What Are Good Schools and Why Are They So Hard to Get?

Article excerpt

I'm very pleased to have been invited to speak at The Vancouver Institute and to honour the fortieth anniversary of the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Education. I'm still shocked that so many people would come out on a Saturday night. This is not usual behaviour that I am familiar with in California. UBC's Faculty of Education has good reason in 1997 for celebrating the last four decades since its founding when Dean Neville Scarfe and the first faculty of forty-two professors took over the responsibilities of preparing practitioners, undertaking research, and serving the province. Its size, the comprehensive program for teacher education, the research agenda, doctoral preparation and attention to First Nations education and particularly responsiveness to the field, mark it as exemplary in the province and the nation.

Someone once said that there are two kinds of speakers. Those who chew more than they bite off and those who bite off more than they can chew. I belong to that adventurous latter group. What that means of course is that I run the risk of running on. As a result I offer to you the advice of one speaker who said, "My job is to speak, your job is to listen. If you get finished before I do, please leave quietly." To answer the question that is the title of this presentation, I will analyze the idea of a good school by offering three portraits of schools and then examine how each was a good school and is a good school. Now I will do this for U.S. schools which I know far better than Canadian schools. By holding up a mirror to schools in my country about ideas of goodness, perhaps I can get you to re-examine your views of goodness, reflect on how your views influence what you define as a good school and figure out why such schools are so hard to build and sustain.

So what follows is a verbal collage of two elementary schools that I know very well. They may resemble schools that you know in Canada. Both are in a middle-class California community. Both are public schools to which parents can choose to send their children. Both schools have staffs that chose to work there. And both schools have been in existence for twenty-five years. The first school I will call School A. This school is a quiet, orderly school where the teacher's authority is openly honoured by both students and parents. The principal and faculty set high academic standards and demand regular study habits. Drill and practice are part of each teacher's daily lesson. Teacher's will say, "We like the way we were taught, so we teach the same way. We expect kids to adapt to our standards." From a first-grade classroom, children learn how to spell six new words a day. Report cards with letter grades are sent home every nine weeks. Once a week, teachers send home mini report cards. A parent quote: "If my kid can truly do something better, I want her to be asked to do it again until it's done right. That's what they do here at this school." The principal of the school says: "Our kids are happiest when taking a test." I knew you would laugh, I knew you would. "The more challenged they are, the better they perform. The harder they work, the better they feel about themselves." There's a banner in this school and it says: "Free, Monday through Friday: knowledge. Bring your own container." A parent quote: "Creativity can't occur until the building blocks are in place. If you're good at sports, you scrimmage. If you're good at music, you practice scales." An alumnus of the school: "It was always a standard and a great incentive system that drove you to meet it." That's School A.

School B prizes freedom for students and teachers to pursue their interests. Students call most of their teachers by their first names. There's a banner in a classroom that reads: "Children need a place to run, to explore a world, to discover." Every teacher encourages student-initiated projects. Teacher quote: "We trust children to make the right choices. …