jobs. As well as dressing inappropriately, speaking imprecisely, and having poor work habits, many young applicants are unable to apply their mathematical knowledge to real-world problems, according to a recent account in Catalyst for Cleveland Schools.

“If you ask them what’s 2 + 2 they can get that,” Regional Transit Authority recruitment manager Douglas M. Dykes told Catalyst‘s Sandra Clark. “But if you put it in story form” by applying the equation to formulae for cleaning solutions, “they can’t get that.”


What Parents Want

In a 1998 survey of African-American and white parents, Public Agenda found African-American parents are willing to set aside the goal of achieving more diversity and integration for the sake of raising academic standards and achievement. But the survey, titled Time To Move On, also showed that both white and African-American parents were in close agreement on what they wanted from schools.

When asked how important it was for a school to do certain things, both groups of parents agreed that the following items were “absolutely essential:”

  • Be free from weapons, drugs, and gangs (93 percent);
  • Make sure students master the academic basics (91 percent);
  • Promote students to the next grade only after they show that they have learned what they are supposed to (82 percent);
  • Make sure students behave themselves in class (82 percent).


The Secret of Good Schools

A recent survey of 14 successful schools by The American Enterprise revealed a remarkably similar set of common traits shared by most of the schools, even though the schools themselves varied enormously–high school, elementary, inner-city, rural, public, private, charter, religious, military, predominantly black, and predominantly white.

“Our profiles are of schools that produce disciplined, striving, competent graduates ready to contribute to America in one of the thousands of ways our country needs help–whether through academic pursuits, commercial creativity, diligent military service, or just plain good character and decent citizenship,” writes editor-in-chief Karl Zinsmeister in the January/February 2001 cover story, “The Deep Secrets of Good Schools.”

Like Vail, he notes America’s local schools are not demanding enough of their students. But in looking closely at schools that have made significant advances in intellect and character with the students they were handed, Zinsmeister identifies a similar basic formula that all of the schools apply to their work:

  • High demands on students, pushing them and demanding effort;
  • Strict discipline;
  • A strong and unapologetic moral component, including a respect for religion;
  • An emphasis on teaching intellectual basics;
  • A preference for time-tested books and curricula;
  • Clear standards of dress, grooming, and comportment; and
  • An insistence on politeness, respect, and courtesy.

“The secret ingredient in most successful education is cost-free,” concludes Zinsmeister. “That ingredient is brow sweat.”

Significantly, the 14 successful schools vary widely in classroom practices and educational techniques. There is no single answer to the question of educational excellence, says Zinsmeister, but “multiple answers for children of different ages, origins, and temperaments.”

“Because we need wide choices to suit different circumstances, we ought to be encouraging competition among schooling alternatives,” he concludes. “We should require every school to disclose its results, then let parents and children select the best match for their situation–without pointlessly eliminating alternatives like private or religious schools.”