I have long thought that what makes a good school so good is not the teaching that it does but the community that it generates.
Here is an excerpt from a college president who expressed a similar idea in The Atlantic Monthly:
“What makes your college worth $35,000 per year?”
It’s a hard question for a college president to answer, especially because it’s usually raised at gatherings for prospective students and their anxious, checkbook-conscious parents.
But it also provides an opportunity to cast one’s school in a favorable light—to wax eloquent about admissions selectivity, high graduation rates, small classes, and alumni satisfaction.
The harder question, though, comes when someone interrupts this smooth litany: “But what evidence is there that kids learn more at your school?”
And as I fumble for a response, the parent presses on: “Are you saying that quality is really mostly a matter of faith?”
The only answer is a regretful yes.
Estimates of college quality are essentially “faith-based,” insofar as we have little direct evidence of how any given school contributes to students’ learning.
This flies in the face of what most people believe about college, and understandably so.
After all, if we don’t know what makes a school good or bad, then the anxiety-driven college-application process is a terrible waste, the U.S. News and World Report rankings are a sham, and all the money lavished on vast library holdings, expensive computer labs, wireless classrooms, and famous faculty members is going for naught.
And what about SAT scores, graduation rates, class sizes, faculty salaries, and alumni giving?
Surely, a college-obsessed parent might object, such variables make some difference.
Perhaps they do—but if so, we haven’t found a way to measure it.
In How College Affects Students, a landmark review of thirty years of research on college learning, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini found that simply going to college, any college, makes a major difference in a young person’s psychological development: students come away with improved cognitive skills, greater verbal and quantitative competence, and different political, social and religious attitudes and values.
But although the researchers found wide variations in learning within each college or university, they were unable to uncover significant differences between colleges once the quality of entering students was taken into account. …
It’s possible that this situation reflects a real absence of variation—that there really isn’t much difference between say, Ivy League education and four years at a middling private or state school. …
In [a] homogenize[ed collegiate] landscape the quality of entering students is the only thing that matters: “Diamonds in, diamonds out; garbage in, garbage out.”
A second, more persuasive explanation, however, holds that current assessment measures simply can’t pick up the differences in learning from one campus to another. …
The author of the article that this excerpt comes from is Richard H. Hersh a former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges an Trinity College; a co-director of the Collegiate Learning Assessment Project; and the senior editor of Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk.
The makings of a good school at the college level is based on the good students they get through their admissions process.
So when does the quality of a student become fixed?
Are good students born or are they made?
Of course the answer is “yes.”
Some people have a disposition towards the qualities a good school wants, someone who can forgo the vagaries of their youthful enthusiasms in focused effort to acquire the norms of the academic disciplines that colleges are trying to pass on.
Other people need to put more effort into putting up with the demands.
How can we help kids develop along the lines that will assist them to be the best student they can be when they eagerly arrive at the good school that admits them?
We can first of all give them the most important skill of all, the ability to make a good decision about whether going to a "good school" for college is really the best decision for their life and the goals and aspirations they hold dear.
Becoming a skillful decider in your life requires practice, a lot of practice.
Practice at making both trivial as well as important decisions.
I personally was not given enough practice at making decisions in my young life and so I mindlessly went to college for three years without any understanding of the debt I was accruing and the true cost of not being clear about what I wanted to do with myself or my life.
Then when I finally figured out that there was something I wanted to do more than anything else, it turned out that the college I was attending did not seem to provide any meaningful access to that realm.
At least in this limited way those three years were a huge waste of money.
(But in the grander scheme I got great value out of the experience, even if it wasn't worth the money that was spent.)
And I finally returned and finished that degree in 2012.
If you want to find a good school for your children, then find the kind of school that will enable them to make lots and lots of decisions, both trivial and important, and be held accountable for the consequences of those decisions.
If they only allow the kids to make trivial decisions or do not have a clear and explicit process that enables the kids to hold other people accountable for their behavior, then it is not the kind of school that I would consider good.
The choosing of a school should be informed by information about both the explicit curriculum and the hidden curriculum.
The hidden curriculum is how brains interact with policies.
The fact that neither brains nor policies can be directly observed in the classroom is what makes this curriculum hidden.
I suggest looking for schools that include students in making decisions through a variety of forms of democratic participation.
Look for schools that focus on developing trust with their students instead of focusing only on protecting them (or protecting the school from insurance claims.)
You can follow the link to read about what I consider to be the most elementary lessons of a good school.