The New Working Definition of Great

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A reader pointed out that I mention “Great Schools” a lot and asked how I defined “Great”. This is an excellent question because the definition of a great school used by me and my colleagues at the R4 Group differs from that used by most educators.

The original definition of a great school probably began with simply having a roof, a book, a chalk board and a teacher (1800’s)*.

The definition evolved to represent a school that was clean, orderly, offered a lot of activities and had some students who achieved at high levels (1960’s – present)*.

The next step in the evolution of the term was to define a great school as one with high raw test scores (1990’s – present)*.

As schools are being ranked publicly, the term great school, as it is used by most people, seems to be defined as, “the school I work at”, or “the school that my children attend” (2000’s)*.

However, when I talk about “great schools” I mean schools that either send a significant percentage of their graduates to college or schools that significantly outperform their peers. What do these to criteria look like? First, let’s consider schools that send a significant number of graduates to college.

This criterion is somewhat of a sliding scale. The variables of the scale include type of school, size of school, drop-out rate and demographics. For example, if your school is a small, high SES, early college high school that sends 99% of it’s graduates to college, good for you, but anything less and you failed. This definition of great doesn’t apply to you. On the other hand, if your school is a small, low SES compensatory high school with a decreasing drop-out rate and 83% of your graduates enroll in some sort of post-secondary institution, you are getting dangerously close to great territory.

Now let’s look at the second criteria, outperforming your peers. This criterion is fairly straight forward and brutally honest. Take your school and its demographic peers. Sort the critical performance measures. The schools in the top 10% are probably great. The schools in the next 30% are probably good. Everyone else isn’t getting the job done and the raw scores don’t matter. For example, if your peers are generally recognized and you are acceptable, you are not great. If your peers are generally unacceptable and you are acceptable, you may be great. The critical variable in this category is consistency.

So to sum up this discussion, when I use the term “great school”, I mean a school that either consistently sends a significant number of its graduates to college or consistently outperforms its peers. When I use the term “great principal”, I mean the principal of a great school.

* Note: Date and definition made up by author.

Your turn…

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