For at least a decade I have taught a seminar for graduate students at Stanford called “‘Good’ Schools: Policy, Research, and Practice.” The masters and doctoral students who take the course are committed, for the most part, to school improvement and reducing social injustices. They have scored high on the Graduate Record Exam and bring a strong record of prior academic achievement to the seminar. Many have spent time in both charter and regular schools teaching either through Teach for America or after completing university-based teacher education programs. Even though they have attended and taught in schools under a regime of state curriculum standards, state tests, and the regulatory accountability of No Child Left Behind, they come to the seminar with varied visions of “good” schools imprinted in their minds.
In the seminar’s syllabus, I explain why I put “good” in quote marks.
“Good,” I tell my students, is obviously not a technical term but a common one that is in daily use by educators, researchers, policymakers, parents, and taxpayers. A “good” school also can be described as “great,” “excellent,” “productive,” “first-rate,” “effective,” or other similar terms. For the past quarter-century the dominant view of a “good” or “great” school has been one where students do well on state tests and send increasing numbers of their graduates to college. That view, while pervasive, is contested by other definitions of “goodness” represented in different designs for “good” schools (e.g., KIPP schools, New Trier high school in Winnetka (Illinois), and the Open Classroom School in Salt Lake City (Utah).
The second reason I offer for putting the word in quote marks is to make clear that it is a value judgment based upon individual and group conceptions of “goodness” in schools (e.g., federal and state definitions anchored in values of what makes a “good” school such as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP). Conceptions of “good” whether it be a “good life” or a “good friend” are loaded with values. So, too, is what we believe should the purposes of tax-supported schooling in a democracy, what knowledge and skills should be learned, how learning and teaching should occur, and what should constitute success.
To make this point, in their first assignment I ask them to write an op-ed piece describing their version of a “good” school for a general audience. Their op-eds traverse a range of schools they call “good.”
After analyzing their op-eds in the seminar, I then offer students a wide variety of school models that designers, participants, and experts judge to be “good.” They are: Core Knowledge, School Development Project or Comer schools, Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, KIPP schools, Rocketship Schools, and Child Development Project schools.
Then in one session summarizing these “good” schools, I ask them to figure out why they are considered “good”–their purposes, strategies to achieve those purposes, measures of success, and responses from students, teachers, and parents. Then, I ask the students to judge which ones they consider “good.”
Most often, students judge each of the model schools they have read about and we have discussed in great detail, “good.” Afterwards, I ask them to write down answers to two additional questions that cause much consternation among them. The questions are: Would you teach at the school you have said was “good?” Would you send your children to the school you have judged “good?”
During the lesson, I tally all of their responses publicly to the above questions on whether the school is “good,” would they work at the school they designate as “good,” and, finally, would they send their children to that “good” school. Conflicts within individual students and across the class become evident. Again and again, students see that while nearly all of them designated, for example, KIPP or Rocketship as “good” schools, most of them would neither work nor send their children there. Most students wanted to work at Comer and Child Development Schools. Most wanted to send their children to Core Knowledge and Child Development Schools.
The data from their choices revealed much individual and group nail-biting: the school is “good” but many would not choose to work at the school or send their children there. Often, discussions erupted at obvious inconsistencies expressed by students. The group slowly came to realize that while a school may be considered “good” by designers, participants, and experts, that does not mean that an individual teacher or parent would choose to work at that “good” school or send their children there. Not only is the concept of a “good” school value-driven, they discovered, but many versions of “good” schools exist and there is no one “good” school for all or even most children and youth. Period. End of lesson.