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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 02/06/2012

The difference between good schools and effective schools

This was written by Joanne Yatvin, 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.

By Joanne Yatvin

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.

Because the passage above was written well before the time of our national obsession with test scores and their power to determine the fate of children and teachers, my criticism of so-called “effective schools” is far milder than it would be today. 

Also, the passage does not identify the important part local control played in McDonogh 15’s success. In fact the core message of Carmichael’s book is that McDonogh15 began to improve only after it freed itself from outside management and assistance and found the strength within its own staff, students, and community to teach and learn authentically. That is the message I would like to deliver to today’s school reformers and critics.  It is also the clarion call for all the principals, teachers, students, and parents who want to re-create a good school of their own. 

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