Defining basic education: Good schools and effective schools

6 Feb

One of the mantras of this blog is that education is a partnership between the student, parent(s) or guardian(s), teacher(s), and the school. All parts of the partnership must be involved.   Many educators have long recognized that the impact of social class affects both education achievement and life chances after completion of education. There are two impacts from diversity, one is to broaden the life experience of the privileged and to raise the expectations of the disadvantaged. Social class matters in not only other societies, but this one as well.

A few years back, the New York Times did a series about social class in America. That series is still relevant. Janny Scott and David Leonhardt’s overview, Shadowy Lines That Still Divide describes the challenges faced by schools trying to overcome the disparity in education. The complete series can be found at Social Class in America

Teachers and administrators as well as many politicians if they are honest know that children arrive at school at various points on the ready to learn continuum. Teachers have to teach children at whatever point on the continuum the children are. The question for those who believe that ALL children should receive a good basic education is whether there is a difference between good and effective schools.

Joanne Yatvin, is a longtime public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She teaches part-time at Portland State University and is writing a book on good teaching in high poverty schools. Yatvin has written a thoughtful Washington Post piece, The difference between good schools and effective schools.

I just found a book review I wrote for The Elementary School Journal in 1986. The book I reviewed was McDonogh 15: Becoming a School by Lucianne Bond Carmichael.  (If you’ve never read it, you should get a copy, read it, and hold it close to your heart forever.  Better yet, buy several copies and send them to your federal and state legislators.)

Reading it reinforced and expanded my own idea of what a truly good school is and the specific things it does to empower its students and strengthen its teachers. I will quote one section of my review: a definition and description of a good school based partly on Carmichael’s experience as a principal and partly on my own.  Because I am taking the quoted section out of context and because educational terminology has changed over the years, I have altered some of it but the meaning remains the same:

To help you und erstand what I have learned from McDonogh 15, I will describe a good school as I know it and compare it to today’s popular ideal called an ”effective school.”  Let me start with a general definition of a good school and go on with more detailed descriptions of both types of schools:

A good school is a place where children learn enough worthwhile things to make a strong start in life, where a foundation is laid that supports later learning, and where children develop the desire to learn more.

 Specifically, a good school mirrors the realities of life in an ordered, adult society; it is rational and safe, a practice ground for the things people do in the outside world. The school creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of social responsibility. It focuses on learnings that grow through use–with or without more schooling–such as communication skills, decision making, craftsmanship, and group interaction.  It makes children think of themselves as people who find strength, nourishment, and joy in learning.

 In contrast, the effective school looks at learning in terms of test scores in a limited number of academic areas.  It does not take into consideration problem-solving abilities, social skills, or even complex academic skills.  It does not differentiate between dynamic and inert knowledge; it ignores motivation.  When we hear of a school where test scores are in the 90th percentile, should we not also ask what that school does to prepare students to live the next sixty years of their lives?

A good school has a broad-based and realistic curriculum with subject matter chosen not only for its relevance to higher education and jobs, but also for family and community membership and personal enrichment.  It uses teaching practices that simulate the way people live in the outside world.  Children are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and extend their skills.  They initiate projects, make their own decisions, enjoy using their skills, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.

 The effective school asks much less.  Children who “cover” a traditional curriculum in order to “master” as much of it as possible are not initiators, seekers, or builders.  They are at best reactors.  The knowledge they dutifully soak up is not necessarily broad based or useful.  It is taught because it is likely to appear on tests.  It is quickly and easily forgotten.

 Any school can become a good school when its teachers have made the connections to life in the outside world that I have been talking about. It operates as an organic entity—not a machine—moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages.  A good school is like a healthy tree.  As it grows, it sinks its roots deep into its native soil: it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun: it makes its own food; it heals its own wounds; and, in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.

There are certain elements that successful schools share. The Wisconsin Department of Education has a good guide about successful schools. Chapter One, Characteristics of Successful Schools , lists key elements:

Chapter 1 describes the seven characteristics that comprise a successful school. Briefly, they are:

  • Vision: having a common understanding of goals, principles and expectations for everyone in the learning-community
  • Leadership: having a group of individuals dedicated to helping the learning-community reach its vision
  • High Academic Standards: describing what students need to know and be able to do
  • Standards of the Heart: helping all within the learning community become caring, contributing, productive, and responsible citizens
  • Family School and Community Partnerships: “making room at the table” for a child’s first and most influential teachers
  • Professional Development: providing consistent, meaningful opportunities for adults in the school setting to engage in continuous learning
  • Evidence of Success: collecting and analyzing data about students, programs, and staff

Schools must be relentless about the basics for their population of kids.   

What does it Mean to Be Relentless About the Basics:      

  1. Students acquire strong subject matter skills in reading, writing, and math.
  2. Students are assessed often to gauge where they are in acquiring basic skills.
  3. If there are deficiencies in acquiring skills, schools intervene as soon as a deficiency assessment is made.
  4. Schools intervene early in life challenges faced by students which prevent them from attending school and performing in school.
  5. Appropriate corrective assistance is provided by the school to overcome both academic and life challenges.   

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

One Response to “Defining basic education: Good schools and effective schools”


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