What Makes a School Good?

Published February 1, 2000

When newspaper food critics rate the quality of restaurants, they usually devote most of their efforts to judging the quality of the food that is served rather than comparing menu prices. It’s widely recognized by consumers that you don’t get better value for the money simply by paying higher prices.

However, when education writers rate the quality of public schools, many of them do little more than compare how much each school spends, rather than examining the quality of educational achievement.

With public education, there is frequently an underlying assumption that children get a better education when schools charge higher prices. For example, a recent Richard Rothstein column in the New York Times deplored the inequality of education spending between states, but failed to note that high levels of spending in states like New Jersey had not produced high levels of educational achievement.

What are the critical success factors for high-performing public schools?

No Excuses

When Samuel Casey Carter of The Heritage Foundation recently interviewed principals at schools that performed at a high level despite having a predominantly poor and minority student body, he observed that the schools had seven common characteristics:

  • principals make the decisions
  • pursuit of tangible goals
  • high-quality teachers
  • regular student testing
  • foster student self-reliance
  • foster parental support
  • hard work aces tough standards

“Outstanding principals know that all children can excel academically regardless of race, income level, or family background,” said Carter. “But if we are to see more such high-performing schools, we need to stop making excuses for failure.”

Teach Reading Early

In 1975, when Thaddeus Lott took over as principal of the Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School in Houston, Texas, 82 percent of its third-graders could not read at their grade level. After five years, 85 percent were reading at or above grade level. By 1996, every single one of Wesley’s third-graders passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in reading.

Lott eschews the idea of waiting until children are “developmentally” ready to learn. Rather, he prefers to start teaching them to read in kindergarten.

Lott’s recipe for success:

  • phonics-based reading instruction
  • a proven curriculum
  • rigorous teacher training
  • strict discipline
  • high expectations of teachers
  • high expectations of students
  • a belief that any child can learn

“Other principals hire remedial teachers,” noted Phyllis Hunter, the Houston district’s manager of reading instruction. “Thaddeus hires teacher who keep kids out of remedial classes.”

What Works?

In 1986, the U.S. Department of Education published a small book entitled What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning. The book provides a list of findings about teaching and learning that are supported by consistent and persuasive research evidence and expert opinion.

In 1990, Colorado’s Independence Institute published a digest of the book’s findings as a Quality Checklist for Education Consumers. The Checklist, authored by John K. Andrews Jr., is for parents and taxpayers to use in evaluating their local school, its teachers, and its classrooms.

“Education, despite efforts to make it so, is not inherently mysterious,” wrote then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in the foreword to What Works. “Armed with good information, the American people can be trusted to fix their own schools.” The Quality Checklist provides the tool kit for that effort.

Parents’ Handbook

In 1998, the Texas Public Policy Foundation published the Parents’ Handbook for Successful Schools. Authored by the Foundation’s Director of Education Policy, Chris Patterson, the Handbook provides a checklist to help parents (1) identify what activities are important to academic success and (2) determine the extent to which these activities are present in their child’s school.

The questions not only help identify a school’s curriculum and instructional practices–what is taught and how students are taught–but also to identify changes that may be required to improve the school’s academic success.

The Handbook is based on two principles:

  • The purposes of education should be intellectual development and high academic achievement.
  • Elements of curricula and instruction should be based on scientific research showing that the practices increase academic achievement.

“This handbook condenses into fewer than twenty pages many volumes of wisdom about what makes a good school,” said Lynne Cheney, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.