What Makes a Good School?

What Makes a Good School?
February 1, 2001

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)

"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

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
    . 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

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

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."

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)