What Makes a School Good

At a time when our schools and colleges are crowded as never before, we think it may be stimulating to look into the performance of outstanding American high schools. Here we turn the spotlight on Newton, Massachusetts, and thereafter we shall publish articles about the East High School in Denver, the William Allen High School of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the nongraded high school in Melbourne, Florida, and the Dunbar School in Chicago. To introduce the series we call upon DR. EUGENE YOUNGERT, who served for sixteen years as superintendent of the Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois before joining the research team of James Bryant Conant.

FOR many years, high schools were attended primarily by students interested in general and higher education. As a consequence, the curriculum was overwhelmingly academic, and the dropout rate was very high. Under the circumstances, it is understandable that high schools came to be judged on the basis of academic excellence and of the success of their graduates in college, and not at all on the basis of their ability to serve the needs of all girls and boys.

Dr. James B, Conant in The American High School Today measured the worth of the school by its ability to provide a good general education for all students as future citizens of a democracy, as well as effective elective programs for the development of useful skills, and sound academic education for those who will go on to college. In short, his criterion of excellence is the ability of the high school to serve its entire potential student group.

In the months ahead the Atlantic will be speaking affirmatively about individual high schools that are doing a good job educationally with the wholehearted support of their communities. These schools will vary markedly from highly academic to largely vocational, but they will be united in their devotion to the ideal of service to the young.

One question that flows naturally from such an educational series is, Why is it that some communities seem consistently to have good school systems? I think, for instance, of a school system in the southern portion of one of our central states. A few years ago, when it became necessary to build new schools for new crops of children, the city decided to take on the added burden of completely remodeling all its school buildings so that no child would have to go to a school inadequate by modern standards. On the other hand, I know of a reasonably well-to-do community that still uses an 1881 school building which no child should be asked to attend. What makes the difference?

There are three factors that are significant:

1. Consistently good schools tend to be in communities that know the value of good education, that want good education positively, and that are willing to pay for good education whether or not they are well off financially.

A certain prominent community recently had to close its schools before the end of the school year because it ran out of money to pay bills, including salaries. Only then did it vote the tax increase needed to support its schools. Through the years, that community has failed to produce the high quality school system that its ample resources should permit. There has been conflict between the political power and the schools and bickering within the staff. Public education has never been important enough to justify rallying the whole community to its support.

Another community of far less financial worth but known as “a good school city” has never defeated a proposal to increase taxes for teachers’ salaries and has had the wisdom to modernize its entire school plant in order to improve educational opportunity for its children.

Where we have educational wastelands, it is because of communities that do not believe enough in education to make it a matter of first importance.

2. Communities that have consistently had good schools have consistently elected able citizens to their boards of education. I know of one good school system that for as long as fifty years has elected no poor board member. Such communities take time to understand the function of board members, a practice which has kept them out of much school trouble.

The board of education makes policy; the superintendent of schools is the board’s chief executive officer, charged with the initiation of policy for board consideration and with responsibility to the board for successful operation of the schools. When there is trouble at the top level, it may well be either that board members have attempted to share in the administration of the schools, which is the superintendent’s business, or that the superintendent has attempted to be too influential in the field of policy, which is the board’s business. But when a good board and a good superintendent work properly together, the result is likely to be a good school system.

How does a community go about getting a good board of education?

The first requisite is that membership on the board of education be held in high esteem. In many cities and towns, school-board members are representative of the highest order of citizenship in the community. Is this true of yours?

The second requisite is a respected procedure for getting good people to run for election to the board. What is needed is a caucus-type nominating committee, devoted to its duty. This caucus committee should be widely representative of community organizations interested in public education, although I know of one very successful caucus committee that is set up by the ParentTeacher Association on the ground that the community considers the PTA closer to the needs of the schools than any other public body. The caucus committee ascertains the school board’s current needs, seeks out persons who could add strength to the board, persuades them to run for election, supports them vigorously before the public and at the polls. If the caucus committee is wanted and respected by the community, its recommendations are likely to be accepted by the electorate.

3. Communities that have had consistently good school systems have consistently provided able executive and administrative leadership of their schools. In the appointment of the administrative staff it is easy to make a mistake that has often been made; for instance, to promote a teacher to principal because “he’d make a good administrator. What is meant is that the man or woman seems to be the kind of individual who could run the place, organize and administer a school, generate good staff morale, maintain discipline, promote good public relations, all of which must be done if the principal wants to keep on being principal. But are these the activities that should command the attention of the principal at his highest level of competence?

It seems reasonable to expect that the head of an organization should be responsible for the acceleration of the major purpose of the organization, which in a school is the improvement of teaching and learning. If that is true, then it is reasonable that the principal’s appointment to and retention in office should depend primarily upon his ability to improve teaching and learning. Isn’t it better to ask a principal to delegate his housekeeping duties rather than his responsibility for teaching and learning? He should know what constitutes good teaching, what the teaching potentials of the teachers he works with are, where to learn about and see good teaching, how to integrate the explosion of knowledge and ideas into the teaching in his school. If he does not have a scholarly interest and competence in everything that constitutes good teaching, he may find satisfaction as a principal’s assistant in the performance of the many housekeeping duties, but he should not aspire to the front office.

Boards of education and superintendents who accept their responsibility to advance the major purpose of the schools through their administrative personnel usually make better appointments than do their counterparts who appoint politically.

The essential, and scarce, element obviously is the teacher. Even mediocre schools may have some good teachers on their staffs good teachers without whom mediocre schools would be poor schools. What makes a strong school is an exceptional faculty with a leader capable of exercising the professional leadership for which busy classroom teachers seldom have the time.

One thing, especially, seems to me as a school administrator to characterize the communities that want good public education so much that they will go all out to get and pay for it. That is a central core of respected persons who give general community leadership unselfishly. These Citizens Number One are not do-gooders. They seek no rewards, and they seem to know what fundamental issues are. They are not necessarily well educated, well off, or glitteringly cultured. One of the best that I have known was the president of his town’s labor council, a well-educated man of little formal education, who was a staunch advocate of good schools.

The growing horde of new cities, many of them offshoots of huge metropolises, seem critically vulnerable to trouble because of a lack of citizen interest. One such city, whose well-housed school system failed to develop, invited several superintendents to a conference upon the arrival of a new superintendent. The new man has proved to be a good superintendent and a superb community leader, and he has taken advice to heart. With himself at the center, a core of Citizens Number One have emerged so unobtrusively that it seems as though they had always been there.

in the high school, where it had been considered square to be smart, it is now smart to be smart. One bit of advice the new superintendent accepted was this: “You have no good school traditions. Get your student council to develop some.” For there can be Citizens Number One in the school community as well as in the adult community.