Iowa study vs C.D.Howe “best schools” report

How do we know what makes a good school? Is it on the basis of many variables and a wide variety of social and academic factors? Or, it is based solely on a single measurement such as the results of the annual reading and math standardized tests administered by the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)?

Well, to read the Fraser Institute’s annual school rankings report cards or this weeks C.D. Howe “Ontario’s Best Public Schools” report, you’d have to think that EQAO scores and percentiles were all that mattered.

To view the e-brief, which was authored by Dr. David Johnson, an economist with Wilfrid Laurier University, simply scroll down the page a bit and click on ‘What’s New” to get to the PDF file.

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Good school principal=successful school

Given the decision that is imminent by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) about the black-focused school in Toronto, we should all be shouting from the roof tops about what makes both a good principal and a successful school — starting and ending with total school board support in terms of the allocation of resources and ongoing appropriate levels of funding. Over and above that: 

  • A successful school has a shared vision and a clear sense of purpose and it is the principal, in conjunction with everyone connected to his or her school who develops that shared vision and clear sense of purpose.
  • A successful school also has a strong communal dimension and a good principal makes sure that happens. He or she connects daily, in the hall or elsewhere, asking how the students and staff are doing. He or she conveys an honest to goodness caring attitude of positive reinforcement.
  • A successful school also has effective leadership when it comes to security and bullying — meaning that the principal is consistent and fair in the way he or she deals with school problems and violence. Everyone knows exactly where they stand and there are no ifs, ands or buts.
  • A successful school also has quality teaching and learning (and student achievement results prove that quality). And a good principal has usually been a teacher and knows what works and what doesn’t and stays on top of things. (Revised) If, however, a principal is not responsible for teacher evaluation, they could be an individual with leadership and management experience instead.
  • A successful school is also committed to improvement for both students and staff and a good principal is behind all of these issues and supports his or her staff as necessary.

In short, a successful school is only successful because it has community and school board support, a good principal and quality teaching staff. They all go together. No one characteristic or trait is separate from the other. They should be viewed as totally inter-connected.

I have worked for successful principals as well as the reverse. When it is said a principal creates the school culture that is very true. You can “feel” it the minute you walk through the front door. Does the principal make himself or herself available or isolate themselves in their office. Is he or she easy to talk to and make parents, students and staff feel welcome and important or are they hard to talk to? Does the principal have a tough skin and can take criticism or is he or she overly touchy? Does the principal encourage staff with words and rewards or does he or she embarrass staff in front of parents or fail to support them. Teachers reading this will know exactly what I mean, as will parents who are members of parent councils.

Now, what kind of training does a principal or vice-principal get to be a visionary leader? Living in Ontario, the first place I went looking was the Ontario Principal’s Council (OPC).It is the professional organization that represents principals employed in the publicly funded education system. They provide certificate programs as do Faculties of Education (referred to as AQ courses — or Additional Qualification courses).

I went through every single link on the OPC website but could not find out what made a good principal. I found links to conferences, certificate programs and mentoring programs, and what research is being done. But, nothing more. Yet, you would think the first link they would have would be some of the characteristics that makes a good one.

Now, as a retired teacher and academic I know only too well that leadership style is just as complicated to evaluate as a teacher’s instructional style. Yet, we should have some benchmarks, should we not? How else is a parent going to know what to look for? How else is a teacher, who might be applying for a transfer to a particular school going to know whether they will be compatible with a particular principal?

In terms of expectations, there is of course the Ontario College of Teachers code of ethics for those in the profession and I did find a couple of excellent links in the U.S.  The first is entitled “What makes a good high school” and the second “What Makes A Successful Urban School Leader” by Fran Silverman. She writes:

“The key to good leadership is consistency — in authority and in instruction….But this is a factor that principals can’t always control. Too often, school boards overrule building leaders and superintendents. District leaders who may be making changes to schools often have to stop when new boards change policies. If principals are to be effective, then school governance needs to stabilize.”

In other words, as I suggested in my first paragraph here, principals need to be able to count on follow-through from board senior staff, be it moral or financial support.

The crux of the matter is therefore, as Silverman suggests, that a good school principal creates a particular culture in a school and it is “the culture [that] defines the identity of the school, its primary mission and overall vision.”

Assuming the TDSB votes in favour of the black-focused school programs and stand-alone school this evening,  one hopes that they do what is necessary to make sure those programs succeed. One also hopes they do what ever is necessary to make sure the stand-alone school succeeds as well by having top notch proven school leaders as its teachers and principal.


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: 
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