Joanne Yatvin has been a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent. She wrote these reflections on what constitutes a good school.


A few weeks ago, a New Hampshire teacher, Shawna Coppola, shared her ideas about what makes a good school, in contrast to the schools that are celebrated because of high student test scores. Although I agree with much that Shawna says, I want to take the challenge she voices at the end of her piece to describe my own view of what a good school is.


I first put my own definition and description of a good school into words a long time ago when I was asked to write a review of a book about a disintegrating school that was rescued by a new principal. I repeat it below with only a few word changes to reflect contemporary terminology and my own growth.


In my view a good school mirrors the realities of life in an ordered society; it is rational and safe, a practice ground for the things adults do in the outside world. A good school creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of social responsibility. It focuses on learnings that grow through use–with or without more schooling–such as clear communication, independent thinking, thoughtful decision-making, craftsmanship, and group collaboration. It makes children think of themselves as powerful citizens in their own world.


In contrast, an effective school, as defined by today’ standards, looks at learning in terms of test scores in a limited number of academic areas. It does not take into consideration students’ ability to solve real life problems, their social skills, or even their practicality. It does not differentiate between dynamic and inert knowledge; it ignores motivation. When we hear of a school heralded because of its high test scores, should we not ask what that school does to prepare students to live the next several decades of their lives?


A good school has a broad-based and realistic curriculum with subject matter chosen not only for its relevance to higher education and jobs, but also to family and community membership and personal enrichment. It uses teaching practices that simulate the way people function in the outside world. Children are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and expand their knowledge and competence. They initiate projects, make their own decisions, enjoy using their skills, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.


The effective school asks much less. Children who put all their efforts into “covering” a traditional curriculum in order to “master” as much of it as possible are not seekers, initiators, or builders. They are at best reactors. The knowledge they dutifully soak up is not necessarily broad based or useful. It is taught because it is likely to appear on tests. It is quickly and easily forgotten.


Any school can become a good school when its principal and teachers have made the connections to life in the outside world that I have been talking about. It operates as an organic entity—not a machine—moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages. A good school is like a healthy tree. As it grows, it sinks its roots deep into its native soil: it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun: it makes its own food; it heals its own wounds; and, in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.