What is my “take” school effectiveness? In my humble opinion, which has taken a number of years to form, I believe, effective schools must adhere to four guiding principles: Effective schools must 1) listen to and engage parents and teachers; 2) communicate the school’s mission/vision; 3) institute and evaluate sound educational practices, and 4) nurture their own unique identity, culture, and local autonomy.
Listen and Engage Parents and Teachers
Why is it important to listen to and engage teachers and parents? Effective schools do not exist outside of the domain of the parents and teachers. Therefore, their participation in creating and maintaining an effective school is crucial. Effective schools are for ever evolving into the environment necessary for the best learning to take place. It is my opinion, that only by listening to the parents and the teachers will the school come to understand how it may need to evolve in order to meet current or future needs. Let me illustrate my point through a short original parable:
Once upon a time, a family rented a small room. After a short time, the family went to the owner of the small room and stated that the room was too small. The owner of the small room, angered by this comment, evicted the family. Now the room is empty, but it is still too small.
Effective schools listen to the voices of the primary educators, namely the parents in conjunction with the voices of the professional educators, otherwise identified as the teachers, when identifying the educational and developmental needs of the students. Schools that fail to listen to these two constituencies cannot be effective for the school will lose the confidence of both the parents and teachers in the educational process, morale will drop, involvement will decline followed by enrollment. Listening however is not complete without engagement. Effective schools understand and believe that everything they need to succeed exists within the educational community of parents and teachers and therefore engagement of both groups is the only way the needs being expressed can be addressed. Once parents and or teachers state that the “room is too small,” and the “owners of the room” truly listen without becoming defensive, the active engagement of the parents and or teachers is in the next step in the “expansion” of creating a more effective school. Effective schools believe that everything necessary to become more effective exists within the community, thus, not only the ideas for improvement, but the means to improve as well.
Communicate School Mission and Vision
Once upon a time a little fish said, “Excuse me” to another fish and asked, “You are older and more experience than I, and you will probably be able to help me. Tell, me: where can I find this thing they call the Ocean? I’ve been searching for it everywhere to no avail.” “The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is what you are swimming in now.” “Oh, this? But this is only water. What I’m searching for is the Ocean,” said the young fish. Feeling quite disappointed the young fish swam away to search elsewhere.”
Effective schools communicate their mission and their vision clearly at all times.
There should never be any doubt about the “Ocean” in which your school community is immersed. Every form of communication, every event, every meeting attended by parents, students and teachers, and every image associated with the school must “hold” the vision and the mission of the school. Once doubt, ambiguity or uncertainly begin to cloud “the waters” of the school vision/mission, families and teachers will embark on their search for that “ocean” that possesses and articulates its depth. Effective schools express and live their mission/vision while attracting others to their life-giving waters.
Institute & Evaluate Sound Educational Practices
Listening to, engaging and communicating with parents and teachers are the foundational sources of any effective school. Sound educational practices, however, are the materials from which the educational edifice is built. Effective schools depend on the professional knowledge base of its teachers and administrators to implement sound research-based educational practices. These practices may include, but are not limited to, differentiated instructional methods, standard-based curriculum review and textbook selection, norm and criteria referenced testing, portfolio assessment, value-based and/or Gospel-centered code of conduct, and service to the greater community. Well-established practices, however, in order to maintain their effectiveness, must be evaluated at least on an annual basis or they run the risk of serving the needs of the educator/administrator and not the needs of the students. Perhaps a short original parable may help express my point.
Once Upon A Time, there were three tailors, who were very dedicated to making clothes. They prided themselves on how well they got along with each other because they agreed never to disagree. One day a man came in and asked if he could have a pair of pants made for him. The first tailor looked at the man and from sight attempted to guess his size. The second tailor also looked at the man and from sight attempted to guess his size. It didn’t take long before the two tailors soon realized that they both had come to different sizes so, rather then have a disagreement, they agreed to divide the pants in half each making one side. The third tailor, however, took a measuring tape and sized up the man. When he told the other two tailors that both were wrong with their sizes he was immediately fired for he had broken their agreement not to disagree. A few days later the man returned to pick up his new pants and after he tried them on he found that one leg was too short and the other was too long. The pants were obviously of no use to him and angry by this mistake, he canceled his order, refused to pay for the pants and never did business with the three tailors ever again.
Failure to critically evaluate the educational practices of a school will most certainly lead to complacency and ultimately undermine school effectiveness. On the other hand, regular evaluation allows all the stakeholders to see where progress has been made and where the opportunities for improvement can be found. When evaluation is then open and transparent, the parents and those invested in the school have confidence in the willingness for the school to be accountable and willing to become more effective.
Nurture Unique Identity & Autonomy
Finally, school effectiveness cannot be attained through generic solutions or “one size fits all” formulas. Every school possesses a unique culture and or identity and in essence possesses a distinct mission and reason for existing. Therefore, understanding the school’s identity and nurturing that uniqueness will help individual school communities find their own strategies to meet their needs rather than trying to apply “fix-alls” that come from outside. One can clearly see how this insight is closely tied to the second principle of communicating the school’s mission and vision. There are no generic solutions, because there is no such reality as a generic Catholic education. Catholic schools enjoy the unique grace of being founded for specific reasons, re-founding those reasons provides meaning and energy to our current reason for existence. Thus, local autonomy is necessary for this type of nurturing to occur for it dispenses with the notion that there is some type of generic Catholic education out there. Catholic schools that have not discovered nor nurtured their identity most certainly have lost their effectiveness. I will conclude with an original story that I believe expresses this principle quite powerfully.
Once Upon A Time, there was a monastery where the brothers who lived there worked on a little field and they were neither happy nor sad. They were, you could say, indifferent. The brothers had all settled down to this way of life and work for they didn't know any other way of living. One day a very smart and talented young man came to the monastery and wanted to join the brothers. The young man had great abilities in writing, music, the arts and in the sciences. The Abbot felt very lucky that such a young man wanted to join the brothers. As his training was coming to an end the young man went to his Abbot and asked, "Should I continue my studies as a writer, in music or the arts, or should I pursue my studies in technology or science?"
"Oh no," said the Abbot, "don't you understand that all we do here is work in our little field and you must settle for that and nothing more."
"I see." said the young man and he went back out into the field. As the young man was working in the field he found an old box buried deep in the earth. He opened the box and inside was a picture of a monastery where the brothers were smiling, singing, playing, working, building, studying and praying. In the front of all the activity was a young man who was obviously the Abbot. The young man thought to himself, 'This is the monastery I want to join.' The young man went to the Abbot with the picture and said, "Father, I must leave here at once for I have found the monastery God wants me to enter, for they do more than just work in their field."
The Abbot asked, "What monastery is this?"
The young man gave the Abbot the picture and said, "Here, I found it in the little field while digging. The picture is yours, now, I must move on. Good-bye."
The Abbot cried as he looked at the picture for he remembered his founder with love.