Teach & Serve IV, No. 36 | Good Schools | Great Schools

Teach & Serve IV, No. 36

Good Schools | Great Schools

April 10, 2019

I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

It has been a few years since I first wrote on this topic. It seems a good one to revisit periodically.

Since the first day a grizzled, experienced and very, very veteran high school administrator shared with me his Good School/Great School Paradigm I have been fascinated by it, taken with it and convinced of its pure truth. Pulling me aside during an accreditation visit on which we were both visiting team members, this wise administrator for whom I did not work told me he believed that Good Schools are destined to remain Good Schools because they think they are great. He said that Great Schools are great because they ask themselves: “what can we do to be better?”

I am in love with this conclusion and I think it is absolutely spot on. The idea that Great Schools are consistently, constantly and consciously about improvement, about getting better, about changing is such a challenging, life renewing and exciting concept.

I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

But, here is the rub. Here is the problem with being great. It takes work. It takes bravery. It takes consistent drive from leadership that is not afraid to have questions asked – and answered – about the health and life of the school.

Great requires energy and dynamism.

No educational leader sets out to have a good school. Likewise, no leader decides it is acceptable for her school to be lifeless. Rather, leadership builds staffs primarily upon very good hires. Leadership institutes solid programs fostering good curriculum, good teaching and good discipline. Markers of success (enrollment, retention, standardized test scores, etc.) are met. The conclusion, then, is this all works. We know what we are doing. Why change? And then ways of doing things become locked in because we have  had success doing things this way and, really, is not this the way we have always done things? Should we not keep doing them this way? Why mess with success?


Because good hires become tenured. Good hires become tired. Good hires become mediocre when they are not challenged. Leadership becomes insular when it is not pressed. Energy wanes.

Good Schools are like the teacher you had when you were in high school: he was engaging and energetic when you were in his classroom 15 or 20 years ago; he is still doing the exact same things and still being praised for doing so. “Everyone loves his class!” People say. “He really knows his stuff!” People rave.

But is anyone asking why he is still using the overheads he made during his first year of teaching instead of his digital projector, instead of connecting students to materials on their devices, instead of anything new? Is anyone asking why he has not gone to any significant professional development in years? Is anyone asking why he insists on keeping the traditional text he has always used instead of moving to an electronic one?

No. He’s good so he is all good.

Good Schools are just like this and, unless they start missing those markers of success, what is the motivation to change?

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they do not have is life. Good Schools do not change. They do not want to. Because they do not change, they are locked into what they are, locked into what they do.

Locked in.

They are stuck in a place and a time and cannot even see the rest of the world passing them by because, of course, they are good. How do they know? They have told themselves they are. They have convinced themselves (because they have the high numbers and the nice facilities and the good kids and the credentialed teachers) that they are great.

But they are not great. They are dead, and they do not look to come back to life.

And they can stay dead and stagnant for a very, very long time. They can – and will – stay dead and stagnant until they are forced to change. They will actively protect their stagnation because their leadership has let them down. Their leadership has discouraged hard questions, resisted redefinition, and shut out creative dissent.

They are Good. And they are dead. Until there is a sea change, they will never, ever be Great.

“Good Schools think they’re great. Great Schools ask: ‘what can we do to be better?’”

What can we do, indeed?