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What Defines a Successful School? (11/18/14)

The era of accountability in education over the past 15 years has shone a bright light on student achievement in our nation’s schools. The performance of the student body as a whole as well as its many student subgroup populations has dominated the discussion on school performance during this time. The No Child Left Behind (2001) law reinforced this fact by rating schools as making adequate yearly progress or not based on the achievement of yearly performance indicators defined in a matrix in which every indicator had to be met to achieve passing status.

As all seasoned educators know, the data only tells a part of the story. While No Child Left Behind (2001) certainly pointed our attention in an important direction, one of its major flaws is that in its method of absolute ratings, it did not give schools credit for the important work that they were doing under its auspice, making significant measurable improvements in student learning. Because no system, human or machine is infallible or operates at optimal performance at all times, the focus on student achievement has to be placed on the significant and consistent improvements that are made.

Fast forward to today and we continue to define “what” a successful school is. To, this end, college and career are now widely viewed as the appropriate student outcomes. This has led to broader metrics being used to determine the success or effectiveness of schools. Even in this modified environment of accountability, the question still arises, “Why are some school’s successful and others not?” A 10/21/14 Education Week article by Reggie Routman attempts to answer this question.

In his article, What Reflects a Great School? Not Test Scores, Routman asserts that lost in all the focus on test scores is the understanding that what really makes a great school is the nature of the relationships within the school, because these set the context in which the work must take place. Routman correctly points out that the relationships in a school define its culture i.e. the way the school is, which determines how things are executed. The three areas that Routman identifies as most important in his article are trust, collaboration, and authenticity. From my experience in practice, I add two additional areas to Routman’s assertion, a focus on best practices and the commitment to providing rigorous instruction.

While relationships are the canvas that the school is set on, best practices are the paintbrushes with which the picture is painted. In order to have a school that is successful in consistently improving student achievement, teachers in the building must have an instructional framework that is student centered and focused on delivering the content in multiple formats that their pupils are able to relate to and internalize. The job of school leaders is to ensure that this takes place by leading the selection or development of a framework suitable for the school, monitoring and providing feedback, and providing professional development related to the framework in areas of need as they are identified.

Regarding the commitment to provide rigorous instruction, it is essential to establishing and maintaining a successful school. Students will rise to the expectations that we set. The key in making this reality is to ensure that we provide the supports for students to achieve until they master the concepts. Teaching and learning must occur at high levels that require students to think critically about the content and apply it in different contexts. By using this methodology, we can ensure that instruction is rigorous in all classrooms, preparing students for future challenges.

To close, a successful school is built on more than test scores. True, enduring success, is built on a school culture that promotes trust, collaboration, and authenticity in instruction. These must be supported by a strong instructional framework whose tenants are mutually agreed on. In this environment, teachers can then implement the instructional rigor that is needed to move students to increasingly higher levels of achievement.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO