What makes a school successful?

In the next week I will be doing a series of two articles on school success starting today with “what makes a school successful” — whether elementary, middle school or high school. A related article will follow on what makes a good school principal.

To get a non-partisan view of this issue, I have done an Internet review of the literature using selected sources throughout the English speaking world beyond Canada — the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. 

One thing I noticed in my analysis was that a single race or single cultural school was never mentioned as a characteristic of a successful school. Yet, the trustees of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) will be voting on Tuesday evening, January 20, 2008, for a blacks-only high school, with an Africentric curriculum and black teachers.  However, no matter what the outcome of next week’s vote, unless the blacks-only school has the overall characteristics of what makes a good school, it simply will not succeed no matter what the curriculum emphasis or colour of the teachers’ skin.

Therefore, I would encourage parents, educators and trustees all across Canada to take a look at this summary. The bottom line is that it is NOT the government, the school board, the school leadership or the teachers who should decide how successful a school is.  It is the students themselves and their families. For example:

  • Do students look forward to going to school?
  • Are students excited about what they are learning?
  • Is there evidence that the students are achieving?
  • Do parents encourage other families to send their children? 

(This paragraph revised to provide clarification as a result of a readers comment.) If the answers to those questions are “no,” then what exactly would it take to make the answers “yes?” According to the sources  I used, there are at least five key characteristics of a successful school. In no particular order as they are all of equal importance, they are: 

(1) A shared vision and clear sense of purpose.

  • That vision and shared purpose has to be developed by the school leadership in communication with the parent council, parents in general and the community at large. It cannot be pseudo-involvement. It must be through a true partnership.
  • Once the vision and shared purpose for the school is developed, there needs to be ongoing and high levels of collaboration and communication between the school and the parents.
  • Does the vision represent the entire community? In Canada that is important because our country is multicultural in make up, particularly in large urban centres.

(2) A strong communal commitment.

  • Just as in society today, everyone must learn to get along. In other words, the students and the teachers will reflect a variety of cultures. Students will need to learn to work together and accept the differences of others.
  • There must be some type of students’ rights and responsibilities statement that is clearly understood and followed.

(3) Effective leadership and management.

  • The school administration, particularly the principal must be dynamic and respectful of students and show vision and positive reinforcement. He or she must have an open-door policy of availability to both students and staff.  Leadership must also be firm in the case of bullying and racist or other discriminatory incidents must never be tolerated. The school leadership must also communicate to the entire school community on a regular basis.

(4) Evidence of quality teaching and learning.

  • Academic standards and expectations must be “high” and students understand what they are — no matter what the economic realities of the surrounding community. There should be no watering down of content or skills since they will be needed once the students are in the job market.  In other words, students can be encouraged and taught to reach.
  • Curriculum must be challenging and exciting and connected in some way to the real world.
  • Extra help and accommodations must be available to students who need them.
  • There must also be some type of ongoing positive reinforcement for those who improve or do well.

(5) An ongoing commitment towards improvement.

  • The school must have access to the required resources needed — including technology.
  • There must be some type of structured built-in accountability or monitoring to know if the school and students are succeeding. In other words, there needs to be evidence of success — academically and socially — not just for literacy and numeracy but for subjects like history, geography, the environment and computer usage.
  • Teachers must be involved in continuous professional development and be willing to get involved in extra-curricular activities that will boost student morale and school spirit like drama clubs, band, choir, and athletic teams.

Conclusions: One of the most obvious things I noticed in these characteristics was the necessity for concrete evidence of academic success. In Ontario we have testing at Grades 3, 6 and 10  in reading, writing and numeracy (EQAO). Yet, there is much more that should be tested and shared with students and parents. Yet, it is often an issue of political correctness should a school in question be located in a low income area where the majority of families are led by single parents and/or minorities. While social promotion may happen occasionally, it should not be the norm. Success encourages more success and all children and youth deserve the same type of opportunities if they are to enjoy equal opportunities later in life. The role of teachers is obviously crucial but the role of the student should not be forgotten when forging collective agreements.  

Internet sources:

  • What makes a high school successful? (Education.com) (Link)
  • What makes a school successful? (A+ Foundation in Alabama) (Link)
  • Common characteristics of high performing schools (Office of Superintendent, Washington State) (Link)
  • What are the characteristics of a successful school? (U.S. Dept. of Public Instruction, Wisconsin) (Link)
  • A highly successful school (Denbigh High School in the U.K.) (Link)
  • What makes a successful school? (Dene Magna College in the U.K.) (Link)
  • A successful school. (Gregory B. Whitby, Australia) (Link)
  • About.Com – Secondary Education (Link)


Note: C/P at With Good Reason.


2 thoughts on “What makes a school successful?

  1. “What makes a school successful?”

    Male teachers with facial hair, deep voices, and who wear Aqua Velva. Can you see why?


  2. SP — Just for clarification. The five points and sub-points are not my ideas. I got them from a review of the literature beyond Canada in the sources listed.

    So, it’s interesting to see that social promotion is not a positive outcome elsewhere.

    Also, the points are not rank-ordered. They are all equally important ingredients for success.

    But, IMO, while social promotion may be necessary sometimes, it has nothing to do with excellence and has been a bone of contention for me since I started teaching in 1972.

    I grew up with the possibility of “failing” and it just made me work harder. The notion that failure will affect self-esteem is short sighted. When I was in private practice as an educational consultant (and learning coach for individuals with reading and writing difficulties), I had adults come to me to get the literacy skills they needed to get and keep a job.

    So, failure at the beginning or failure later — it will eventually catch up to someone having learning difficulties. Only the teachers won’t be around to see the pain I saw because of social promotion.


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