It's back to school time, meaning that many parents wonder if their child's school is a good school. After 15 years doing research in more than 100 public schools, I can usually tell in an hour if a school is good enough for my kids.
And contrary to what policymakers think, school quality doesn't have much to do with fancy buildings, big budgets, how many reports get filed or how many personnel are certified. (President Barack Obama's kids study under uncertified teachers.) Even high test scores do not necessarily measure school quality — though good schools legitimately improve their students' scores, while bad schools fake or flounder.
Instead, good schools — like good businesses, good houses of worship and good organizations of any kind — have five key characteristics. They are as follows:
•First, a good school is a transparent school. If I'm allowed to wander the school without a minder and talk to whomever I want, and if the people I talk with speak freely without looking around to see who's listening, then it's probably a good school. It's a school where the principal is secure enough to let me snoop around. In short, a good public school is a good public school. In a good school, you can really move forward because you don't have to watch your back.
•Second, a good school is an honest school. If I ask the principal about problems and he or she says everything is great, I know that the person is lying — perhaps to himself or herself, but definitely to me. In the real world, real people in real organizations have real problems. Any organization does some things well and some badly; but if leaders refuse to acknowledge problems, improvement can't happen. Good schools live in reality, while bad schools live in denial.
•Third, teachers and administrators in a good school put their work ahead of themselves. If people obsess about pay, benefits, titles, rules, turf, union contracts and state appropriations — and very little about kids or books — that's a very bad sign. In a good school, educators have more talent than ego, and put kids first.
•Fourth, a good school challenges students and teachers. Good schools measure student achievement and challenge both high- and low-scoring students to do the work to improve from where they started. Good school leaders also push less-successful teachers to copy more successful teachers — or hit the road.
•Finally, a good school is a positive school. I often find myself in schools whose "educators" will spend hours, as long as I'm willing to listen, telling me all the reasons why the children in their schools are so damaged that they cannot learn. As former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller quips, parents must be keeping their best kids at home and sending the rejects off to those schools. At some point in those conversations, I am always tempted to reach into my briefcase, hand the person I'm interviewing the want ads, and say "Gosh, you've just told me you can't do your job, so why don't you look for a job that you can do and give someone else a chance to teach these children? Because they deserve someone who thinks they can learn."
In a good school, a good business or any good organization people are positive, honest, transparent, challenging and, most important, they put others ahead of themselves. In short, the good school is staffed by people leading the good life: They put the work ahead of themselves. Unfortunately, that is an attitude they don't teach in school.
Robert Maranto, a former Baltimore resident, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and author of 11 books, including (with Michael McShane) "President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.