What is a good school?

by James B. Stenson

When referring to the quality of children's education, today's parents and teachers and political figures often cite the term "a good school." Just as often, however, they seem to have trouble defining what they mean by this phrase—or they contradict each other in noting its supposed beneficial features.

I would like to add to this discussion by setting forth my own definition of the term, all based on the ideals I tried to effect in the schools I worked with as headmaster and consultant.

Please see what you think of these ideas....


Like an excellent family, a high-quality school is characterized by three outstanding features: a long-term vision for the children's future lives, a sense of mission, and a unifying spirit of service to families. By contrast, a bad or mediocre school is missing one or more of these features, usually all three.

What does this mean? Just this—A high-quality school is energized by administrators and teachers who have a clear concept (an ideal, really) about what kind of men and women the children should be as adults, several years after graduation. And people who work in the school share this vision with the children's parents. That is, school and parents try to work together toward the same goal—the children's later life as adults.

This ideal may be (as it was in public schools early in the twentieth century) to turn out a responsible, literate group of citizens. Or the concept may be to form children into competent, responsible, respected professionals. For religious schools, it may be all of the above plus forming lifelong commitment to the family's religious principles.

No matter what form it takes, a good school's strategic ideal extends well into the children's future lives. If you asked the school's director at a graduation ceremony, "Well, do you think you've succeeded with these children?"—the response would be something like, "It's too soon to tell. Come back in 10 or 15 years and we'll see...."

What follows from this strategic vision is a sense of mission.

A first-rate school has an active, dynamic, purposeful ambiance to it, with high morale among the teaching staff. Each aspect of the school—classroom instruction, athletics, extracurriculars, discipline—serves a clear purpose. Everything works toward forming the children's lifetime judgment, realistic self-confidence, and sense of responsibility. In a healthy school, as in a healthy family, a sense of idealistic mission turns hard work into purposeful achievement.

Moreover, a high-quality school, like any other superior business, fosters a spirit of service. It does not turn in on itself and become entangled with bureaucratic procedures—for bureaucracies tend to emphasize process rather than results. People in a quality school dedicate themselves above all to the betterment of the people they serve. In other words, they're professionals.

The best schools see themselves serving the whole family, parents as well as children. Teachers and administrators treat parents as partners and take their needs and expectations seriously. This attitude leads, in turn, to ongoing mutual trust and open communication. Parents sense that, outside their own family, these teachers and administrators care most about their children's welfare, not just now but also later in life.

If you are blessed to have your children in a school like this, you should do all in your power to support it, financially and otherwise.

This being said, let me outline the outstanding features of a high-quality school. What are they? What should parents and teachers look for?

In short, a good school seems to operate according to the maxim: "An education is what you have left over after you've forgotten the material." It's dedicated to turning out competent, learned, responsible producers.

To look at it another way, a good school seeks to produce the sort of capable, level-headed adults who serve so generously on its own Board of Directors.

Of course, the description outlined above is an ideal of near-perfection. All schools, like all other human institutions, including the family, fall short of perfection. But the best schools never stop trying.

Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this material for private use.
It is taken from the Website of James B. Stenson, educational consultant: