Parent Leadership
What is a good school?

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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?

  • The school's written mission statement spells out the institution's commitment to collaborate with parents in leading children toward some ideal of responsible adulthood. That is, the children's later life as adults is absolutely central to the school's overall strategic mission. Though its wording may vary a lot, this statement should say something like: "to educate the children such that they grow up to become competent, responsible, considerate, learned men and women who are committed to live by principles of integrity." No matter how it's phrased, the school's statement of its reason for being should show, at least implicitly, a serious ideal for the children's lives long after graduation. Beware a school that seems more concerned with process and procedures than results—it talks a lot about curriculum and course-sequences, but says nothing about students' distant future lives.

  • This mission statement is much more than a rhetorical flourish or shapeless abstraction in a brochure or website. It's a reality in the life of the institution, something the school's director often spells out to the faculty, the parents, and the students—all three. So, if you were to ask anyone in the school community, including the older students, what is the school's purpose, you'd hear roughly the same response. In other words, everyone in the school community knows what the school stands for. Beware the school that lacks this unity of outlook.

  • The school's principal or headmaster can articulate the school's mission readily and without resort to jargon. If you were to press the administrator for details about how the school delivers on its stated ideals—"How do you teach the children to act responsibly?"—you should receive specific answers in clear, confident, vernacular prose.

  • Ideally, all teachers, no matter what their subject specialty, insist that students perform written work with good spelling and correct English usage. Throughout the school's courses of study, English is treated as a set of standards for all our written work, not just another "subject."

  • Homework fairly often involves writing in sentences and paragraphs. Work is returned promptly and with some sign that the teacher has critically examined it. In other words, teachers take the students' work seriously. If homework is not obviously important to the teachers, it will not be important to the children either.

  • Children work hard but are also happy with the school. It seems that in a bad or mediocre school, children either work hard or are happy. In a good school, serious work and personal satisfaction go together. Children are like us adults in this respect: they do not mind hard work as long as two conditions are being met—(a) they sense they're accomplishing something with their work, and (b) they like the people they're working with.

  • Administrators and teachers can readily explain how they handle "problem" students. That is, they show a willingness to control or even exclude students whose non-cooperation threatens the school's service to everyone else—in other words, the common good. The school's disciplinary procedures are both fair and compassionate, but they center principally on the community's common good.

  • The faculty is a mix of mostly experienced teachers and some relatively new ones. The veterans are concentrated in the youngest and oldest grade levels, where their know-how is most needed. That is, the youngest children need mastery of serious basic skills, while the oldest need confident, savvy class leadership.

  • Students in the middle ability grouping receive as much a challenge as the top track and the slowest learners. Most schools, unfortunately, concentrate attention to the needs of the brightest and slowest students but tend to neglect the broad middle grouping. A good school challenges everyone.

  • Parents willingly support the school with volunteer help and financial aid. Supportive parents are, after all, "satisfied clients." In concrete ways, they show appreciation to the school for its dedication to their children's welfare.

  • The school's physical plant shows professional attention to detail. It is clean, orderly, lively—a pleasant place for working and learning, like any other well-run business.

  • The sports program for younger children is reasonably competitive but not overly so. Not-so-talented kids are encouraged to take part and their personal best efforts are appreciated. The school tries to foster the best ideals of athletics—bodily conditioning, a lifetime habit of exercise, sportsmanship, team collaboration, healthy spirit of honorable competition.

  • In all its academic, athletic, and extracurricular aspects, the school clearly tries to build certain lifetime attitudes and habits in the children, certain powers that the children internalize over time—problem-solving ability, respect for intellectual achievement, powers of concentration and perseverance, high-quality technical competence in math and sciences, habits of clarity and precision in spoken and written English, competence in at least one foreign language, appreciation for artistic excellence, understanding of historical development and trends, sense of responsibility in good citizenship, respect for rule of law, and ethical uprightness.

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 non-commercial use.
It is taken from the Website of James B. Stenson, educational consultant:

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James B. Stenson
Educational Consultant
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts


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