Updated: Nov 6, 2021
I believe I have a unique insight into what makes a school effective. I have served more than a quarter century as a teacher in small, medium and large schools, working with affluent, middle class and poor students, in homogeneous and multicultural settings, at home and abroad, in the city, suburbs and rural locales. Through these lived experiences, obtaining a doctorate in Catholic Educational Leadership, and a certification with the Center for Teaching Effectiveness as a national trainer, here are my insights into variables of what makes for an effective school (2007).
1. Commonly held belief system between staff and clientele
I believe in Catholic schools. It is where I want to be. But most of my experience in education has been in secular schools. Catholic schools get a head start because of their commonly held belief in the power of the Trinity and shared values. Or, at least they should have a head start. Many schools have trouble getting off the starting block because of the wide array of divergent beliefs. Unity in diversity? If diversity is considered as racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic status, then it is entirely possible? But if by diversity, we mean the coalescing of wide ranging core belief systems into a school, there will be learning, but there will not be community in the truest sense of the word.
2. Clearly stated audacious vision and mission
For what does the school stand? Does the school want lifelong learners who are contributing members of society? This is all well and good, to a degree. But in most people’s heart of hearts, don’t they want to belong to something with big goals and ideals, something that is set apart from “self”? Is everyone on the same page?
3. Clearly defined and understood requirements of staff members
Do staff members know what is required of them? Did they know before signing their contract? Are they aware of the expectations placed on them? There can be no ambiguity. Clarity of roles is essential to a high functioning school.
4. High level of staff commitment
Do staff consider their work a job or a vocation. Everyone needs down time. This is well understood. But, if strict compartmentalization of work and personal life is the norm, effective schools are harder to advance. The laity can learn from the religious. Their work, in most cases, was life itself. If one’s purpose in life is the sole pursuit of pleasure, then true happiness and joy will never be had. It is in giving that we receive.
5. Staff as role models
When students see their teachers outside of school, are these adults nearly the same people that are found in the school building? Can students count on their teachers? Will the teachers be there for the students when they are needed most? Will the teacher go out of his/her way to help the student?
6. Shared decision making
If the administrative decision to be made has a significant impact on the teacher, shouldn’t the teacher have a say in the outcome of the decision? Low staff morale can drain any effectiveness out of a school. Teachers should feel empowered as team players to have a say in the decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their students. Shared decision making and staff empowerment go hand in hand.
7. Celebrations of rituals and traditions
We all remember, as students, what a lift it was to find out it was a special assembly day. We know it is important to protect instructional time. But, we all need a break from the monotony. Celebrations build community. Rituals and traditions teach students what is special.
8. No Child Left Behind
The theme is entirely correct, if not the expectations of the law. In order for school communities to prosper, those most vulnerable must be protected. A great majority of students will do well with guidance, good teaching and self-direction. Most every school will have students that need special attention, and they can’t be allowed to fall through the cracks. Support systems for these students must be ever ready.
9. Curriculum alignment with standards
Is there a well-developed and articulated curriculum? Is it relevant, meaningful and sequential? Do outcomes match standards? If standards are met, does this really mean that students are where we had hoped they would be? Is the scope and sequence logical? Have there been studies of cross curricular integration? Is there overlapping between subject areas, or is coverage lacking?
10. Research based curricular programs and preparation
Are teachers just winging it? Are their teaching methodologies and strategies research based on best practices? Do teachers come to class prepared? Do they know on what they are painting? How has the subject matter curricula been developed? Have they been proven to work?
11. Positive, happy and enthusiastic teachers
How can we have thriving, happy students if our teachers are not? We know that for the most part, we can not make them happy solely via their paychecks? Do they feel our support? Do they know we will back them when they have run-ins with students and parents? Do we attend to their emotional needs?
12. Strong on basics but with innovative approaches to teaching and learning
While we are tempted to use innovative approaches that we have developed or have adopted, are we careful to cover the basics so that we ensure students have a foundation of learning? Do we allow innovative teachers to strut their stuff as we should? We should not drain the enthusiasm of teachers who want to try new things as long as it fits with school philosophy and aligned with our learning goals.
13. Welcoming and appealing school atmosphere and climate
Is the school bright and colorful? Are the gatekeepers authentically cheerful? Is there a warm atmosphere in the school lobby? Do we see smiling and happy teachers and students? Are we willing to drop desk work for the sake of our students and colleagues?
14. Support of students through teachers by administration
A drain on the morale of teachers is when the administration perform end-runs around teachers in support of individual students or classes of students. Teachers must feel the support of their administration in dealing with students and parents. They must feel the administration will stand with them as instructors. If the teacher makes a wrong move, then they must be told in private, but students and families must know that the administration and teaching staff stand shoulder to shoulder.
15. Strong Conflict Resolution Process
Is there anything more insidious to a school community than festering, unresolved resentment and conflict? So much of it gets swept under the rug. Is there a process for bringing the conflict out in the open so that it can be resolved? Holding grudges is unhealthy. If a conflict between 2 people can not be resolved, is there a process to bring in a 3rd party moderator?
16. Parent Support and Involvement
Parents, as the first educators in the life of their children, must be integral in the formation of their children. Does the school welcome parents, or view them as trouble makers? Is there a parent-teacher association that develops support and assists the school? Is there a welcoming body of parents for new families that come into the school?
17. Well defined school-wide discipline system
Is there a school out there that does not have any discipline problems, whatsoever? When behavioral problems occur, is there a support system for the students/s? Or, are discipline referrals managed haphazardly. Do teachers have their classroom management plans? Is there a plan for chronically disruptive students in the classroom. Is there an ongoing, school-wide system of support for students who need it?
18. Opportunities for students to be physically active
There must be space for student to move. It is unhealthy to be sitting in desks all day. Is there a daily physical education program? Are their recess breaks. Can students be afforded the opportunity to move after lunch time? Student who are not given the opportunity to be physically active at school may choose to do so in the classrooms.
19. After school programs
Is there an extra-curricular, or co-curricular program at the school? Can students join school teams to help them learn about fair-play and sportsmanship? Are there academic enrichment programs to help students fine tune their skills? Are their remedial programs to help prop up students? What about clubs that will allow students from various grade levels to interact?
20. Professional Development
We don’t want teachers to burn out or to get stale. But we also don’t want to burden their planning time with development activities that are not authentic. Teachers should have decision making powers in how best to use professional development time and funds.
21. Definitive procedures and policies
Are there procedures for filling out maintenance or supply requests? How does one request a substitute? Does the school have emergency lesson plans for teachers who get a flat tire on the way to school? Is there a procedure for requesting bus transportation for field trips? How do parents inform the school when taking their child out of school for a day? Is there a staff handbook that outlines policies and procedures? Is there a Student Handbook that serves as a guide to families about expectations for students and school policies?
22. Clear lines of communication and reporting
Do parents feel the school communicates well with them? Can families view progress reports and report cards on line? Is there a newsletter that goes home to families? What is the formal system of communication between staff members?
23. Open door policies
Does the head of the school have an open door policy for staff and parents? Do staff members welcome each other into their classrooms during prep periods? Is there a war against teacher isolation in the classroom? Are there authentic sharing of ideas and programs that are working?
24. Provisions for social and emotional intelligence
Is it simply all about academics or are students taught social and emotional skills? Do teachers look for the teachable moment or do they plow through with the academic curriculum when a social or emotional lesson is in order? Are their strong character education programs or religious education programs? How much of our teaching time is taken up with the love and care of our peers? This is far more important than mathematics?
25. Systematic Evaluation
Is staff evaluated? Are there formal procedures and due process? Is there a sense that teachers can rest on their laurels? Can they hold on to a reputation worn thin over time? Do staff have a say in how evaluation is to take place? Are they shown criteria of successful service at the start of the year?
26. Long Term Strategic Plan
Sometimes decisions are made out of expediency or what is important now. Still, an effective school has a long range plan that does not change to the simple whims of a certain administrator, or group of transient parents. Long term strategic plans set the school on a foundational course. As schools become more and more transient regarding staff members, it is imperative that “the plan” hold sway over some strongly held opinions in month 3 of year 2.
27. Clean and well-maintained physical plant
Are students safe in their classrooms, the lavatories, or on the playgrounds? Are the learning environments well lit to enhance student learning? Is the air clean? Is there an ongoing maintenance check list? Does the physical plant, no matter how small and simple or large and complex, make one proud to be associated with its’ cleanliness.
28. Financial Solvency
Once a school gets into debt, compromises are made, even at the expense of student achievement. Private schools in debt accept tuition for students who may not be there to learn and ultimately negatively affect student achievement across the board. Private schools can not run on tuition alone. Schools must develop capital campaigns, annual giving campaigns and endowment funds. Schools can not rest on old money.
29. Real Community
It’s all been about student-centered learning. However, I think the focus should tilt a little bit more towards community. In student-centered learning, much of the focus is on the development of Self. But, real communities care intensely about every individual. A community’s main goal is to sustain itself. Therefore, a school that focuses on community certainly focuses on the development of the individuals within the community. It is all too important for students to understand that there is purpose outside of Self, beyond Self. By focusing outside of yourself, you in turn learn much more about your immortal and undeniable place within the realm in which you live.
30. Love of Neighbor
This is the most important variable of school effectiveness and the hardest to achieve. It is amazing how teachers scurry to impart academic knowledge into pupils, how administrators fret over paperwork and governmental policies but pay scant attention to what is the most infusive way to transform lives -- love. Love for students and colleagues in an overwhelming, supranatural way. Get off the train of knowledge for a while and spend some time on the wisdom bus. Soak young minds in laughter and in tears, and much sacrifice, demonstrating to these unrefined pearls that you will die if necessary to protect them.