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Tag Archives: good schools

What would you do to change education if you ruled the world?

That’s how Jon Snyder began the Bank Street Niemeyer Panel at the Times Center on 41st Street – March 1, 2010.

The discussion: Race, Class, and Reform.

The panelists: Irving Hamer Jr., Peter McFarlane, Michael Nettles, Jeannie Oakes, and David Sciarra.

The mental image of James Cagney closing White Heat on top of an oil tank, talking at the sky – shouting – “Top of the World Ma! Top of the World!” And then Pow! White light!

The memory of that Tears for Fears song – What is that ringing at the beginning of the song? – A synthesizer? – “Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back…”

As ruler, Peter McFarlane, Principal at the Hugo Newman College Preparatory School,  desires more community engagement. His comment – “moving schools from mediocre to greatness” – reminded me of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Jim Collins also wrote a monograph appending his book: Good to Great in the Social Sector. It distinguished between the measurements of greatness in the corporate world from those in the social sector. While the processes are elementally the same, the measurements are different.

What is a good school? What is a great school? It is easy to differentiate between bad and good – the two are polar. The distinction between good and great is far more difficult – there is a finer line identifying the two.

I’ve given good schools a lot of thought. I agreed with parts of the UCLA CRESST report, What Makes a Good School? A good school involves parents and the greater community. A great school would involve them in meaningful and transparent ways that promote its overall objectives (as defined by David Labaree and told by Eduwonkette):

  1. to prepare children for their place in the economy
  2. to achieve democratic equality
  3. to nurture social mobility

I believe as Peter believes – community involvement has the potential to transform a mediocre school to a great school.

The community school (by Sarah Fine):

Take neighborhood schools and turn them into community hubs, by extending their hours and broadening their uses. Rather than locking up on weekends and after the dismissal bell each day, a school might keep its facilities open, for use by partner organizations offering tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes. The arrangement is win-win: Service organizations gain facilities and opportunities to collaborate, and families gain a more centralized system of services.

I believe when people are able to personalize an institution, they are much more likely to care about it – nurture and protect it. While it might offer the types of community services Sarah states – “tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes” – it might also be a place to reflect – a place to get away. In a city like New York where the pace of life can run you ragged, a community school might just be the place to go to get absorbed in a book, to write, or to daydream.

But who composes the community? I am opposed to putting up barricades and drawing lines in the sand – dividing space into territories. It is ridiculous in the virtual age – an age where technology and availability of the Internet have furthered the realities of the global village.

The online Encyclopedia of Informal Education provides these three interacting – overlapping – definitions of community:

Place… where people have something in common, and this shared element is understood geographically.

Interest… people are linked together by factors such as religious belief, sexual orientation, occupation or ethnic origin.

Communion… In its weakest form we can approach this as a sense of attachment to a place, group or idea (in other words, whether there is a ‘spirit of community’). In its strongest form ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter…

Can I propose a “communionity”? A communionity school? A school that would communicate the spirit of a community school on a broader, more inclusive, more open stage?

The communionity school would retain local geographical and cultural characteristics that it would actively transmit to other schools that would do the same. This active sharing would create a more informed holistic system for learning and growing by revealing commonalities and exploring differences among peoples.


When our eldest was our only, our parents told us it was time to leave the city. One of the reasons they used was that all of the “good schools” were in the suburbs. Our parents are not alone in this belief. We also have friends who moved away because of the same belief.

Last year my wife and I got into an argument over a NY1 report about an America’s Promise Alliance study that concluded suburban schools have a higher rate of graduation than city schools. We came to an impasse in our conversation about the study.

The comment that caused the impasse: “So suburban schools ARE better than city schools.”

We argued the point until we realized we weren’t arguing about suburban versus city schools at all! We were arguing the qualities of a “good” school.

In some cases, a school is oversubscribed (meaning more students than available seats) because parents believe it to be the “good” school in the district/zone. The school has gained a positive reputation among parents.  However, I have to wonder how deeply parents are actually looking into the schools? Do they have firsthand experience with the school or were they told by peers that the school is a good school?

There’s this great comedy routine I saw once. I think it was in an Abbott and Costello movie. Costello walks in front of a skyscraper and just starts staring up. Shortly a whole crowd has formed. Everyone is staring up. As they are doing this, Abbott fleeces them and they are totally unaware. The skit ends when Costello looks away and goes back about his business. One member asks another member in the dispersing crowd, “What were you looking at?” The other member shrugs and walks away. This is what I think of when I think of parents and “good schools.”

I am afraid sometimes it just takes that right parent saying the right word in the right ears to determine the success or failure of a school. I am not denying that graduation rates and test scores also play a role. But a school – an education – is so much more – needs to be so much more especially in a democratic society where the voices of the many drive the actions of the few. In addition to academic success, students need to be trained as responsible civic participants.

I agree with the opening statement of the UCLA National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) report, What Makes a Good School?

For all the changes implemented in the American classroom, parents and the community in general are ill-prepared to measure the quality of the schools that serve them. As consumers of education, parents and other taxpayers have a right to know if their schools are doing a good job.

Their report identifies the following characteristics as being those of a good school:

  1. Strong and professional administrators and teachers.
  2. A broad curriculum available to all students.
  3. A philosophy that says all children can learn if taught, coupled with high expectations for all students.
  4. A school climate that is conducive to learning. A good school is safe, clean, caring, and well-organized.
  5. An ongoing assessment system that supports good instruction.
  6. A high level of parent and community involvement and support.

The word “Good” itself is problematic. One parent’s good is not necessarily another’s. And then there is the wordplay between “good” and “good enough,” where the latter refers to acceptable performance due the dislike the student’s parents and teachers may have towards the activity or subject. For example, a parent accepting his or her child’s mediocre math scores and saying, “that’s OK. I wasn’t good at that either.”

As parents, we want what’s best for our children. Our understanding of “what’s best” is determined by our own successes and failures as well as our social values and what we value. Our definition of a good school follows the same rationale.

In the case of my wife and me, it is not so much the characteristics of a good school we disagree on. It is the priority they are given. Academic rigor and good test scores are important but are they more important than social interaction and hands on experiences?

Before we judge schools as good or bad, we must first determine what we want for our children and then determine which institutions best promote our agenda. We must also prioritize the characteristics of a good school to determine which are most essential and which we can live without or compensate for on our own.